This weekend the FIA Formula One World Championship is visiting the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City. The F1 race weekend also coincides with the 70th anniversary of Juan Manuel Fangio winning his first World Drivers’ Championship in 1951. The Argentine driver would win a total of five world championships over his F1 career, a record that would not be matched until Michael Schumacher won his fifth championship in 2002.
In collaboration with the Juan Manuel Fangio Foundation, the Mexico City Grand Prix organizers awarded a special trophy to pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas after qualifying. The special trophy was a replica of the helmet used by Fangio in 1951, created to commemorate the anniversary. While Fangio’s racing career predated the creation of the Mexican Grand Prix, there was one occasion when he raced in an international event held in Mexico.
Fangio participated in the 1953 edition of the Carrera Panamericana. The Carrera Panamericana was a multi-day stage race over open public roads in Mexico. The race was created in 1950 by the Mexican government to celebrate the opening of the country’s section of the Pan-American Highway. The event quickly developed a reputation for its grueling and dangerous nature. The 1953 race was 1,912 miles long and held over eight stages.
According to the biography Fangio by Gerald Donaldon, the Argentine champion had to be convinced to take part in the race for Lancia by his teammate Felice Bonetto. Fangio and Bonetto developed a close friendship as visited Fangio in hospital frequently during his recovery after a near-fatal crash on the second lap of the 1952 Monza Grand Prix.
Fangio and Bonetto went on a reconnaissance run of the race route a week prior to the start. Fangio marked the pavement and roadside rock with Argentine blue and white stripes to warn of upcoming hazards on the roads. Though, high winds sweeping across the road were a consistent danger on the route.
During the first stage of the race, Antonio Stagnoli in a Ferrari 375 MM was in a fiery crash after being blown off the road. Both Stagnoli and his co-driver died. Six spectators were also killed by an American sedan entered in the event that plowed into a crowd huddled around another wrecked car. Fangio’s car would be thrown off the road during the third stage.
Oil spilled from a loose cap on his Lancia D24 onto a rear wheel. He lost control and left the road. Fangio hit a boulder and dislodged the rear axle but was able to limp his damaged car to the stage finish. It took three hours for Lancia’s mechanics to replace the entire rear end. Though, tragedy would soon hit the Lancia team.
An intra-team rivalry at Lancia boiled over during the fourth stage of the Carrera Panamericana. Felice Bonetto was in contention for the race victory with another Lancia teammate and rival, Piero Taruffi. The fourth stage featured a section of dangerously fast curves on the approach to Silao in central Mexico. Fangio had suggested to his friend Bonetto to not let the rivalry cloud his judgement, heed his hazard markings and drive cautiously. Bonetto didn’t take the advice.
Both Bonetto and Taruffi crashed on the Silao approach. Taruffi was not severely injured in his crash. Bonetto’s car vaulted a waist high stone wall and crashed against a lamp post, Bonetto was killed.
Recalling the incident, Juan Manuel Fangio said, “It is a most unpleasant experience to be told that a friend has been killed, and then to have to go on racing.” Fangio would go on to win the 1953 Carrera Panamericana through consistency. He did not win any of the eight stages.