Known as 'The Pirate', Bonetto was a fearless competitor who took no prisoners and was possessed of so much courage that some of his racing exploits placed him in the category of the foolhardy.
Felice Bonetto was born in Manerbio, Brescia, home to the Mille Miglia, the son of a railway worker and thus not endowed with a wealthy family to help support his racing. He started racing at 17 on two wheels and didn't switch to four until 11 years later when he entered the Bobbio-Penice race on June 14 1931 with a Type 37 Bugatti. That race was won by Enzo Ferrari driving an Alfa Romeo 8C 2.3 Spider bodied by Zagato. Incidentally it was Ferrari's last race as a driver.
Despite having to make do with cars that not always competitive his results were impressive. In 1933 he gained some recognition in Italy when he finished second to Gianfranco Comotti in the Coppa Principessa di Piemonte at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 8C 2600, third in the infamous Gran Premio di Monza in a race that will always be remembered as the Black Day of Monza, when three of Europe's greatest racing drivers crashed fatally within a few hours of each other: Giuseppe Campari, Mario-Umberto Borzacchini and Count Stanisław Czaykowski. He also won the hill climb at Monteceneri in Switzerland. The following year he finished a respectable 12th in the Mille Miglia with the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300.
He raced less and less due to various economic difficulties then, with war looming, racing came to a halt and it wasn't until 1946 that Felice reappeared on the circuits of Italy mainly driving a Fiat 1100 and turning in some respectable results over the next two years including winning the 1947 Circuito de Firenze driving a Delage 3000.
He started to come to international recognition first with Cisitalia and then with Ferrari, taking second places in the Mille Miglia and the GP Napoli in 1949 with the Ferrari 166 MM.
In a word...style!
In 1950 the independently minded Felice campaigned the Maserati Milano and his own Alfa sports car to such effect that he won the Oporto GP and led the Mille Miglia in the Alfa Romeo 412 before dropping out. He made his World Championship F1 debut that year in the Swiss Grand Prix. He was five days short of his 47th birthday. He entered his own Maserati 4CLT in several Grands Prix, under the Scuderia Milano banner and drove a works Alfa Romeo SpA in 1951 as their number three driver. This however did not go down too well and he took the offer from Lancia to race their sports cars in 1952. He finished second on the Giro di Sicilia with a Lancia Aurelia B20, sixth place in the Preis von Bremgarten and eighth in the the Mans 24 Hour race. Then came his greatest triumph when he won that year's Targa Florio.
Despite his age Bonetto was more active than ever in 1953. Undertaking a full season of Grands Prix for the first time with the Maserati works team and racing sports cars again for Lancia, he finished second in the Gran Premio di Monza, he won the Grande Premio do Jubileu (Portuguese GP) in Lisbon and placed third in the Mille Miglia before competing in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana. His teammates for the race were Juan Manuel Fangio, Piero Taruffi, Giovanni Bracco and Eugenio Castellotti.
Starting on the 19th November, Bonetto won the first stage, ahead of Taruffi, Fangio and Castellotti. Taruffi won the next two stages although Bonetto remained in control. On the third day Bonetto and Taruffi continued their duel then dissaster struck on the second stage of the day. Taruffi went off the road in fog just before the small town of Silao about 25 miles from León, damaging his steering. Then in the same place Bonetto slid off the road and hit the veranda of a house before ending up against a pole. Bonetto hit his head on the veranda and was killed instantly.
Bonetto with Taruffi and other Italian drivers had reportedly marked dangerous corners along the route with blue signs and this corner was one of them. Felice did not see the sign and took corner at 125 mph. Gianni Lancia wanted to withdraw the team, but it was jointly decided to keep on racing in his honour. Lancia took first three places but it was a result to celebrate as, besides Bonetto, the race also claimed the lives of fellow Italian drivers, Antonio Stagnoli and Giuseppe Scotuzzi, as well as six spectators.
Bonetto is buried in the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, in the Galleria DE di Levante Inferiore, at the Riparto VI, inside the columbarium 35
Some years later his son, Roberto, became a well known motorsport journalist in Italy. During his honeymoon in the 1970s he went to Mexico to visit the place of his father’s death. In the village of Silao he found two memorials to his father, one on the wall of the house where the accident happened and a monument with a bronze bust in Silao cemetery. According to local legend, Bonetto’s heart is preserved inside the monument. Apparently the day after the accident, the Mexican doctor who did the postmortem decided that such a strong heart should remain in Mexico!