Antonio Ascari was one of the great drivers of the 1920s who was killed while leading the 1925 French Grand Prix when just 36 years old. Despite that tragedy, his son Alberto followed him into motor racing and this early second generation star won the 1952 and 1953 World Championship during a period of rare domination for Ferrari. However, his life would also be cut short at the same age as his father – prompting thoughts of a tragic symmetry to their lives.
Family background and early racing career
Seven years old when his father died, Alberto Ascari raced Bianchi motorcycles from 1937 before switching to cars at the 1940 Mille Miglia. That was sharing an Auto Avio Costruzioni Tipo 815 (the first car to be built by Enzo Ferrari) with his cousin Giovanni Minozzi. The Italians led the 1500cc class before their engine failed.
It was 1947 and at the conclusion of World War II before Ascari could make further progress. He was recommended to Maserati by Luigi Villoresi who would act as his mentor during the coming years. Ascari’s Scuderia Ambrosiana Maserati 4CLT finished fifth in that year’s Italian Grand Prix, the race held on a street circuit in Milan while Monza was restored after the conflict.
Grand Prix driver with Maserati and Alfa Romeo
Maserati introduced the upgraded 4CLT/48 at San Remo at the start of the 1948 season. Ascari led Villoresi in a 1-2 for the team and the car was thereafter known colloquially as the “San Remo”. That success led to a one-off appearance with the all-conquering Alfa Romeo team in the French GP at Reims. Ascari finished third behind Jean-Pierre Wimille and Consalvo Sanesi on another dominant day for the “Alfettas”. He was back with Maserati for the British GP and finished second behind team-mate Villoresi at the new Silverstone circuit.
Formula 1 success for Ferrari
It was with his switch to Ferrari in 1949 that Ascari really came of age, inevitably with Villoresi as a team-mate once more. Their first appearance of the season was at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian GP. However, the supercharged Ferrari 125s were beaten by Louis Rosier’s more fuel-efficient Lago-Talbot with Villoresi and Ascari finishing second and third respectively. They soon made amends with Ascari winning the Swiss GP, International Trophy and Italian GP in quick succession.
The new F1 World Championship was introduced in 1950 with Ferrari joining the fray at the second round on the streets of Monte Carlo. A freak gust of wind blew water onto the Tabac corner as the field approached for the first time. Ascari was one of those to avoid the ensuing chaos and he eventually finished a distant second behind Juan Manuel Fangio’s Alfa Romeo. Realising that normally aspirated engines were the future, Ferrari spent 1950 developing its new contender and Ascari took over Dorino Serafini’s 375 to finish second in the Italian GP. That promise was confirmed by victory in the final race of the year – the non-championship Penya Rhin GP at Barcelona, albeit with new World Champions Alfa Romeo absent.
Ascari won at San Remo in 1951 but he burned his left arm when his car caught fire during a Formula 2 race at Genoa. Alfa Romeo remained the team to beat once the world championship got underway a week later in Switzerland. An out-of-sorts sixth that day, he finished second in Belgium and France (having taken over team-mate Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s car at Reims). Ferrari finally won a GP for the first time at Silverstone that year – Gonzalez scoring that historic victory as Ascari retired. The Ferrari 375 was now the class of the field and Ascari won the next two championship rounds at the Nurburgring and Monza to enter the Spanish finale just two points behind Fangio. Ascari qualified on pole position but his challenge was scuppered by an incorrect tyre choice. The Italian trailed in fourth overall to clinch second in the championship with race winner Fangio crowned world champion for the first time.
Double World Champion for Ferrari
Alfa Romeo withdrew from racing at the end of the season and Ferrari dominated the opening F1 race of 1952 – Villoresi winning the non-championship Valentino GP after Ascari retired from the lead with three laps remaining in Turin. More significant was the lack of quality opposition and race organisers hastily switched to F2 rules. Early victories at Syracuse, Pau and Marseille showed that Ascari and the F2 Ferrari 500 were championship favourites nonetheless although he elected to miss the opening Swiss GP. That was to race in the lucrative Indianapolis 500 instead – Ascari qualified his Ferrari 375 in 19th position and was running eighth before the loss of a wheel sent him spinning out of the race in Turn Four. Ascari returned to Europe for a season of rare domination. Victory in the Belgian GP was the first of nine in a row during that season and the next – a record that would remain unmatched until Sebastian Vettel in 2013. As well as easing to his first World Championship (with team-mates Giuseppe Farina and Piero Taruffi in his wake), Ascari added the French F2 title in a near-perfect campaign.
F2 rules were retained for the 1953 World Championship and the Italian continued to dominate. He won the opening three GPs in Argentina, Holland and Belgium (as well as non-championship races at Pau and Bordeaux) before his successful run finally came to an end in France. Ascari qualified on pole position (as he had for seven of the previous nine races) but could only finish fourth after a slipstreaming classic that was won on the last corner by English team-mate Mike Hawthorn. His unbroken run may have been over but Ascari then won the British and Swiss GPs to clinch the title once more – becoming the sport’s first back-to-back World Champion in the process.
Formula 1 with Lancia
New 2.5-litre F1 rules announced for 1954 attracted both Mercedes-Benz and Lancia to enter the championship for the first time. Ascari joined the latter but the Vittorio Jano-designed D50 would not be ready until the final GP of the season. As well as winning the Mille Miglia with a Lancia D24, Ascari retired from the French, British and Italian GPs for Maserati and then Ferrari. It was the final GP of the year when Lancia finally arrived. Ascari qualified on pole position for that Spanish GP before retiring from the lead after nine laps of the Pedralbes streets.
Rather than challenge for a third title as was expected, 1955 proved to be a tragic year during which the 36 year old would lose his life. He crashed out of the lead in Argentina but promise was confirmed by non-championship success at both Turin and Naples. He was about to inherit the lead of the subsequent Monaco GP when he lost control entering the chicane. The Lancia shot through the straw bales and into the harbour below. He escaped with just a cut nose and was testing a Ferrari 750 Monza just four days later in preparation for the Supercortemaggiore sports car race. However, Ascari crashed at Monza’s Curva Vialone and was thrown clear as the car rolled. He succumbed to his injuries soon afterwards.