The Ascaris, Italy’s First Racing Family

Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari after racing
Alberto Ascari

If you look back early enough into racing history you will notice one name show up repeatedly, Ascari. First driver to win the Belgian Grand Prix, Antonio Ascari. His son won there too. They also both won their home Grand Prix in Monza. The more research you do the more often you will see their names. Antonio was a pre-war hot-shot racing all over Europe. His son Alberto was one of the first F1 champions after the sport formed in 1950. Their name is also synonymous with a now defunct British car company named Ascari. It probably would have been more fitting it was an Italian car company. Both father and son died at the age of 36 on the 26th day of the month while racing. Both left behind a wife and two kids.

Antonio Ascari and the Birth of Grand Prix Racing

a red Alfa Romeo P2 race car Ascari took racing
Antonio would win 3 races in an Alfa Romeo P2 – photo by Brian Snelson

If you look up lists of father-son racers, hardly any of them list the Ascaris. The Mosses, absolutely! The Brabham family? Yup! There’s hardly a mention of the Ascaris. Antonio Ascari was born in Italy in 1888 and began racing in 1919. He was at the forefront of Grand Prix racing a full 14 years before qualifying as we know it was established. Before the typical qualifying format of lap times, grids were chosen at random out of a hat. He raced alongside Enzo Ferrari in the Targa Florio in 1919 on the 108 km Media Circuit and won his first major Grand Prix race in 1923 at Cremona. Antonio would win there again in 1924 and would win the Italian Grand Prix that year with a time of 5 hours 2 minutes.

In 1925, Antonio went on to win the inaugural Belgian Grand Prix with a staggering time of 6 hours 42 minutes. That’s nearly four times as long as a current F1 race! The only other car left in the race was his teammate, whom he beat by over 20 minutes. Back then the race wasn’t over when the first place driver finished so he had to drive two full laps by himself. The next race was the biggest on the short calendar, the 1925 French Grand Prix. Ascari, having been miffed about his teammate getting the higher grid-sport, was furious. He decided to humiliate his slower teammate again like at Spa. Unfortunately on lap 22, while leading the race, he crashed in a fast left-hander. Antonio would die on his way to the hospital. He was 36 years old, his son Alberto was 7.

Alberto Ascari and the Beginning of Formula 1

Alberto Ascari racing for Scuderia Ferrari
Alberto Ascari driving for Scuderia Ferrari

His father’s death didn’t discourage Alberto. Just twelve years later he would begin his racing career on two wheels for the Bianchi motorcycle team. His first car race was the dangerous 1940 Mille Miglia in what was effectively the first Ferrari. The car was built by Enzo Ferrari but because of some agreements with Alfa, he couldn’t call them Ferraris. Mechanical failures would lead to a retirement and the encroaching World War II would halt his racing career. He would eventually re enter racing after scraping together some money to buy a Maserati. Alberto would start building his own reputation in 1947 and 1948 earning him the nickname “Ciccio” or tubby. He would finish 3rd place in the 1948 French Grand Prix and would again be called upon by his father’s friend Enzo Ferrari.

Ascari would join Scuderia Ferrari for the first F1 season in 1950. While this was technically the fourth season, it was the first with a drivers championship. Ferrari would enter the second race of the season at Monaco. A wet track knocked out 9 of 19 participants but Ascari soldiered on. He would finish second in his debut, a lap behind winner Juan Manuel Fangio and one lap ahead of Louis Chiron. They would skip out on Indy, retire from the Swiss Grand Prix due to an oil pump failure, and finish 5th at Spa.

The final race of the 1950 season was fittingly at Monza. Ferrari would unveil their new 4.5 liter V12 engine, a full 3 liters larger than their original engine. Ascari would qualify a promising second, only 2 tenths off championship leader Fangio. Ascari would finish in 2nd place at their home grand prix and Fangio would retire handing the championship to Nino Farina by three points.

Ferrari and Ascari Challenge Alfa and Fangio

Alberto Ascari racing at Monza 1953
Alberto Ascari at Monza 1953

Ferrari would really step up the challenge to Alfa in 1951. Ascari again piloted the 4.5 liter V12 Ferrari. He would finish outside the points in 6th place at the Swiss Grand Prix and again would skip Indy. Ascari would pilot his Ferrari to two second place finishes at Spa and the French Grand Prix. A gearbox failure led to a lap 56 retirement at Silverstone. He would respond by racking up his first Grand Prix win at the Nurburgring and another at Monza.

After Monza, Ascari sat just two points behind championship leader Fangio. At the last race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, Ascari would take pole position by 1.68 seconds over Fangio. To clinch his first championship. Ascari had to win or come in second with Fangio behind him. Unfortunately, a bad tire choice led to a 4th place finish with Fangio taking the race and the championship.

Alberto Ascari decided to tackle the king of all races, the Indy 500, in 1952. This resulted in him missing the first race of the F1 season. Unfortunately, a tire issue led to a retirement on lap 40 and a 31st place finish. He would return to F1 with a vengeance winning every race left in the season and taking his first title. Alberto would skip Indy in 1953 and would rack up three wins to start the season. Ascari would win at Silverstone and the Swiss Grand Prix but would retire from his home race in Monza. It didn’t matter, he had a ten point lead back when 1st place only got 9 points. He would win his second consecutive title. Despite Ferrari’s incredible success no Ferrari driver would win two in a row until Michael Schumacher in 2001.

Ascari Leaves Ferrari for Lancia

Alberto Ascari racing in the Lancia D50
Alberto in the Lancia D50

After winning two back-to-back championships, Ascari felt he deserved more money. A pay dispute led Alberto to leave Ferrari for Lancis for the 1954 season. Unfortunately, the Lancia D50 wasn’t ready until the last race of the season so he raced for Maserati. Ascari would retire in every race that season but was able to capture a win at the Mille Miglia. Ferrari hadn’t lost at Mille Miglia since 1947. Alberto took the win in a Lancia D24 with a time of 11 hours and 26 minutes, thumbing his nose at Ferrari. The Lancia D50 finally arrived in time for the Spanish Grand Prix. Ascari would immediately ascend to pole with a time of  2:18.1. He would go on to set the fastest lap of the race but a clutch failure led to his retirement on lap 10.

955 was a promising season for Scuderia Lancia. Ascari would qualify second in the opening round but would crash out of the race on lap 21. His woes would continue at Monaco. After coming out of the tunnel on lap 80, Ascari would misjudge the chicane and plunge his Lancia into the harbor. He would swim to safety.

Four days later, Alberto would show up at Monza while teams were testing a Ferrari endurance car he was scheduled to pilot. He asked to go a few laps still wearing a jacket and tie and borrowing a helmet. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t lost his nerve after two crashes in a row. Unfortunately, this would be his last drive. He would crash on the third lap in a fast left hander just like his dad. He died at the age of 36 with 13 Grand Prix wins (like his father) and two championships.

Aftermath and the Ascari Racing Legacy

Alberto Ascari after winning the Dutch Grand Prix
Alberto Ascari after winning the Dutch Grand Prix

Had Alberto not died, perhaps he could have challenged Fangio who would win four titles in a row. This was a major loss for the racing world and for Italy. His funeral garnered international attention. Lancia actually quit racing three days later and sold all their engines and cars to Ferrari. It’s wild to think that despite how successful Ferrari has been, many of his team records stood until Schumacher arrived over 40 years later.

Alberto Ascari still holds some impressive spots in the record books despite his short racing career. He’s the first back-to-back champion. His win percentage is second to only Fangio at over 39%. No driver has a higher single season win percentage than Alberto (75%). He’s tied for second with most consecutive wins at 7 and sits atop the list of highest percentage of fastest laps in a season at 75%. Ascari still holds the record for most laps led with 304, a full 40 more than second place Senna. He’s tied for second with Schumacher and Hamilton with five grand slams (pole, win, fastest lap, led every lap). Both Antonio and his son Alberto were two of the earliest racing heroes who were gone too soon.

While doing research for this article, I came across grandprixhistory.org which has a ton of knowledge. Check it out!

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