The article first appeared in The Sportsman on 13/07/20
Alberto Ascari was just seven years old when his father Antonio died.
Almost three decades later, when Alberto was exactly the same age as his father was at the time of his passing; on the same day of the month and in almost the same manner, Alberto too was killed.
Despite not procuring a World Championship in 13 years, since Kimi Räikkönen’s last win in 2007, Scuderia Ferrari are by definition the most successful team in the history of Formula One. The Italian manufacturer has 15 titles to its illustrious name, more than any other constructor in the 70 years of the competition.
And it was Alberto Ascari who first put them on the map. Of the nine Ferrari World Championship-winning drivers, he was the first and remains the only Italian.
He was described as ‘Italy’s greatest ever” by Murray Walker, “Plump, dapper and charming, he dominated Grand Prix racing in the early 50s.
“Italy’s only true great champion of the Formula One era,” Murray described, “In his pale blue helmet and his pale blue sleeveless shirt, he was a supreme stylist, always more comfortable at the front of a race, he preferred to dominate and once he was in the lead, his calm, unruffled style made it all look so easy.”
The legendary Enzo Ferrari supported Murray’s claim about Ascari’s track prowess: "When leading, he could not easily be overtaken - indeed it was virtually impossible to overtake him."
Affectionately nicknamed by devoted fans as "Ciccio", meaning "Tubby", Alberto was born in Milan on July 13, 1918.
Seven decades ago, at the birth of Formula One, it was Italian drivers who led the way. The inaugural year of the World Championship was won by Turin-born Guiseppe Farina for Alfa Romeo and, though the next year the feat was achieved by the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, Ferrari and Ascari subsequently asserted back-to-back domination of the championship. Unlike Farina and Fangio, Ascari also gained his titles before the final race of the season. He was the first ever driver to win multiple championships and, for over a year, no other driver won a Grand Prix aside from Ascari.
The success was tinged upon the backdrop of his father’s legacy. Antonio Ascari tragically died on 26 July, 1925, as the reigning European champion, the result of a crash while leading the French Grand Prix at Autodrome de Montlhéry, located south of Paris. Racing for Alfa Romeo, with Alberto usually in attendance at the events, Antonio fatally misjudged a long corner, the wheel became caught on the fence, and the driver hurtled out of the cockpit. Antonio was 36 years old.
Wanting to emulate his adored late father Alberto was determined to pursue a life in motorsport, so much so that he would make a habit of running away from school. In his teens he began racing motorcycles, before being assisted by his friend and mentor Luigi ‘Gigi’ Villoresi, a lucrative relationship forming between the pair which led to respective appointments at Ferrari.
Tragically, Alberto would emulate Antonio in more ways than success on the circuit.
Aside from ‘Ciccio’, he was also known as “little Ascari”, or “Ascarino”, being the famous son of the famous Antonio. As he entered the world of motoracing, Alberto made two promises: one he would never race without his lucky blue helmet. And two, he would never ever race on the 26th, the day of his father’s accident.
At the age of twenty one, Ascari took part in the 1940 Mille Miglia, driving the Tipo 815 - the very first Ferrari in all but name, having been built by Auto Avia Costruzione, the company founded by Enzo Ferrari following a split with Alfa Romeo. That same year, Ascari married and later had two children.
The son was named Antonio.
Enzo Ferrari - who had been a good friend of the late Antonio - subsequently signed both Ascari and Villoresi onto his team in 1949, with Ascari rewarding the faith with five victories in his debut season, then nine the year after. Then came Ferrari’s first glory.
The first race of 1952, the Swiss GP, clashed with the Indianapolis 500, an event which was also bafflingly part of the World Championship calendar. Ascari travelled to the Indiana Speedway across the Atlantic, entering with a special 4.5 litre, turbo 375 Ferrari. The first European to compete at the event in the World Championship era, Ascari managed 40 of the 200 laps in his custom vehicle before being forced to retire after spinning off with wheel failure. Meanwhile, his F1 competitor Piero Taruffi had won at the Circuit Bremgarten for the first race in the campaign. Ascari consequently returned to Europe to win the remaining six Grands Prix of the season, easily winning his first World Championship from Ferrari teammate Farina.
However, after winning his second consecutive championship the year after, he joined rival Italian team Lancia at the end of 1953 after a disagreement with Enzo Ferrari, and success was harder to come by, though not from lack of determination on Ascari’s part.
On May 22, 1955, Alberto was competing around Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix in his Lancia D50. Distracted by spectators attempting to inform him that his nearest rival Stirling Moss was out of the race, Ascari found, too late, that he was approaching a corner too quickly. A literal split second decision between life and death, he charged his car through the barriers and into the Mediterranean Sea. Ascari and his Lancia disappeared under the surface.
A few seconds later and his pale blue helmet appeared, a boat swiftly rescuing the shocked driver who was taken to hospital. Alberto had mercifully suffered only a broken nose.
He had escaped death once.
Four days later, at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, Italy, he would encounter the spectre again, and wouldn’t be so lucky.
Ascari was already out of hospital, now preparing for the Supercortemaggiore, a 1000km endurance race.
He was ready to go home to have lunch with his wife Maria. Fatefully the two-time world champion spontaneously decided to run a few laps in a Sports Ferrari and helmet borrowed from his friend and compatriot Eugenio Castelotti. Ascari would break two of the vows he had asserted throughout his career.
To further demonstrate the pure, real danger that existed during this period, two years later Castelotti himself was killed while testing a new Ferrari for the 1957 season at the Modena Autodrome. Travelling at an average of 85miles an hour, Castlelotti crashed against a curve, his body hurtling 100 yards across the track.
As it emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, his Ferrari unexpectedly skidded. Turning on its nose, it somersaulted twice. Alberto, like his father, was thrown sickeningly out on the track. His injuries were too severe.
He died on 26 May 1955, 36 years old. He died like he lived - emulating Antonio.
‘Bel Paese’ was heartbroken, with the entire country appearing to suffer the loss.
“Alberto Ascari was mourned by the whole of Italy,” described Walker, “More than any other driver, he had created the legend of Ferrari which endures to this day.”
Throngs of people congregated at his funeral at the Piazza del Duomo, eerily quiet with grief. Poignantly, an enormous inscription on the Church of San Carlo al Corso read for the only Italian ever to win a World Championship with Ferrari: "On the Last Finish Line, meet, O lord, the soul of Alberto Ascari."