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Alberto Ascari

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Alberto was my greatest rival.

Juan-Manuel Fangio

If you ask any Formula-1 fan who was the greatest racing driver of the 50s, then for sure you will hear the name of Juan-Manuel Fangio in response. Having taken part in seven world championships, the Argentine has won five titles, and so far only two have managed to break this record in the history of Formula-1, and then only half a century later. However, among the drivers who performed at the dawn of Formula-1, the Argentine still had a rival who was not inferior to him in skill, and his name was Alberto Ascari.

Alberto was born on July 13, 1918 in Milan in the family of the famous Italian racer Antonio Ascari, who shone at the wheel of Alfa Romeo in Grand Prix races in the 1920s. Antonio's manager at the time was Enzo Ferrari himself, and according to Commendatore's recollections, Alberto's father was one of the most fearless racers he had ever known.


In racing, Antonio always adhered to a single strategy: he put the accelerator pedal on the floor at the start and did not let it go until the finish. It is not surprising that this driving style brought the fans into complete delight and allowed Antonio to bring his rivals a whole abyss at the finish. However, the downside of such a risky driving was the frequent accidents of the Italian, the last of which eventually cost him his life.

It happened on July 26, 1925 during the French Grand Prix. Antonio, as usual, took the lead right from the start and set such a pace that he was soon three minutes ahead of all his pursuers, and even the rain did not force him to slow down. However, soon the track got wet and became too slippery, and entering into one of the turns too fast, Antonio could not control the car, which caught the fence with a wheel, rolled over several times and froze on the side of the road with its wheels up. The driver himself was thrown out of the car and died half an hour later in an ambulance.


At that time, Alberto was only 7 years old, and the death of his father was a real tragedy for him. However, by that time he had already decided everything for himself. A year earlier, after winning the Italian Grand Prix, Antonio drove into the pits, put his son on his knees and drove a lap of honor with him along the track in Monza, and this trip forever cut into Alberto's heart. Sitting behind the wheel of a real racing car, feeling the wind beating in his face, seeing the enthusiastic faces of the fans and hearing their cheers, Alberto then realized what he wanted to devote his life to. And neither the tragedy that happened to his father, nor the exhortations of his mother could make him turn away from his chosen path and give up the dream of becoming the best racer in the world.

Alberto got his first racing experience in 1936, participating in motorcycle racing, and in the next three years he achieved great success in this field, becoming one of the best motorcycle racers in Italy.


At the same time, he met his compatriot Luigi Villoresi, a rising star of Italian motorsport, who became Alberto's mentor and best friend for many years to come. However, soon Europe was engulfed by war, and both of them, like the rest of the racers of the Old World, had to forget about racing for a long time. Fortunately, for Alberto this terrible period passed quite peacefully: he got married, had two children and, together with Villoresi, founded a transport company that dealt with military needs and brought both a decent income. For seven years of a quiet family life, Ascari even got a little fat, which is why others jokingly began to call him Ciccio (fat man).


It seemed that Alberto had already forgotten about racing, however, after receiving an invitation from the King of Egypt in 1947 to take part in competitions in Cairo, the Italian did not hesitate for a second. In these competitions, all racers performed on the same Cisitalia cars, and starting the race for the first time after the war, Ascari demonstrated that he had not lost a drop of his talent, finishing second after Cortese.


This success seemed to bring Alberto out of hibernation, and succumbing to the persuasions of Villoresi, he bought a Maserati 4CLT racing car, becoming a teammate of his friend in the Scuderia Ambrosiana team. At that time, Luigi was at the peak of his form and won 12 victories in two seasons, becoming the main rival of Alfa Romeo drivers. With such a mentor at his disposal, Alberto quickly mastered the skills of racing and already in 1948 celebrated his first major victory by winning the San Remo Grand Prix.


The successes of Villoresi and Ascari did not go unnoticed, and in 1949 both drivers were invited to drive for Scuderia Ferrari, while the Commendatore was so eager to see Antonio's son in his team that he signed an unusually generous contract with him.


Alberto did not remain in debt, and that season he brought the team four victories, surpassing not only his mentor, but also all other drivers, with the exception of one. The only one who was able to compete with Alberto that year was the Argentine Juan-Manuel Fangio, who came from overseas to conquer the Old World, and it was from then that the confrontation between the two future great Formula-1 champions began.


In 1950, the first ever Formula-1 World Championship started, and after a year's absence, the Alfa Romeo team returned to the world of the Grand Prix. The Milan team was represented by Nino Farina, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli, and the first race of the season in the Great Britain showed the absolute superiority of these drivers over all rivals. At the same time, the first stage was held without the participation of Scuderia Ferrari, but even her debut at the second stage in Monaco did not greatly affect the balance of power. Despite the fact that Ascari managed to avoid a massive blockage on the first lap, he spent half of the race fighting with Villoresi for second place, where he eventually finished, a full lap behind Fangio.


At the next stage in Switzerland, the car let Alberto down at the very beginning of the race, and in Belgium Ferrari clearly lacked speed, as a result of which the Italian lost not only to Alfa Romeo, but even to French Talbot. After such disappointing results, Enzo Ferrari decided to skip the French Grand Prix and focus on the last stage of the championship in Italy, where the debut of the new Ferrari 375 car was to take place. This car showed its competitiveness already in qualifying, when Ascari managed to wedge himself between two contenders for the title, Farina and Fangio, and in the race Alberto looked even more convincing, imposing a serious struggle for leadership on Farina. Unfortunately, the new car was still not reliable enough, and before a third of the distance had expired, Ascari was forced to turn into the pits with a faulty engine. However, Alberto subsequently returned to the race, taking a seat in the car of his teammate Serafini, and eventually finished second. Given the missed races and reliability problems, according to the overall standings, Ascari took only 5th place, losing not only to three Alfa Romeos, but even Rosier's Talbot, however, the last race of the season gave the Italian hope that next year he would be able to impose a serious fight on Alfa Romeo drivers.

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Nevertheless, despite high expectations, the start of the 1951 season was not very successful for Alberto. Shortly before the start of the season, Ascari took part in the Formula 2 race in Genoa, where he received burns to his arm, as a result of which he could not perform at full strength at the first stage of the championship in Switzerland and finished only 6th. Meanwhile Alfa Romeo driver Fangio once again celebrated the victory in the pouring rain. The next stage in Belgium was already better for the Italian, and Ascari took second place, but he again could not keep up with the drivers of the Milan team, and the winner was last year's world champion Farina. It seemed that everything should have worked out at the third stage in France, where Alberto broke into the lead at the very start and easily kept Alfa Romeo behind, but this time he was let down by the gearbox, which failed already on the 10th lap. After driving into the pits, Alberto took the car of his new teammate Gonzalez and even managed to take the lead again, when Farina and Fangio also ran into problems. But it was clearly not his day, because there were problems on the second car too, this time with the brakes, and the Italian had to drive into the pits again, conceding the victory to Fangio.


The fourth stage of the season was held in the Great Britain, and it became world famous for the fact that Scuderia Ferrari finally won its first World Championship victory, but the triumph here was, oddly enough, not the team's leader Ascari, but his teammate Gonzalez, who turned out to be damn good on the Silverstone track.  The young Argentine won this victory in a tight fight with his compatriot Fangio, while Ascari at the same time fought with Farina for third place.


Unfortunately, the gearbox let the Italian down here too, and he had no choice but to leave the race. At the same time, Alberto suddenly had a chance to share the victory with Gonzalez when the Argentine drove into the pits for refueling and generously offered Ascari to take a seat in his car, but the Italian only waved his hand at this offer, not taking away the laurels from his teammate.

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As it turned out, this was absolutely the right decision, because two weeks later Alberto won his first victory in the World Championship all by himself, getting ahead of Fangio on the most difficult track in the Nurburgring.

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At the same time, Ascari, like Gonzalez, beat Juan-Manuel thanks to the more economical atmospheric Ferrari engine, which allowed him to stop in the pits for refueling much later than Alfa Romeo. The first success was immediately followed by the second, on Alberto's favorite track in Monza, and Ascari came to the last stage of the championship in Spain, losing to Fangio by only two points.


Given such a minimal gap, each contender needed to be ahead of his opponent at the finish line to win the championship, but it seemed that Alberto was in a better position. The last three races Ferrari easily prevailed over Alfa Romeo, and Ascari also already had experience on the Spanish track, unlike Fangio. The stakes for the Italian increased even more when he easily won the pole position, beating the Argentine by more than one and a half seconds.


However, all the Italian's hopes were destroyed by the wrong strategy of Ferrari. Fearing another breakdown of the gearbox, the team decided to reduce the load on it by installing smaller diameter wheels on cars, and this decision turned out to be a disaster. After three laps of the race, the tires on the fully loaded Ascari's Ferrari began to degrade, and Fangio easily overtook the Italian and began to quickly break away from him, and already on the 10th lap Alberto turned into the pits to replace the wheels, and that was it. The first round of the great confrontation ended in favor of the Argentine.

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However, it was obvious that Alfa Romeo got the title mainly due to the incredible stability of Juan-Manuel and a fair share of luck, so the Milan team did not tempt fate again and left the World Championship at the end of the season, preferring to go undefeated. As a result of this decision, the FIA was forced to hold the next two championships according to the technical regulations of Formula 2, and Fangio had to look for a place in another team. Eventually, the Argentine found it in the Maserati, but soon he got into a serious accident in Monza, which almost cost him his life, and had to miss the whole season. Having lost his main rival, Ascari became the main contender for the championship title in 1952, and the only threat to him now was the first world champion Nino Farina, who became Alberto's new teammate.


The first stage of the championship in Switzerland was held without the participation of Ascari, as the Italian preferred to compete in the American Indy 500 race. Unfortunately, the overseas tour was not very successful for the Italian, and already on the 40th lap he stopped fighting due to a broken wheel mount.


Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the Ferrari drivers were out of competition, and only technical problems prevented Farina from taking victory, which eventually went to the third driver of the team Taruffi. However, when he returned to Europe, Alberto immediately showed who was the boss, starting to win one race after another, and even Farina was powerless to oppose anything to the brilliant performances of Ascari.

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Especially significant in this regard was the German Grand Prix, in which Nino, thanks to a forced Alberto's pit stop, managed to take the lead on the last lap, but he could not keep it, yielding to the swift onslaught of his teammate.


Thanks to this victory, already the fourth in the season, Ascari finally secured his title and became the new world champion, becoming on a par with Farina and Fangio. The rest of the season Alberto spent no less confidently, winning two more Grands Prix, and thus the Italian set a record that no other Formula-1 driver has been able to surpass so far: he won all the races of the season in which he took part.


At the same time, Ascari had no illusions and understood that the next season, in which the return of Fangio and Maserati would take place, was unlikely to be such an easy walk for him.

Nevertheless, Alberto won the first two Grand Prix of 1953 in Argentina and the Netherlands quite easily. The Ferrari chassis had a much better balance than that of Maserati's, and on technical tracks the Scuderia drivers had a clear advantage.


However, already at the third stage in Belgium, two Maseratis managed to take the lead and broke away from Ascari for almost a minute, and only the breakdown of both Modena cars allowed Alberto to win again. The next stage of the championship was held in France, and thanks to the incredible struggle for leadership that unfolded between the drivers of the two Italian teams, this Grand Prix received the title of "Race of the Century". Naturally, Ascari was one of the main actors in this fight, but in the end he took only 4th place, while the winner of this incredible race was his young teammate Mike Hawthorn, who managed to defeat Juan-Manuel Fangio.


After two not too impressive races, Alberto was back on the horse in the Great Britain, having already won his fourth victory of the season, and thus he now lacked only one victory to win his second title. Considering that the next Grand Prix was held at the Nurburgring circuit, where the Italian traditionally had no equal, Alberto seriously expected to put a bold dot already in Germany. However, it was here that the Italian had problems with his Ferrari for the first time in two years, and because of a lost wheel, he was forced to concede victory to Farina.


Moreover, a similar situation arose at the next stage in Switzerland, when Ascari was forced to turn into the pits with a faulty engine and let Farina and Hawthorn ahead. However, Alberto was clearly not going to miss the second victory in a row, so he, unlike his teammates, ignored the order from the pits to slow down and soon passed them both one by one, thus winning the most controversial victory in his career, which nevertheless brought him a second championship title.


The last stage of the season took place on Alberto's favorite track in Monza, and the Maserati drivers were again not inferior in speed to their rivals from Maranello, as a result of which this race, as in France, turned into a real battle between two Italian teams. Ascari, Fangio, Farina and Marimon attacked each other throughout the race, and its outcome was unclear right up to the finish.


It was Ascari who entered the last turn of the last lap as the leader, however, trying to reach maximum speed at the finish line, the Italian got out of it it too quickly, his Ferrari skidded, and Marimon immediately crashed into him, taking both of them off the track.


The winner of the Grand Prix eventually became Fangio, who still brought Maserati its long-awaited first victory in the World Championship, having managed to become vice-champion thanks to this. However, Ascari became the first two-time world champion in history, and now the score in their confrontation was 2:1 in favor of the Italian.


Meanwhile, in 1954, the World Championship returned to the technical regulations of Formula 1, and thanks to this, such well-known manufacturers as Daimler-Benz and Lancia entered the championship, while both teams managed to enlist the support of two world champions: Fangio moved to the German team, and Ascari – to the Turin one. There were several reasons why Alberto decided to leave the Scuderia Ferrari that brought him two titles, but the main one was the uncertain position of Enzo Ferrari about the further performances of his team in Formula 1, which is why he delayed signing a new contract for Alberto for too long. Tired of uncertainty, Ascari accepted the offer of Gianni Lancia, who offered him not only a cosmic salary twice his fee at the Ferrari, but also the opportunity to work with the team's chief designer Vittorio Jano, who at one time created a champion car for Alberto's father. At the same time, Jano's new creation, the Lancia D50, turned out to be a real masterpiece, but the development of this car took too much time, so Ascari had to miss the start of the season.


The first two Grands Prix in Argentina and Belgium were won by Fangio, who, like Ascari, has not yet had the opportunity to compete for his new team, but managed to start the season brilliantly behind the wheel of a Maserati. At the third stage in France, the Argentine went to the start already at the wheel of the Silver Arrow, but Ascari also took part in this Grand Prix, deciding not to hand over the championship to his main rival without a fight. Considering that the new Lancia car was still not ready, Alberto temporarily joined the  Maserati, taking the vacant place of the Argentine, and managed to show the third result in qualifying, behind the two Mercedeses.


However, already at the start, the transmission on the Italian's car failed, and the winner once again was Fangio, who managed to beat his teammate Kling by a fraction of a second. The next stage took place in the Great Britain, however, Alberto failed to shine there either: first, due to problems with the logistics of the cars, he had to skip qualifying, and later in the race his engine failed. Disappointed in Maserati and resigned to the inability to defend his title, Alberto left the Italian team after this stage and returned to the championship only at the end of the season at the Italian Grand Prix, which he consider impossible to miss.


In this Ascari was helped by Enzo Ferrari, who provided him with one of his cars, and Alberto's short-term return to the ranks of the Scuderia almost ended in triumph for him. As usual, a heated struggle for leadership unfolded in Monza, and it was Alberto who looked the most likely contender for victory, however, unfortunately, another breakdown brought all his efforts to nothing.


The last stage of the season was the Spanish Grand Prix, and it was on it that the Lancia team finally made its debut, which almost became a sensation. Bringing the Turin car to the track for the first time, Alberto easily won the pole position and just as confidently took the lead in the race, but already on the 11th lap the clutch failed on his car, drawing a line under the most disastrous season of the Italian.


For Fangio, on the contrary, this season was one of the most successful in his career, and having won six victories, the Argentine easily won his second championship title, equaling Ascari.


We can say that in the next season of 1955, the confrontation between the two world champions began as if from a clean slate. At that time, each of them had two championship titles, 13 Grand Prix victories, and behind each of them was a team capable of ensuring them another title. However, as subsequent events showed, fate clearly favored the Argentine. The first stage of the season in Argentina was held in the conditions of hellish heat and it was Fangio, who managed to hold a three-hour race alone in a red-hot cockpit and win a truly great victory. Ascari, on the contrary, made a mistake on the 22nd lap and crashed his Lancia, although he was the undisputed leader at that time.


The second Grand Prix of the season took place on a street track in Monaco, and it has forever entered the history of Formula 1 thanks to the amazing incident that happened to Ascari. The main contenders for victory in the principality were two Mercedes drivers Fangio and Moss, however, due to technical problems, the Argentine first dropped out of the race, and then his teammate. Meanwhile, Ascari, albeit inferior to the "Silver Arrows", confidently took third place, and after the retirements of two Mercedeses, the Italian led the race, however, as it turned out, not for long. Shortly before Moss retired, Ascari's Lancia began having brake problems, and in the Chicane, their blocking caused the car to turn sharply to the left, flew over the barrier and fell right into the sea!


Fortunately, Alberto turned out to be an excellent swimmer and immediately surfaced, where he was picked up by rescuers a minute later. After the initial examination, it turned out that the Italian got off with only a broken nose, so the next day Alberto was discharged from the hospital. However, as it turned out, this Grand Prix was still the last in the life of the great champion.


On May 26, 1955, Ascari arrived at the Monza circuit for the Ferrari 750 sports car testing, which he and Castellotti were to drive in the Supercortemaggiore race three days later. On that day, Alberto did not plan to take part in the tests at all, so his arrival was a pleasant surprise. Even more unexpected was his request to drive a couple of laps in this car, because everyone knew that the Italian never got behind the wheel without his equipment, especially without his blue helmet. Like any person engaged in a risky profession, Alberto was quite superstitious and very sensitive to his personal belongings, and his helmet occupied a special place in them. Last year, there was even a case in Monza when this helmet was stolen, after which Alberto immediately advertised in the evening newspaper, announcing the end of his career, and the next day the helmet was returned to its rightful owner. Therefore, when Alberto put on Castellotti's helmet and began to pull on his gloves, many simply could not believe their eyes.

What was in Alberto's mind at that time? Most likely, that almost a year and a half has passed since his last victory, and that all the failures that have plagued him since then could be his punishment for stealing this victory. And also that his last accident in Monaco, which happened to him at the same age as his father's fatal accident, could easily have ended his life path too, but instead gave him a second chance. It can be said that having emerged from the bay in Monaco, he went through a kind of catharsis, so now, sitting behind the wheel of a racing car, Alberto felt unprecedented confidence and smiled, remembering his first lap on this track, on his father's knees. As soon as the engine roared, the Italian rushed to the track, and behind this roar he did not hear the booming steps of doom, already catching up with him. Alberto drove the first lap at a walking pace, picked up a little on the second, and from the third... he never returned.

The tragedy occurred in the Vialone turn. At the exit of this rapid corner, Ascari, instead of accelerating, braked sharply (probably confusing the pedals that were located on this car in reverse), and the Ferrari, turning sharply to the left, soared into the air under the influence of centrifugal force, rolled over several times, and eventually froze on the side of the track with its wheels up. Alberto himself was thrown out of the car during somersaults, suffering fatal injuries, and died just a few seconds after he was loaded into an ambulance, just like his father.


Upon learning of the death of their favorite, all of Italy plunged into mourning. In the absence of Ascari, Fangio easily won the championship title, and subsequently two more. Later, the Argentine will say: “That day I lost my main rival. Ascari was not just a top notch driver, he was great." And it was true. On that day, motorsport lost one of its greatest racers, and Italy lost its brightest star, the equal of which has never appeared in its sky again.

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