Cursed natural talent
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas, Leif Snellman
- 8W Christmas 2000 issue
- Alfa Romeo 158 - The voiturette that became the Grand Prix car to beat, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Eugenio Castellotti - The dashing Milanese that stayed young forever, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Luigi Villoresi - Ascari's mentor, by Leif Snellman/Robert Blinkhorn
Alfa Romeo 158
XXV ACF GP (18 July 1948)
Alfa Romeo and Ascari. The two names form a formidable and familiar pair but it is father Antonio who is responsible for that. Son Alberto raced just once for the famous constructor and the 1948 ACF GP was the occasion. And he probably would never have had Achille Varzi not been killed.
In the early days of World War 2, the young Ascari and his mentor Luigi Villoresi first met. The Villoresi family had just been hit by a tragedy, Luigi's racing brother Emilio getting killed towards the end of 1939 on board one of Enzo Ferrari's Alfa Romeos. Testing an experimental car around Monza, "Mimi" crashed fatally just after the Loggia Curve, and to claim their insurance money, the family begged Ferrari to release details of the car. Enzo refused, and for a long time Villoresi did not have a high esteem for the man. A couple of months after "Gigi" was approached by a young racer wanting to buy an Alfa Romeo. "I persuaded him that it would be better for him to buy a Maserati, a 1.5-litre 6-cylinder supercharged single-seater model, which I would let him have for 12,000 lire. He told me he could just about afford this figure because another racing driver, Piero Taruffi, had agreed to come in with him on the deal. What he did not know was that I had bought this Maserati only hours before at Pavia, and that the front of the engine was still hot from welding! But it was too late. He had bought the car. Thus my first impression of this young man, and his of me, were not exactly favourable. His name was Alberto Ascari."
None the same they became business partners during the war when Alberto soon realized that exporting oil and transport vehicles to the North African war zone would be a lucrative deal. Joining a partnership with his uncle and Gigi Villoresi, Ascari soon struck up a rapport with the Villoresi household. In the late thirties "Casa Villoresi" on Milan's Corso Vercelli had been a lively place which was open to all friends and hosting dances and dinner parties. Among the happy circle were two attractive blondes, the Tavola sisters. Maria Antonietta ("Mietta") Tavola had been a very close friend of "Mimi" Villoresi, and much affected when he was killed. During one of the Villoresi parties Mietta was introduced to Gigi's new business partner - Alberto Ascari. Alberto was surprised, almost offended that this Milanese blonde bombshell had never heard of Antonio Ascari, his racing driver father he worshipped as his greatest hero. Soon she would appreciate his position. Mietta later recalled: "He came one evening and said 'Let's dance!' and I saw that he suddenly knew how to dance. After a while, I asked him, and he confided in me that he had secretly gone to a dance school so as to be able to go out dancing with me, to please me! Before long, we had fallen in love."
During the war, the Ascari-Villoresi transport agency suffered its fair share of setbacks, while both Alberto and Gigi shared a magic catchphrase, "When this war's over, back to motor-racing!" One of the company's disasters was a shipment of lorries to Tripoli that Gigi had to conduct himself as the lovesick Alberto was craving for Mietta's company and returned to Milan. Just before the ship reached Tripoli harbour, it capsized. Fortunately everyone in the water, including Villoresi, was equipped with ship's whistles, leading to a whistle orchestra that was, well, instrumental to their rescue…
Late 1941 Mietta became pregnant and so the couple married on 22 January 1942, Gigi performing as one of their witnesses. Their baby boy Tonino ("Little Antonio"), who was to have a short racing career of his own in the sixties, was born on 2 August 1942. Their war years were spent running the export business - which made him exempt from Italian army service - although Alberto had to hide for German recruiters on several occasions.
At the time of the 1948 French GP Ascari and his friend and teacher were happy campers at Maserati, racing the new 4CLT/48 against the might of Alfa Corse for the first time at Bremgarten for the Swiss GP, won by Count Trossi. It would turn out to be a sad event as not just Varzi but Christian Kautz and motorcycle racer Omobono Tenni would be killed as well. A few days after the race the body of the man that had made such a phenomenal comeback after the sorry state he got into by the late thirties, was carried through the streets of Milan in a funeral cortege that reminded some of that of the great Antonio Ascari, some 20 years before. Varzi was buried at his hometown of Galliate, 40km north of Milan.
The next big event was the Grand Prix de l'ACF at Reims. With Varzi still being mourned and Swiss GP winner Trossi out as well, having given up his fight against his incurable illness and retiring, Alfa Corse was suddenly short of top drivers. With plans to enter three cars for the French race they were looking for a fast driver to partner Wimille and Sanesi. Surprisingly, at the last minute they approached Alberto Ascari, who was already entered for the race by Scuderia Ambrosiana, Maserati's semi-works squad. His intended 4CLT/48, now dubbed 'San Remo' after Ascari's win there, had been brought to Reims by the team and would be left unraced for the weekend. Alberto's tutor protested against Ascari signing for Alfa - remember his brother had died in one of them - but it didn't help. Not even the assignment of starting number 26 - the date-day on which his father was killed - could prevent Ascari tempting fate. Alberto would be in a 158 at Reims.
During qualifying the Alfettas dominated as usual, swamping the front row, Ascari just 1.6s slower than Wimille in a car he drove for the first time. Row two featured the 4.5-litre Talbots of Étancelin and Chiron, the French old hands outrunning the Maseratis. Instead, Villoresi started near the back of the grid, only to make a scorcher of a start and race like a man possessed to pass Sanesi for third, with only Wimille and Ascari disappearing in the distance. On a fast track like Reims nothing else was expected. Having overcooked his Maserati, Villoresi had to stop early for new plugs while handing over to Nuvolari. On lap 26 Wimille pitted for fuel and two new inside tyres giving Ascari a temporary lead before the Italian had to stop himself. But then Wimille stopped again on lap 37, struck with engine trouble. As he went out again it became that this was meant to be Wimille's turn as Ascari was slowed so that J-P could assume his position at the head of the field but four laps later he was in yet again, now with a punctured radiator.
Once more Alberto was slowed for Wimille to pass him, only for the Frenchman to pit for a fourth time to top up his water. This time, Ascari slowed even more to have Sanesi catch him, which the test driver duly did on lap 55. All this pitting and slowing down was down with none of the Alfas leaving the top three at any moment, such was their dominance in this 311-mile event. In the end, Wimille cruised to a win given to him by the best car and by his team that decided that this was to be his day. Sanesi finished second with Ascari a car's length behind. It was a repeat of Alfa Romeo's famous 1-2-3 at Reims back in 1932, the great Tazio leading the way.
For Alberto it must have been a pretty boring day, playing third fiddle to Wimille and Sanesi, as he could have won easily if he hadn't obeyed orders. In a way it was fair that the team regulars would receive the spoils but the Alfa management could have done with a bit more sense of history. After all, Alberto's father had been killed in a French GP 23 years earlier, racing an Alfa Romeo. Uncannily, there were several more striking numerical parallels between Ascari father and son. The great Antonio Ascari was named after San Antonio of Padua, who died on 13 June 1232. 686 years later, Alberto was born on exactly the same day, and regularly lit a candle to the Paduan Saint. All three - Saint Anthony, Antonio Ascari and Alberto Ascari - were 36 years old when they died. Antonio Ascari lived for 13,463 days while Alberto Ascari overplayed his fate and lived for 13,466 days - three days longer than his father. Both men were killed on the 26th (which is two times 13…), both in a left corner, both doing the thing they were born to do. Although Alberto must have laid a ghost to rest by taking part in a French GP for Alfa, he never brought himself to entering a race at Montlhéry…
Nevertheless, Alberto managed to finish the uneventful race unharmed and showed a restraint his father would probably never have. With such an eerie heritage, the son of the great Ascari, Alfa man to the bone, would have deserved to win his one and only race for the Turin marque.
As for Ascari and Villoresi and their stance towards Enzo Ferrari - it started to clear once "Ciccio" Ascari found out that Ferrari designer Aurelio Lampredi and his wife Mietta were born on exactly the same day! Villoresi on his part completely overcame his gripe against Ferrari after having taken up the invitation to race Ferraris in Brussels and Luxembourg. The telegram read thus: "Vllloresi. At Brussels, there is a Formula One car at your disposal. You will find my Agent, Amorotti, at the Hotel X. There is a sportscar race at Luxembourg the week following. We have also sent a car there. If you would like to race it, I shall be pleased. Ferrari." Gigi accepted the invitation, did both races but still felt his grudge.
"What in Heaven's name was I going to do? In fact I went to Brussels, won at Brussels, went to Luxembourg, won at Luxembourg - returned to Italy. Alberto, with Corrado Filippini, a famous journalist, our most dear friend, with very good relations with Ferrari, suggested I go up there. But I didn't want to go, for I still had little respect for the man. Then one day, I took my car up to Modena, on my own, without Alberto. Ferrari was in bed, indisposed. I went to his bedroom. One, two, three minutes went by. He said nothing. So I said, 'Commendatore, the time has come to speak frankly. I know that between us there is very little rapport. If you intend to discuss doing something, I shall remain. If not, I shall leave.' This speech convinced him. From that moment, in fact, began our collaboration. In the years that followed, I must say that my relationship with Ferrari was of the best; I found him a courteous and a kind person, a great friend."
From that moment on, Villoresi and Ascari teamed up with Ferrari and Lampredi and raced their cars for the next five years, with striking results. Only on that fateful Spring day of 1955 did Alberto's superstition catch up with him. The man who as a boy wanted to become a motorcycle racer - and indeed became one - momentarily forgot about his light blue crash helmet, that had been his racing talisman since 1951, when he and Villoresi swapped their cloth helmets for the hardened ones during the aftermath of Villoresi's accident at Geneva. Blue was Alberto's favourite colour - he had everything in blue including his azure blue motorcyclist's pudding basin helmet and his short-sleeved, open-necked, light blue woollen racing vest that he wore on top a pair of canvas trousers with front pockets.
Once, at Monza, his helmet was stolen. Immediately Alberto had the major newspapers print the story that he, the great champion, would retire on the spot if his helmet would not be returned within one week. It was returned the next day. Alberto was extremely religious about his helmet, as Gigi Villoresi remembers: "We had two boxes, where we kept our helmets, goggles, gloves, etc. They were both painted azure blue. NOBODY - not even Mietta - was allowed to touch Alberto's box, except himself. One day he was out lapping in the Ferrari, and I had need of a little piece of white cotton wool to put in my ears, because in those days we did not have noise-padded helmets, and I had forgotten to bring my own. So I opened his box. On top were a pair of gloves, which I moved ever so carefully. Then I took a little piece of cotton wool. Then I put everything back exactly as I had found it. He stopped at the pits, opened his box and said, 'Hey! Who's been mucking about with my things!'"
On 26 May 1955 the helmet was at the repair shop, having new chin strap fitted after the Monte Carlo debacle that saw Ascari's Lancia take a dip in the Monaco harbour. Present at a Monza test for Castellotti's new Ferrari sportscar, that he was to co-race with Eugenio in the Supercortemaggiore 1000kms race, having been given special dispensation by Lancia, he borrowed Castellotti's white helmet for a short spin around the circuit - just to see if his back wasn't bothering him too much after the Monaco incident. The helmet was too small for him. Then he put on Eugenio's gloves and goggles. And he didn't take off his tie that was knotted around a blue silk shirt. Gigi, who was watching from afar, himself consigned to racing a Maserati in the same event - the first time since a long time that he and "Ciccio" were to be rivals instead of teammates - was amazed by his friend's apparent forgetfulness of his strict set of superstitious rules that once saw him make a huge detour home after he saw a black cat crossing the road. It were black cats after all that had been the "cause" of two of his biggest road-racing mishaps in the 1948 Tour of Sicily and Mille Miglia.
Just minutes before Ascari had told Count Lurani who was also present that, "You, Gianni, also know that after a crash it is better to put yourself back behind the steering wheel as soon as possible." He would just do three or four slow laps, he explained to Castellotti. He never made it into the fourth lap. At Vialone the engine roar stopped and was followed by the ominous sound of metal sheet being torn up. The people in the pitlane had to brace themselves for an ugly sight at the moment they would reach the Ferrari wreck. The car was completely mangled but Alberto's lifeless body was in worse condition, too unpleasant to describe. When later a chicane was put in to slow down Vialone, it was appropriately renamed Curva Ascari.
Reader's Why by Alessandro Silva
On Wednesday, June 30th Achille Varzi was killed in Bern in the only second accident of his 25 years long career. It was a slow-speed stupid roll and the Alfetta looked almost undamaged afterwards. On Friday the great rider Omobono Tenni crashed his Guzzi 500 killing himself on the same track. It was a terrible blow for that very much motorsport-oriented country, Italy. National and marque pride and Varzi's family intervention led to the decision that Alfa Romeo would start the Swiss GP anyway, and of course it won it with C.F. Trossi (Christian Kautz was also killed during it for one of the most distressing weekends in motor racing history). The GP de l'ACF was to be contested two weeks later, on July 18th. C.F. Trossi, already very sick of the illness that was going to kill him in less than one year, was not fit to race and this left Alfa Romeo only with Wimille and Sanesi as drivers. After St. Cloud 1946, Alfa Romeo did not want to race with less than three cars, so young Alberto Ascari was asked for what was going to be his only Alfa Romeo drive. Alberto, who just scored his first important win at Ospedaletti on June 27th, was released for this race by Scuderia Ambrosiana. Alberto qualified second, faster than Sanesi and ten seconds faster than the new Talbot Lago 26C. Ascari could have won the race if he had not obeyed the very strict team orders that were the norm at Alfa Romeo in that period. He followed Wimille and when a flying stone punctured Wimille's radiator obliging him to stop five times, each time he slowed down to be repassed. Towards the end of the race Ascari almost stopped to be caught by Sanesi and he finished third by a length. Alberto was not called back by Alfa Romeo for the other two races entered by them in 1948: Trossi started both the Italian and Monza GPs, while in this last one a fourth car was entered for Taruffi. Alfa Romeo stayed idle for 1949 when Ascari joined Ferrari and their paths crossed each other again only as bitter adversaries.