Alberto Ascari: the best double world champion we've ever seen?


Alberto Ascari was the first double world champion; the first to win back-to-back titles and still holds the record of the most grand prix wins in a row. He deserves to be more revered, writes Andrew Frankel

Alberto Ascari looks over his shoulder during the 1951 Italian Grand Prix

Catch me if you can: Ascari on his way to victory at Monza in '51

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Last weekend Max Verstappen became the 17th multiple champion in the 73-season history of the World Drivers’ Championship which I think means that if you win the title once, you stand an approximately 23% chance of winning it again. Narrow the list down to those who have won back-to-back titles, and Max joins a cast of just ten others, achieving something denied to the likes of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet. Were he to win again next year he’d be one of just five to score a hat-trick of titles.

But I want to turn the clock right back, almost to the very start and consider the man who was not just the first double world champion but also its first back-to-back winner. Not just for that but because he also did something no other driver has achieved to date: for between the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix and the same race the following year inclusive, no one else in the World Championship won a race. Not one, at least if you exclude the Indianapolis 500 which was part of the championship in name alone. An entire year. If you turned up in that period and your name was not Alberto Ascari, first loser was the most for which you could hope.

He has another claim to fame, an achievement unsurpassed to the present day. In his first championship season he won 75% of the races held, a superior ratio to any driver before or since and, get this, that’s including the Indy 500. Remove Indy from the equation and his success rate goes up to 87.5%, eclipsing the 72.2% hit rate achieved by Michael Schumacher in 2004. Indeed there was only one race he didn’t win and he had a fairly good excuse for failing to claim the Swiss Grand Prix, namely that he wasn’t in it. At the time he was in the US qualifying for the aforementioned Indy 500. So that makes him also the only driver in F1 history to win every race he entered in an entire season, apart from the tragic technical qualification on this score of Jim Clark in 1968.


The first double world champion at Silverstone in '53...

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images


...and the latest F1 double world champion in 2022

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Ah yes, say you, but you’re not comparing like with like, because there are so many more races these days and it’s true. So let’s really even the playing field – actually let’s skew it wildly against old Alberto and ask how many drivers of any era have won more races on the trot, in a season or across two seasons. And the answer is just none. Not one. Sebastian Vettel equalled his tally of nine races in a row, the next best driver is on seven. So, did he just get lucky? Hardly: in those nine races he clean swept (win, pole and fastest lap) six of them.

It was the car then? Head and shoulders above everything else, clearly. Well, yes, the Ferrari 500 was the absolute class of the field, but he still had team mates to deal with and you’d not call former and future world champions Giuseppe Farina and Mike Hawthorn exactly sluggards.

From the archive

And yet, when we think of the great drivers, I don’t think Ascari figures that highly. He won just one less race in six seasons than Jack Brabham managed in 16 or Graham Hill in 18. He won more than either Mario Andretti or James Hunt despite enjoying far fewer opportunities to do so. He scored twice as many as either John Surtees or Jochen Rindt.

He would seem to have it all. He is not just the only Italian to have won the title in a Ferrari, incredibly he is the only Italian to have won the title at all, Andretti being a naturalised American at the time of his 1978 triumph, but still his reputation is not what his record would suggest.

Perhaps he was just a grand prix guy, a specialist, inexpert in other fields? Perhaps not. He only did Le Mans twice, in 1952 and ’53, retiring from both but not before having smashed the lap record on each outing. He took part in the Sebring 12 Hours just once and, again, set the fastest lap of the race before he was let down again, this time by a Lancia. And he won the only Mille Miglia he completed.

Fangio gave him a run for his money in 1953 and Ascari still won

So why is he not more revered? Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you’re sitting there wondering what on earth I’m talking about. To you Alberto is up there with Jimmy, Graham, Mika, Fernando and Max, the other double world champions. Or maybe he’s not. And perhaps that’s because he died such a very long time ago, for he was the very first world champion to die, some 67 years ago in 1955 as it happens.

But I wonder if it’s not actually because he was famous for other things, such as being the son of another incredibly able driver who also died in a racing car at a time and time of life so coincidentally similar to that of Alberto’s accident. Not being naturally superstitious (as was Ascari) nor finding violent death a subject upon which I choose to dwell, I’ll leave that to others. Or maybe it was because of his dunking in the Monaco harbour in his final grand prix, from which he emerged unscathed, albeit just four days before his passing at Monza. Or could it be that his 1952 title was achieved without the opposition of Juan Manuel Fangio for the entire season and is somehow seen as devalued as a result? I’m sure El Chueco would have given him more of a run for his money than anyone else, but he was back in 1953 and Ascari still won.

From the archive

Finally there has always been the suggestion that, however quick a driver Ascari undoubtedly was, he was only comfortable out front, happy to dominate but a real racer, duking it out with all-comers, taking wins against the odds. Maybe so, but there’s not a driver in the world who, given the choice of leading or following wouldn’t take the Ascari approach every time.

As Andretti once wrote specifically in reference to Ascari: “He was the best, no question. He was winning, and that’s really what attracted me to him… You look at my record over the years, and I’ve had a lot of races where either I won or I was right there. But if I didn’t win, it didn’t mean a thing. Second and third didn’t matter to me.”

Me? I just wish he’d lived, because then I’m sure his legacy would have been secure. He died aged just 36 in an era when, as Fangio proved, you could win the world title at 47. Had he survived I have no doubt that today he’d not just be far better remembered, but much more highly regarded too.