|The formation of a championship for drivers generated an interest by the public, raising many drivers to fame and some to an iconic status. Alberto Ascari was certainly one of the legendary figures of the early days of Formula One.Famed for his brilliant driving style, sitting upright, hunched slightly forward in his famous blue racing helmet and matching shirt, close to the large steering wheel, his elbows sticking out to the sides of the cockpit, Ascari was incredibly quick. For a period he dominated Grand Prix racing like no other has before or since. This is underlined by the fact that in a career cut short by his death in 1955, and which covered only a total of about three seasons in five years, he started 32 races and won 13 of them – a win ratio of more than 40%. That is second only to the great Juan Manuel Fangio. Between the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix and the same race the following year, Ascari won every single World Championship Formula 1 race. In 1952, the first of the two consecutive world titles he secured with Ferrari, Ascari won every championship F1 race bar the first.Heading into the final race of the 1953 season, he had won 11 of the previous 13 Grands Prix – and this in an era when there was plenty of stiff competition, Ascari was driving for Ferrari which was in a league of its own in 1952, but one of his team-mates was Giuseppe Farina, who had beaten Fangio to the first F1 World Championship when they were Alfa Romeo team-mates in 1950.
Fangio missed most of 1952, without a car and injured in a crash at Monza early in the year. But he was back for 1953 in a Maserati, who also fielded Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the Argentine who won Ferrari’s first ever grand prix victory at Silverstone in 1951. Ascari’s Ferrari team-mates included Britain’s first world champion, Mike Hawthorn.
It was Hawthorn, in fact, who underlined exactly how good Ascari was. The Englishman, who had narrowly beaten Stirling Moss to win the 1958 title, said: “Ascari was the fastest driver I ever saw. And when I say that, I include Fangio.” Enzo Ferrari is quoted as saying “”Ascari had a precise and distinctive driving style, but he was a man who had to lead from the start. In that position he was hard to overtake, almost impossible to beat, in my estimation. Alberto was secure when he was playing the hare. That was when his style was at its most superb. In second place, or further back, he was less sure.”
Throughout 1952 and 1953, Ascari was rarely anywhere other than first, but one such occasion was at Monza in 1953. Trying to win as a fitting end to a season in which he had already become champion, he battled throughout the race with team-mate Farina and the Maserati’s of Fangio and Onofre Marimon. Leading into Parabolica, the last corner on the last lap, Ascari came across two backmarkers and, under heavy pressure from behind, spun. The win was gone. He was not to know it at the time, but Ascari was not to score another.
Ascari announced at the end of the 1953 season that he was leaving Ferrari to join the fledgling Lancia team, to drive their new and revolutionary Jano designed D50. The project was hit by endless delays, and 1954 was effectively a write-off, although Ascari won the famous Mille Miglia road race in dreadful weather by more than half an hour. Later in the year, a Ferrari was made available to him so he did not miss the Italian Grand Prix, and he fought for the lead with Fangio’s Mercedes until his engine failed.
The Lancia D50 did not appear until the final race of the season at the Spanish Grand Prix, held on the Pedralbes street circuit in Barcelona. The car was tiny compared to its rivals, and looked very unusual with its pannier fuel tanks on either side between the front and rear wheels. Although it was a very difficult car to drive Ascari was up to the challenge – he stunned onlookers by beating Fangio, who had dominated the season in his Mercedes, to pole by more than a second. The Lancia led the first nine laps before it suffered clutch failure.
In 1959 it looked as though Fangio and Mercedes would face some serious competition. Ascari ran strongly in the opening race in Argentina, he had qualified second and was leading the race before he spun off the road having hit an oil patch. He also won 2 non-championship races in Naples and Turin. At Monaco he split the Mercedes of Fangio and Stirling Moss on the grid and chased them until they retired. He inherited the lead with 20 laps to go, but at the chicane failing brakes saw him run off the road and the car pitched into the harbour. Ascari swam to safety having suffered only a broken nose.
Four days later, his young protégé Eugenio Castellotti, with whom he was due to share a factory Ferrari in a sportscar race at Monza that weekend, was testing the car and asked Ascari if he wanted to watch. Ascari was not due to drive the car, but once there he said he fancied a few laps. Ascari was intensely superstitious. He regarded his pale blue helmet as a lucky charm, but as he had left it at home, he instead wore Castellotti’s white one. On his third lap, he crashed at the high-speed Vialone left-hander. Ascari was thrown out of the car and terribly injured and died within a few minutes.
Much has been made of the eerie coincidences between his death and that of his father Antonio. Both were 36 when they were killed, Alberto on 26 May 1955, Antonio on 26 July 1925. Both won 13 Grands Prix, and each drove car number 26. Both were killed in crashes at the exit of fast left-hand corners four days after surviving serious accidents. Both were survived by a wife and two children.
Fangio is quoted as saying “I have lost my greatest opponent, Ascari was a driver of supreme skill and I felt my title last year lost some of its value because he was not there to fight me for it. A great man.” Ascari was certainly the stuff of legends. His name is remembered to this day, with various circuits naming corners after him, showing the affection and respect with which Ascari is still held. A true legend of our sport.