Car Mysteries

Ascari and that cold hand

Photo credit: Ferrari, F1

“I’m not going to go beyond this age,” he confided with his friend and rival Gigi Villoresi, as he turned 37. A disturbing expression uttered by a driver who had already taken so many risks in his life. A driver who had claimed the first two World Titles for Ferrari and who had also won the Mille Miglia when, after leaving Maranello, he had switched to the colours of Lancia. A driver who was just as famous for his obsessive superstition that led him to a stubborn attachment to the tools of his trade: his shoes, gloves and above all that light blue helmet he never raced without.

So why this unsettling prophecy? Why summon death, a frequent visitor to the race fields in those years? For a serious and very profound reason: his father, himself a champion behind the steering wheel and race driver for Alfa Romeo, had also died when he was 37 years old while competing in the 1925 French Grand Prix at the Autodrome de Montlhéry south of Paris.

1955 had promised to be a great year for Alberto, and after winning two Grand Prix in his Lancia, he seemed to have found consistency in Formula 1 as well. The beautiful project of Vittorio Jano had struggled to get through the testing phase in 1954, but by 1955 the car was perfect. So perfect in fact that when the Italian Constructor fell into a deep financial crisis that caused it to withdraw from racing, the cars were donated to Ferrari and, with few modifications and the Rampante Cavallino on the flanks, they won the 1956 Formula 1 World Title with Manuel Fangio behind the wheel.

Alberto Ascari, in his last race in Monaco in 1955, behind the wheel of the Lancia D50 Formula 1 together with his recognisable blue helmet. Moments from this shot, at the chicane, he flew unharmed into the sea after hitting an oil patch on the track

But we’re still in 1955. Fangio was racing with Mercedes, Ascari with Lancia. At the Monaco GP the two recorded the same time in practice, the best. They started from the front row with Ascari second as Fangio was the first driver to record his time. Then the Argentinian stopped for a mechanical problem and his teammate, Stirling Moss, who had given Ascari something to worry about in the early stages of the race, suffered an engine failure that put him out of the race. A failure that left oil on the track right at the entrance to the chicane on the harbour. Ascari who was behind him couldn’t avoid the slippery patch. The car swerved and hit the guard rail… Guard rail? They hadn’t been invented yet! In fact back then, the single-seaters drove right on the quay itself, at the water’s edge, with the added risk of bumping into one of the iron mooring bollards used to secure the boats in the dock. Ascari narrowly missed a small bollard went straight into the sea. Without seatbelts – even those had not yet been invented – the crash turned into an unexpected swim. “Were you hot, Alberto?” said the stylist Mila Schon, his friend, who had rushed to the hospital to check on his condition. Alberto laughed at his heroic dip as he had not quite imagined an accident quite like that even though he was carrying that 37 years prophecy with him.

A small rest and on Wednesday 25th May 1955, he was back in Milan, where he lived. His wife Miuccia was calm, as there were no races, Lancia had no plans for the Supercortemaggiore Trophy in Monza that was to be held on the Sunday. Fortunately, she thought to herself, particularly since the year before, Alberto had suffered a bad accident on that track during that very same race.

Ascari’s single-seater being fished out of the water from the port of the Principality of Monaco

On the morning of Thursday 26th, he received a phone call from his colleague and friend Villoresi inviting him to go to Monza to see the practice session of Eugenio Castellotti preparing his Ferrari for the race.

Ascari and Villoiresi had both left Ferrari. Enzo was not an easy man and for Villoresi it was not a smooth exit and he made no secret of it. Ascari was more reserved, and there could have been any number of reasons for his departure, like the Ferrari Formula 1 called the Shark that was anything but competitive. The fact is that the two drivers went to Monza to see Castellotti driving the car from their former team. You should also know that the four-cylinder 3000cc 750 Monza was not an easy car to drive. Certainly more edgy than the Lancia Sport, the beautiful eight-cylinder D24 with which Ascari had won the Mille Miglia.

Ascari was dressed in plain clothes and was without race clothing, no shoes, gloves and in particular, no lucky blue helmet.

Alberto Ascari victorious at Silverstone and World Champion again in 1953 along with his friend Gigi Villoresi who was with him in Monza on the day of the tragedy

Castellotti finished his practice session. The two were very close friends and greeted each other. Then a frosty hand took Ascari’s and accompanied him towards the Ferrari. He was a Lancia driver and the red Ferrari was owned by Enzo Ferrari and his famous team. As he approached the car Alberto heard a voice inviting him to try it. He replied that he couldn’t, that he didn’t have his helmet, that he just had an accident and was still recovering. Go, repeated the voice. He couldn’t resist and asked for Castellotti’s helmet. He was the World Champion; the mechanics all knew him as they had worked with him so many times in the past. Villoresi, not far away, was shocked. But something stopped him. Ascari was already in the car. He started her up and did a slow lap. The racetrack was quiet, it was lunch time and there were no cars on the track. When he headed out for another lap, he pushed it harder, and the deafening noise of the four-cylinder engine could be heard among the trees lining the track.

The Ferrari 750 Monza, four-cylinder 3000cc, identical to the one used during Castellotti’s tests in Monza that Ascari couldn’t resist climbing on board and where he met his death

They couldn’t see the car from the pits but everyone knew exactly where he was: the Curva Grande, the straight just before the first of the Lesmo corners, the engine that went up and then came down again for the second Lesmo corner then back up again up with the gears and revs that went up safely… he was at the Curva del Vialone, one of the track’s challenging high-speed corners that turns to the left. He was absorbed by the pure pleasure of driving, the smell of the hot engine right in front of him… then it felt like a cold hand passed over his own. In an instant the car, his car, the Ferrari, went sideways at full speed and when it left the track it turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. The racetrack plunged into an unmistakable silence. He’s at Vialone! They said, they all ran, Alberto was on the ground, immobile. He was 37.

Ascari’s heavily damaged car after the tragic accident that cost the famous Italian driver his life