Ferrari's first World Champion: Alberto Ascari


The first back-to-back Grand Prix World Champion, who duelled with Fangio: does Alberto Ascari qualify as one of motor racing's all-time greats?

Alberto Ascari on pole for Ferrari ahead of the 1952 British Grand Prix

Ascari on pole for the 1953 British GP

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Alberto Ascari drove racing cars as though born to it – which, of course, he had been.

Father Antonio – much admired by the formative Enzo Ferrari – had until his fatal accident of 1925 fleetingly been the world’s best. His son, however, would outstrip him before he, too, was killed at the wheel.

Career delayed by World War II – he had, however, driven a Ferrari in all but name in the emasculated Mille Miglia of 1940 – Alberto was turning 32 by the time of the World Championship’s inauguration in 1950. Young in the context: Juan Fangio was seven years his senior.

For the next four seasons the debate would rage as to which of these two was the better. It was nip and tuck.

Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio side by side during the 1953 Grand Prix of Albi

Duel of the champions: Fangio and Ascari at the GP of Albi in 1953

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

But for a misguided tyre swap in the 1951 showdown at Barcelona, Ascari might have denied Fangio a first world title. Handed a car advantage by Ferrari for 1952 – and in Fangio’s absence due to a broken neck – he then dominated that season and much of the next to become the first back-to-back world champion.

His racing MO was to jump into an immediate lead – in the manner of Clark or Stewart – swiftly demoralise the opposition and control proceedings thereafter. Mistakes were few and far between. It was in this manner that he won nine consecutive Grands Prix.

If there was a weakness in his armoury it showed in the 10th race of this sequence: he led not a single lap in finishing a close fourth in the 1953 French GP at Reims – the Race of the Century – and it was left to his younger, less experienced team-make Mike Hawthorn to take the fight to – and win against – the increasingly competitive Maseratis of Fangio and Froilán González.

Luigi Villoresi is followed by Ferrari team mates Alberto Ascari and Mike Hawthorn at the 1953 French Grand Prix at Reims

Villoresi leads Ascari and Hawthorn at Reims in ’53

AFP via Getty Images

Ascari could ‘tiger’ – Jenks-speak for battling with controlled desperation against long odds – as his charge to that year’s title at the fearsome Bremgarten in Swizterland proved. But that he then tripped at the last corner in a four-way scramble – Maserati’s Onofre Marimón was several laps adrift and should have butted out – for victory at Monza confirmed the suspicion that he wasn’t entirely comfortable in a dice situation.

We are picking holes here.

Feeling underappreciated by Enzo – continual success had bred complacency at Maranello – Ascari allowed himself to be wooed by Gianni Lancia’s overly ambitious vision of F1’s future and thus spent much of 1954 on the sidelines. He qualified on the front row at Reims when loaned to Maserati, and was leading at Monza upon his one-off return to Ferrari when the engine let go. And when finally Lancia’s D50 arrived, albeit in a less radical form than had been mooted – needs must – Ascari put it on pole at Barcelona and led until gremlins struck early.

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Continuing reliability niggles – Lancia had overstretched and was feeling the pinch – blighted the launch of his 1955 campaign, too. Rival Mercedes-Benz had in the meantime upped its game, not least by the signing of Stirling Moss in support of Fangio. Ascari was under pressure like never before.

Having survived GP racing’s most memorable crash – bobbing to the surface after his car had plunged into the Monaco harbour – Ascari attended Eugenio Castellotti’s test of a Ferrari sports car that there were to share in the Monza 1000km. There was no suggestion that he was scheduled to drive it.

Ascari was not only a stickler for detail – as evinced by his neat style behind the wheel – but also he was extremely superstitious. Yet that day he chose to tempt fate – and crashed to his death in a borrowed car while wearing a borrowed crash helmet. He was just four days older than his late father – both having met their maker on the same day of a month.

That’s just spooky coincidence. What’s amazing – and indicative – is that car-crazy Italy has yet to nurture a driver of similar status – although Ascari did inspire a certain Mario Gabriele Andretti prior to his finding an achievable outlet for his ambition and talent as a refugee in America.

Alberto Ascari: 2020 Hall of Fame nominee

Voting is open for the 2020 Motor Sport Hall of Fame, with Alberto Ascari among the F1 nominees. Make your choices below, and be in with a chance of winning a £265 Striling Moss print from Tim Layzell.