26 May 2017

Alberto Ascari - racing driver

F1 champion killed amid eerie echoes of father's death

Alberto Ascari (centre), pictured a few weeks before his fatal crash with his friends Luigi Villoresi (left), Eugenio  Castellotti (right) and the famous engineer Vittorio Jano.
Alberto Ascari (centre), pictured a few weeks before his fatal
crash with his friends Luigi Villoresi (left), Eugenio
 Castellotti (right) and the famous engineer Vittorio Jano.
Racing driver Alberto Ascari, who was twice Formula One champion, died on this day in 1955 in an accident at the Monza racing circuit in Lombardy, just north of Milan.

A hugely popular driver, his death shocked Italy and motor racing fans in particular. 

What many found particularly chilling was a series of uncanny parallels with the death of his father, Antonio Ascari, who was also a racing driver, 30 years previously.

Alberto had gone to Monza to watch his friend, Eugenio Castellotti, test a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, which they were to co-drive the car in the 1000 km Monza race.

Contracted to Lancia at the time, although he had been given dispensation to drive for Ferrari in the race, Ascari was not supposed to test drive the car, yet he could not resist trying a few laps, even though he was dressed in a jacket and tie, in part to ensure he had not lost his nerve after a serious accident a few days earlier.

Ascari on the cover of a magazine in  Argentina, where he was very popular
Ascari on the cover of a magazine in
Argentina, where he was very popular
When he emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, however, the car inexplicably skidded, turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. Ascari was wearing Castellotti’s white helmet but he suffered multiple injuries nonetheless when he was thrown out of the car and survived for only a few minutes, pronounced dead at the scene.

There were several eerie similarities between the deaths of Alberto and his father.

Alberto Ascari died on May 26, 1955, at the age of 36, the same age as his father, Antonio, who was killed in the French Grand Prix, on July 26, 1925. Alberto was only four days older than his father had been.

That both should die on the 26th of the month at the same age was a strange coincidence, yet it did not end there.

Even more weirdly, both were killed four days after surviving serious accidents, Antonio having crashed while practising ahead of the Grand Prix in which he died, Alberto having lost control of his car during the Monaco Grand Prix and gone into the harbour.

Both suffered fatal crashes at the exit of fast left-hand corners, both had won 13 championship Grand Prix events and both left behind a wife and two children.

Alberto’s accident occurred on the Curva del Vialone, one of the Monza track's most challenging high-speed corners. The corner was renamed in his honour but has subsequently been replaced with a chicane, now called Variante Ascari.

He was laid to rest next to the grave of his father in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. His death was considered to be a factor in the withdrawal of Lancia from motor racing in 1955, just three days after his funeral, although it was also a fact that the company was in financial trouble.

Ascari, in his Lancia, chases the legendary Argentina Juan Manuel Fangio, in a Mercedes, in a 1954 race
Ascari, in his Lancia, chases the legendary Argentina Juan
Manuel Fangio, in a Mercedes, in a 1954 race
Born in Milan, Alberto was only seven when he lost his father yet was not put off his desire to become a racing driver.

He was one of the best drivers around when Formula One launched in 1950, with a string of victories in Grand Prix events over 1948 and 1949. His success continued in 1950, although his nine race wins did not include any in the inaugural Formula One series, won by another Italian, Giuseppe Farina.

The 1951 season brought seven more victories and this time two of them counted as he finished second to the legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio.

He went one better and won the drivers’ championship in 1952, winning the final six rounds after Fangio dropped out midway through the season, and defended his title successfully in 1953.

After his death, a street in Rome was named in his honour, while both the Autodromo Nazionale Monza and Autodromo Oscar Alfredo Gálvez in Buenos Aires, which staged the Argentine Grand Prix between 1953 and 1998, have chicanes named after him.

Monza' s Duomo, the striking Basilica of San  Giovanni Battista
Monza's Duomo, the striking Basilica of San
 Giovanni Battista
Travel tip:

Apart from the motor racing circuit, Monza is notable for its 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, often known as Monza Cathedral, which contains the famous Corona Ferrea or Iron Crown, bearing precious stones.  According to tradition, the crown was found on Jesus's Cross.  Note also the Villa Reale, built in the neoclassical style by Piermarini at the end of the 18th Century, which has a sumptuous interior and a court theatre.

Travel tip:

The Cimitero Monumentale is one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, the other one being the Cimitero Maggiore. Designed by the architect Carlo Maciachini (1818–1899), it was planned to consolidate a number of small cemeteries that used to be scattered around the city into a single location.  It can be found in the northern part of the city, adjacent to Chinatown and Porta Volta.  As well as Ascari and his father, it is the resting place of the tenor Franco Corelli, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti – who founded the futurist movement - the novelist and writer Alessandro Manzoni, and the founder of AC Milan football club, the Englishman Herbert Kilpin.

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