IT IS UNUSUAL for a father and son to follow the same path through life so closely as the Ascaris - Antonio and Alberto. Both were gripped by the excitement and joy of fast driving, both took up motor racing, both reached the peak of their profession, both died at the wheel at the age of 36 and, by an even crueller coincidence, both left a widow and two children.
The thirty years that separated their respective careers showed living and motor racing in two very different phases of development. Antonio Ascari's early life was not easy. He was born in 1888 at Sorga in Verona, son of a corn merchant, and was apprenticed to a cycle repairer.
A strong and conscientious worker, he loved machinery and driving and after a spell at maintaining agricultural machines he took a job in Milan as mechanic with the de Vecchi concern, builders of sound, conventional, four-cylinder cars in the via Peschiera. In 1909, Antonio and his brother Amedeo emigrated to Para, in Brazil, to work on cars, but his brother died from yellow fever and a saddened Antonio returned to Italy and to de Vecchi, where he became service manager.
The firm's chief tester, Ugo Sivocci, arranged that Antonio should drive one of their touring cars in the 1911 six-day Criterium of Regularity based at Modena and he did well before having to retire. No further chance came to drive before World War I when he was busily engaged on aircraft repair work with a firm called Falco, but with the return of peace Ascari set' up an Alfa Rorneo agency in Milan.
An unexpected chance to go motor racing came in the very first post-war Italian event, the Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb in October 1919. This was a hectic 32.8-mile point-to-point dash over tortuous mountain roads-and when the Fiat company with-drew its entry shortly beforehand, Ascari bought one of the cars the Turin company intended to run.
This was a 4.5-litre S57/14B built for the 1914 French GP, and in a resounding climb with his new acquisition Ascari broke the old record by nearly four minutes, being over 5½
minutes quicker than the second fastest. , Three weeks later he and the Fiat repeated the performance in the 9.9-mile Consuma Cup hill-climb near Florence, winning by over two minutes. With two starts and two wins, the new Italian driver found himself among the favourites in the 1919 Targa Florio
race on 23 November. Before the race, however, it rained, hailed and snowed, and Ascari, after making a tremendous getaway, suffered a locked front brake on the first lap of the snow-covered mountain road; beyond Polizzi. A tremendous skid landed the Fiat and its crew at the bottom of a deep crevasse, Ascari breaking a thigh while his mechanic had broken ribs and spinal damage.
Ascari spent seven weeks in Palermo hospital, then returned home to recuperate, devoting most of his time to his now thriving business. He sold the Fiat to Count Masetti and, as befitted an Alfa Romeo agent, drove cars of that make thereafter. He joined the factory team alongside his old friend from de Vecchi days, Ugo Sivocci, as well as Campari and Ferrari and 1920 brought him a win at Garda, but little else. In 1921 he scored a class win in the Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb, though only fourth fastest overall this time, while in the Targa Florio
a broken camshaft prevented him from even starting.
The Sicilian Classic became something of a pet enemy to Ascari. In 1922 he made the distance, won his class and was fourth overall. In 1923 he was leading with a lap to go when a tyre
punctured and he spun; the wheel was changed but his engine would not restart irrimediately, Sivocci passed to win and Antonio was a furious second, though still a class winner. In 1924 he again had the lead on the final lap when, only fifty yards from the finish, his Alfa spun and stalled. Mechanic and driver strove frantically to restart the engine but to no avail and by the time they had pushed it over the line two others cars had passed.
That was Ascari's last Targa Florio, but fortune was kinder elsewhere. In 1923 the four members of the Alfa team each won an Italian race; Ascari's was the Circuit of Cremona, where he averaged 83.37 mph, while he also scored a class win and third overall at Mugello. 1924 brought the famous two-litre, eight-cylinder Alfa Romeo P2 Grand Prix
car and at short notice the company decided to make the Circuit of Cremona a test race before the all-important French GP at Lyons. As 1923 Crernona winner, Ascari was selected to drive the new car and his performance was sensational - the P2 was timed at 121.164 mph through a 10 km stretch, setting a world record for the distance, and Ascari averaged 98.3 mph, winning the 199-mile race by almost an hour from the second car.
Antonio Ascari at speed in the Alfa Romeo P2 during the Grand Prix of Europe at Spa in 1925. He and team-mate Campari were the sole finishers.
The wreckage of Antonio
Ascari's Alfa Romeo P2
lies upside down in a
ditch at the side of the
Montlherv track. Before
the race, Ascari had
complained bitterly to the
organisers about the
dangerous fencing that
was the cause of his death.
Like many from his era, Alberto Ascari started his racing career on a motorcycle.
Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari Sports at Silverstone.
In 1952, Alberto Ascari competed unsuccessfully at Indianapolis in a car specially built for the race by Enzo Ferrari.
He next shared an RLS sports Alfa Romeo with Marinoni in the Monza 24-Hours race; they finished second, unexpectedly beaten by a three-litre NAG from Germany. Then came the French GP, in which Ascari seemed to have things all his own way, leading until three laps from the end of the 500-mile race. Then his engine went sick and Campari passed to win, while Ascari stopped at the pits, where he and his mechanic repeated their Targa Florio
act, attempting in vain to restart. A cylinder had cracked and they failed to finish.
In the Italian GP at Monza five weeks later, Ascari led from the start and was quite unassailable this time. He won the 497-mile race at 98.6 mph, heading a glorious Alfa Romeo 1-2-3-4 victory by sixteen minutes and setting fastest lap at 104.24 mph. He put on a similar performance in the 1925 Grand Prix
of Europe at Spa, in Belgium. He and team mate Campari were the sole finishers, twenty-two minutes apart, Ascari's winning average of 74.46 mph including a leisurely stop for a meal during the race!
Next came the 621-mile French GP, held at Montlhery on 26 July 1925, and yet again the dashing Ascari rocketed ahead. He led by an ever-increasing gap until the twenty-third lap, when drizzle made parts of the course unexpectedly slippery. On a 115 mph left-hand curve his P2 slid an inch or so too close to the wooden paling fence, a hubcap entangled, the car ripped down a hundred yards of the fence in a mighty convulsion, then overturned into a ditch. Antonio Ascari, who had made strong objections to the organisers about this dangerous type of fencing before the race, died on his way to hospital.
That part of the Montlhery circuit would be named "Ascari Curve", marked by a monument to the great Italian driver. When Antonio Ascari won the 1924 Italian GP at Monza his six-year-old son Alberto posed with him and the P2 for the photographers. Also present were Enzo Ferrari and Antonio's nephew Giovanni Minozzi - a keen admirer of his uncle-who after his death frequently recounted his racing feats to young Alberto. Minozzi himself was attached to Alfa Romeo on the racing side, so the young Ascari grew up in a fervent atmosphere of racing. Like many Italians, he began his career on motor-cycles, riding Sertum, Gilera and Bianchi machines in trials and races and scoring a dozen wins between 1936 and 1939.
By then he badly wanted to race cars like his father, but 1940 was a year of uneasy peace in Italy and races were few. However, a 'substitute' Mille Miglia sports car race was being held over nine laps of a long closed circuit between Brescia, Cremona and Mantua, and the eager Alberto visited Enzo Ferrari - former team mate of his father and later chief of the Scuderia Ferrari which raced the factory Alfa Romeos in the '30S. Ferrari had left Alfa Romeo in 1938 and built two Type 815 straight-eight, 1½
-litre sports cars, one of which he entrusted to Alberto Ascari for the Mille Miglia, with his cousin Minozzi as co-driver.
In this, his first car race, Alberto took the class lead, but he drove hard, with little sympathy for the machinery, and quickly retired with a broken valve. . Then he bought a half-share in Piero Taruffi's 1938 1½
-litre six-cylinder Maserati, being placed ninth in the Tripoli GP, but retiring in the 'substitute' Targa Florio
over a short street course in Palermo. War came, and six years elapsed before young Ascari could resume his motorsport career. By then he had developed the heavy build of his father and friends called him 'Ciccio', an Italian equivalent to 'Butch' meaning literally 'meat'.
He returned to racing in 1947, in Egypt curiously enough, for a special race on Gezireh Island, outside Cairo, promoted for the new 1100 cc Cisitalia Monoposto cars, and this time he drove extremely well against many old racing hands to be placed second. Again with a Cisitalia, he retired in the Rome GP but came fifth at Albi in France. Alberto now plunged deep into Grand Prix
racing, driving a Scuderia Ambrosiana Maserati with Luigi Villoresi as his number one and willing teacher.
The racing situation then was very different from that in his father's time, whereas in the '20s a 'season' meant perhaps six races, in Alberto's day it totalled two dozen or more, with racing almost every weekend for him to keep in trim and perfect his driving. In 1947 he raced at Nice, daring to duel with the great Wimille, and came fourth. Then came his first win, a lucky one in the Modena GP for sports cars. He was leading in a two-litre Maserati when the race was stopped halfway after another car crashed into the crowd. Alberto Ascari's rise to professionalism thereafter was startling. In 1948 he drove the new low-chassis 4CL T /48 Maserati to its first victory in the San Remo GP, won the Pescara sports car GP, was fifth at Monaco and Berne, fourth in the Italian GP behind the dominant Alfasand second in the British GP at Silvers tone.
Alfa Romeo paid the son of their revered Antonio Ascari signal honour by offering him a place in their team for the French GP, where he drove impeccably to third place behind Wimille and Sanesi. In 1949 he and Villoresi left Maserati for Ferrari, and Ascari became Italian Champion, with Grand Prix
victories in the Swiss and European GPs, and others at Silverstone, Bari, Reims and in Argentina. His 1950
score was equally impressive, including the Penya Rhin, German, Reims, Rome, Luxemburg, Mons, Garda and Modena GPs, plus another Argentinian race, while in 1951
he rose to fullest might with the 4.5-litre GP Ferrari, defeating the all-conquering Alfa Romeos in his third German GP victory, and in the Italian GP, besides winning the SanRemo GP and Formula Two events at Monza, Naples and Modena.
The Famous Son Of A Famous Father
He and Villoresi also showed their versatility by coming first in the Sestriere Rally with a Lancia Aurelia. The following two seasons saw Ascari the complete maestro. He was now the 'famous son of a famous father', driving with the same dash and mastery, extremely fast through the corners and a formidable opponent to other masters such as Farina and Fangio. Like his father he preferred to seize an early lead and once ahead was extremely hard to catch.
In 1952 Grand Prix
racing switched to Formula Two, and 'Ciccio' with the two-litre, four-cylinder Ferrari won no less than twelve races, including the British, Dutch, French, German, Italian and European/Belgian GPs! His 1953 score was slightly less impressive with seven GP victories, but he also won the Niirburgring 1000 kms race with Farina in a sports Ferrari. Naturally Ascari became a very worthy World Champion, both in 1952 and 1953, but just when it seemed that nothing could check his headlong run of successes, he did it himself by leaving Ferrari and signing-with Villoresi-to drive the new GP Lancias when they were ready. They did not appear until late in 1954, so Alberto had a lean season, although he won the Mille Miglia - a race he hated - with a 3.3-litre V6 sports Lancia.
In the Spanish GP, his only 1954 race with the GP Lancia, he led for ten laps, made fastest lap, then retired. By 1955 the cars were raceworthy, and Ascari won two races in quick succession, at Turin and Naples. Then came the Monaco GP in which, following the retirement of Fangio and Moss in Mercedes, he took the lead. He covered only one more lap, however, when the tricky Lancia took charge, left the road and dived into the harbour. Ascari swam to safety, but was taken to Monaco hospital in case of shock. He remained there, fretting to get back to Italy, for two days, then went to Monza on Wednesday, 26 May and took out Castellotti's three-litre sports Ferrari for a few laps.
It was expected that he would share the car in the Supercortemaggiore GP that coming Sunday but, lacking his crash helmet, he had no intentions of going very fast on this occasion. He completed four laps and started a fifth when suddenly the Ferrari went out of control on the sweeping Vialone left-hand curve and overturned, killing Alberto Ascari instantly. Two long skid marks preceded the scene of the crash, but the cause of his death remains unknown today.
Antonio Ascari's major victories:
Alberto Ascari's major victories:
- 1919: Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb (Fiat) 1st, Consuma Cup hill-climb (Fiat) 1st
- 1920: Garda Cup race (AI fa Romeo) 1st
- 1921: Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb (Alfa Romeo) 1st in class
- 1922: Gargnano-Tignale hill-climb (Alfa Romeo) 1st, Targa Florio (Alfa Rorneo) 1st in class
- 1923: Circuit of Cremona (Alfa Romeo) 1st Circuit of Mugello (AI fa Roineo) 1st in class
- 1924: Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb (Alfa Romeo) 1st Circuit of Cremona (Alfa Romeo) 1st Italian GP, Monza (Alfa Romeo) 1st
- 1925: GP of Europe, Spa, Belgium (Alfa Romeo) 1st
- 1947: Circuit of Modena (Maserati sports)
- 1948: San Remo GP (FI Maserati); Circuit of Pescara (Maserati sports)
- 1949: Buenos Aires GP (FI Maserati); Swiss GP (FI Ferrari); International Trophy, Silverstone (FI Ferrari); European GP, Monza (FI Ferrari); Peron GP, Buenos Aires (2.0 Ferrari); Bari GP (F2 Ferrari); Reims GP (F2 Ferrari)
- 1950: Mar del Plata GP (2.0 Ferrari), Penya Rhin GP, Spain (FI Ferrari); Modena GP (F2 Ferrari); Mons GP (F2 Ferrari); Luxemburg GP (Ferrari sports); Rome GP (F2 Ferrari); German GP (F2 Ferrari); Reims GP (F2 Ferrari)
- 1951: San Remo GP (FI Ferrari); German GP (F1 Ferrari); Italian GP (F1 Ferrari); Monza GP (F2 Ferrari); Naples GP (F2 Ferrari); Modena GP (F2 Ferrari); Sestriere Rally (Lancia Aurelia, with Villoresi)
- 1952: European GP, Spa, Belgium (F2 Ferrari); French GP (F2 Ferrari); British GP (F2 Ferrari); German GP (F2 Ferrari); Dutch GP (F2 Ferrari); Italian GP (F2 Ferrari); Syracuse GP (Ft Ferrari); Pau GP (F2 Ferrari); Marseilles GP (F2 Ferrari); Sables d'Olonne GP (F2 Ferrari); Comminges GP (F2 Ferrari); La Bule GP (F2 Ferrari)
- 1953: Argentine GP (F2 Ferrari); Dutch GP (F2 Ferrari); British GP (F2 Ferrari); Belgian GP (F2 Ferrari); Swiss GP (F2 Ferrari); Pau GP (F2 Ferrari); Bordeaux GP (F2 Ferrari); Nurburgring 1000 kms (Ferrari sports, with Farina)
- 1954: Mille Miglia (Lancia sports)
- 1955: Valentino GP, Turin (FI Lancia); Naples GP (FI Lancia)