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Felice Bonetto


"I am going to fight—because I am going to fight"

Porthos, "The three musketeers"

In the history of Formula 1 there are a number of drivers who, having not achieved great success in the Grand Prix, nevertheless left a rather bright mark in it thanks to their passion for racing, courage, charisma and the love of the fans. One of these drivers, certainly, was the Italian Felice Bonetto, nicknamed "Pirate". Bonetto received this nickname for his characteristic appearance, fearlessness, fighting qualities and an invariable pipe, with which he did not part even during the races.


Felice was born on June 9, 1903 in the commune of Manerbio in the province of Brescia, which later became home to the famous Mille Miglia sports car race. His father was a simple railway worker and earned little, so when Felice decided to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a race car driver, he had to find the means for this expensive occupation himself. Naturally, Felice did not have enough money to buy a racing car, and the Italian began his racing career with two wheels, racing motorcycles. This period of the Italian's life took 11 years, and only at the age of 28 Felice acquired his first racing car Bugatti Typo 37, on which he debuted in the Bobbio-Penice race in 1931. This race became notable for the fact that it was Enzo Ferrari's last win, after which the Commendatore finally ended his racing career and came to grips with the management of his racing team.

Bonetto's first racing successes came two years later, in 1933, when he switched to an Alfa Romeo 8C and took second place in the Coppa Principessa di Piemonte and third place in the infamous Monza Grand Prix, which killed three drivers Giuseppe Campari, Mario Borzacchini and Stanislaw Czajkowski. Even then, his rivals noted his unbridled passion for fighting and absolute fearlessness, which almost bordered on recklessness.


In subsequent years, Bonetto continued to compete in various competitions in his native Italy, but without much success, and outside the Italian peninsula he was practically unknown. During World War II, all racing activity in Europe froze, and Bonetto, like all other drivers, had to hang up his racing helmet, and he returned to motorsport only in 1946, when he was already 43 years old. For Felice, however, it seems to have been the heyday, and driving a Fiat 1100 he managed to finish second in Asti and third in Mantova and the Circuito della Superba. The next two seasons Felice spent with the Cisitalia team and won four Formula 2 victories, as well as winning the Florence round at the wheel of the Delage 3000.


In 1949, Bonetto moved to Scuderia Ferrari, and although the Italian did not win on this occasion, he managed to finish second in his native Mille Miglia race, as well as in the Naples and Monza Grands Prix.


In 1950, the first Formula One World Championship started and Bonetto took part in two Grand Prix with the Scuderia Milano team. This team used the Maserati 4CLT racing cars that were common at the time, but the team's engineers modified the engines of Italian cars by installing two-stage superchargers on them and giving them the new name Milano. Already in his debut Grand Prix of the World Championship in Switzerland, Felice showed himself to be a real fighter, having managed after his mistake at the very beginning of the race to break through to 5th place and earn his first points in Formula 1.


Unfortunately, the second Grand Prix in France was not so successful, and the Italian was forced to retire in the conditions of terrible heat, like many other drivers, due to an engine failure. However, in sports car racing, Bonetto achieved even greater success, winning the Oporto Grand Prix driving an Alfa Romeo 412 and the Pontedecimo-Giovi round driving an OSCA MT4 1100. In addition, on the same Alfa Romeo, Bonetto was in the lead in Mille Miglia race, but was forced to retire due to a technical malfunction.


The year 1951 was marked by a magnificent struggle for the leadership in Formula 1 between two Italian teams Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, and the team from Milan, in an effort to achieve superiority over their rivals, increased its drivers staff to four, which let them to provide the top drivers with backup cars in the case of a breakdown. Therefore, when Luigi Fagioli left the team, who did not want to become a carrier of shells for Fangio and Farina, Alfa Romeo began to urgently look for a replacement for him and opted for Bonetto.


At the same time, the very first Grand Prix, held for the Milan team, revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the Italian. Besides fighting qualities, Felice was arguably one of the best starters of the 50s and in the UK he clearly showed that by breaking into the lead starting from seventh position! However, it immediately became obvious that he was inferior in speed to the aces of Formula 1, and already at the very beginning of the race, Felice began to give way one after another, eventually finishing the Grand Prix in fourth place, and José-Froilan Gonzalez won the race, bringing Ferrari its first victory in the world championship.


In Italy, Felice also fought for fourth place with Villoresi's Ferrari, but halfway through the race he was forced to give his car to Farina, who had problems with the oil system in the main car, and the world champion managed to fight his way to third place, sharing his first podium with Bonetto. In the last race of the season in Spain, Felice also finished in the points, which put him in 7th place in overall standings. However, despite the rather high performance of the Italian, this season clearly showed that Bonetto, even driving one of the best cars in the championship, was not able to drive as fast as world champions Fangio or Farina, and his limit was the fight for points. There are many examples in the history of Formula 1 when drivers, realizing that their teammates were completely superior to them, were psychologically broken and soon ended their racing career, but Felice was clearly not one of those! The main thing for him was the fight with rivals on the track, it was for it that he went to the start, and it didn’t matter whether it was a fight for victory, points or for places in the second ten, Felice attacked his rivals with the same fervor and rejoiced at each won place.


At the end of 1951, Alfa Romeo left Formula 1, and the following season Felice moved to another Italian team, Maserati. In 1952, the World Championship was already held according to the technical regulations of Formula 2, and the Italian team had to miss half a season due to the preparation of their new car, so Felice managed to take part in only two Grand Prix of the championship. In Germany, Bonetto had another lightning-fast start and broke through from tenth place to 4th, but this time his vehemence played a cruel joke on him, and when trying to win back one more place, the Italian spinned and Trintignant crashed into him. Despite the fact that Felice's Maserati was not badly damaged in the collision, the engine stalled, and Bonetto was able to start only with the help of the marshals, as a result of which a black flag was shown to him a few laps later, and the race ended for the Italian with a disqualification. The last Grand Prix of the season took place on the fast track in Monza, and on home soil, Felice, thanks to a semi-fueled car, was able to give a real fight to the Ferrari drivers, who were invincible throughout the season.


At the same time, when the leader of the race Ascari caught up with the Italian for a lap, Felice did not even think about letting him through and began to fight with Alberto just as fiercely as with the rest of his rivals! It was an unforgettable sight when Bonetto, having once again missed Ascari, thanks to the slip stream from Alberto's car, again caught up with him, hit his chest with his fist and at the end of the straight again took the lead! This duel went on for more than ten laps, and Asсari managed to get rid of Felice only when he went to his second refueling. That race Bonetto eventually finished in fifth place, earning the only two points of the season. However, despite a modest result in the World Championship, 1952 brought the Italian his most resounding victory, which he won in the Targa Florio race at the wheel of a Lancia Aurelia.


In 1953, Felice was already 50 years old, but despite his rather advanced age, his passion for racing remained the same, and youngsters could envy his sparkle in his eyes. This season Bonetto again spent with Maserati, and this time he took part in all races, with the exception of the Belgian Grand Prix.


In the first Grand Prix of the season in Argentina, Felice had one of his best starts, managing to break from 15th to 4th, but then he again began to give way to faster drivers and eventually retired due to transmission failure. In the second Grand Prix in the Netherlands, Bonetto no longer claimed points, but he still fought desperately with Harry Schell for 8th place until he was called to the pits, where he had to give up his car to Gonzalez. The Argentine did not lose his face, and in Felice's car began to pass rivals one after another and eventually managed to finish third, giving Felice his second podium in the World Championship, which turned out to be the last for the Italian. At the French Grand Prix, Bonetto, impressed by José-Froilan's speed, asked him to qualify instead of him, and the good-natured Gonzalez complied with his request, so much so that he almost won pole position and beat his own time! This second position at the start was Felice's best qualifying result of his entire career, but did not bring him much benefit, because at the very beginning of the race the Italian spinned and he lost many positions, and then completely retired due to engine problems.

At the next round in Great Britain, Felice qualified on his own and took only 16th on the grid, but with another good start and a few overtaking, he managed to get to 7th, which he later lost due to engine problems and an unscheduled pit stop.


But the next race in Germany, Felice held quite confidently and finished 4th, earning the first three points of the season with his own hands.


In Switzerland, the Italian also started the race well, but already on lap 10, Fangio's Maserati lost third gear, and the team called Felice into the pits, where he and the Argentine exchanged cars.


However, the Italian car brought Fangio continuous failures: almost immediately he got a puncture, and then the Argentine set such a pace that the engine simply baked. But Felice, despite the time lost in the pits and the absence of the third gear, was able to win back several positions and finished 4th again, sharing the points with his teammate. The last Grand Prix of the season was held in Felice's native Italy, and he became famous thanks to the first Maserati victory, which Fangio won for the Italian team in an incredible fight with Ferrari. For Bonetto, the race was unsuccessful: for once he failed the start, and on the last lap he ran out of fuel, and Felice did not reach the finish line just a couple of hundred meters. This Grand Prix was the last in which the Italian took part, and according to the results of the championship, he took 8th place in the overall standings.


In sports car racing, Bonetto was as successful as ever, winning the Portuguese Grand Prix driving the Lancia as well as finishing second in the Monza Grand Prix and third in the Mille Miglia.


On November 19, the last round of the World Sports Car Championship began in Mexico, called Carrera Panamericana , and Felice entered the competition as part of the Lancia team, along with his teammates Juan Manuel Fangio, Piero Taruffi, Giovanni Bracco and Eugenio Castellotti.


The round in Mexico was considered one of the most difficult and the route of the race passed through the whole country from north to south, amounting to more than 3,000 kilometers, and was divided into eight stages. The Lancia team was one of the main favorites of the competition, which was confirmed already at the first stage, which was won by Bonetto. The next two stages were also left for Lancia, only this time Taruffi was ahead. On the third day of the competition, Bonetto and Taruffi again fought for the lead, but the conditions of the race were complicated by the thickest fog that descended on the track. Chasing Bonetto, near the town of Silao, Taruffi flew off the track, but with the help of the spectators he managed to return back. Unfortunately, Felice did not know about this and, being sure that his teammate was breathing down his neck, he continued to drive at full speed. In the center of the city there was a dangerous turn, which Bonetto and his teammates specially had marked with a blue sign, but in the fog Felice did not see it and entered the turn, exceeding the speed limit by 100 km / h. It was impossible to pass the turn at such a speed, and the Italian's car sideways rammed a nearby house, and Felice himself smashed his head on the protruding edge of the facade. When Taruffi arrived at the scene, Felice's crippled car was parked on the edge of the street next to a demolished lamppost, but the driver in it was already dead.


Upon learning of the tragedy, Gianni Lancia wanted to immediately withdraw his team from the race, but his drivers convinced him to continue the competition and eventually took three first places at the finish line, thus honoring the memory of one of the most fearless drivers of the 50s.

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