Ascari - the greatest Italian driver? 06 Sep 2004
A look at the only Italian to win the title with Ferrari
The annual trip to Monza presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on Italy's many contributions to Formula One racing. Yet for all of the country's love for the sport, in particular for its beloved Ferrari, only two Italians have taken the world drivers' championship.
One was Nino Farina, who took the very first drivers crown, back in 1950. The other was double-champion Alberto Ascari, one of the all-time greats, who died at Monza 49 years ago.
Ascari was one of few drivers of his generation capable of taking the fight to Juan Manuel Fangio, the dominant driver of the age. The Italian was a second-generation racer - his father Antonio had competed for Alfa Romeo and was killed while leading the French Grand Prix in 1925. Rather than putting Alberto off racing, his father's death galvanised his resolve to become a driver himself, and he ran away from school twice to try and realise his dream. His first race was the 1940 Mille Miglia in a Ferrari sportscar, but then war intervened to put his racing ambitions on hold.
With peace restored, Ascari resumed racing in 1947 in a Maserati 4CLT, taking victory in the 1948 San Remo Grand Prix. A certain Enzo Ferrari liked what he had seen of this hot-blooded new driver, nick-named "Ciccio" or "Chubby" by the Italian crowds, and quickly signed him.
With the introduction of the Formula One championship in 1950, racing moved into a new age. Initially Alfa Romeo was dominant thanks to its 1.5 litre supercharged cars, but by 1952 technical regulation changes had passed the baton to Ferrari, and Ascari and his F500 dominated the season, winning every race. Over 1952 and 1953 he took nine straight Grand Prix victories on his way to back-to-back championships.
In 1954 Ascari left Ferrari and signed to race with Lancia. Unfortunately for him the new company was unable to provide him with a car for the first part of the season, and he and his team mate and friend Luigi Villoresi were contractually released to drive Maseratis against the threat of Mercedes' new Silver Arrows at the French Grand Prix. It was an unequal struggle, Ascari's car expiring on the second lap as the Mercedes strolled away. Later that season Ascari had another memorable race at the Italian Grand Prix, this time in a loaned Ferrari, including a duel for the lead with Stirling Moss in a Maserati, but again the Italian was forced to retire with mechanical problems. Fangio won the Drivers' Championship for Mercedes.
In 1955 Ascari was determined to re-assert the dominance he had once enjoyed, but his season got off to a poor start when all the Lancias were forced to retire from the Argentinean Grand Prix. Ascari then had a remarkable deliverance from a terrifying accident at the Monaco Grand Prix, where he left the track and ended up in the sea, swimming away from the wreckage of his car with nothing more serious than a broken nose.
It was to be a tragically short-lived survival. Just four days later he was at Monza watching practice for a forthcoming sportscar race when he decided to have a go in his friend Castellotti's Ferrari. On his third lap he crashed heavily at the corner that now bears his name, and was thrown from the car, dying from his injuries a few minutes later. Italy mourned the loss of its great hero, and the Lancia team withdrew from Formula One racing, handing its cars and blueprints over to former rival, Ferrari.