Antonio Ascari – The First Racing Ascari

I have read many times that the double winner of the World Drivers Championship in the early 1950s, Alberto Ascari, was the son of a great race car driver of the 1920s.  As a result, I decided to look into Alberto Ascari’s father’s career and the cars that his father drove.

Antonio Ascari Was An Alfa Romeo Team Driver in the 1920s

Antonio Ascari was born on September 15, 1888 near Mantua, in the Lombardy region of Italy, as the son of a corn dealer.

After World War I, Ascari had an Alfa Romeo car dealership and he began racing cars at the top levels in Italy in 1919.  In those days after World War I, Europe was still in a mess and the car industry had largely been diverted into war related manufacturing, so pre-war racing cars were still among the fastest available cars.

The first post-war racing event in Italy was the Parma Poggio di Berceto hill climb in October 1919.  This event was a 32.8-mile race over challenging mountain roads.  For some reason, Fiat withdrew its entry shortly beforehand the event and Ascari bought one of the cars that Fiat had intended to run.  As a result, Ascari drove a 4.5-litre S57/14B Fiat originally built for the 1914 French Grand Prix.  Ascari put in a spectacular performance by breaking the old record by nearly four minutes and he was over minutes quicker than the runner-up. Shortly after this race Ascari won the 9.9-mile Consuma Cup hill climb by two minutes.

A Fiat S57/14B 1914  Grand Prix Car

The Targa Florio was held in November 1919 for the first time since the end of World War I.  Antonio Ascari entered his Fiat in this race.  The 1919 Targa Florio was run under terrible weather conditions. Unfortunately for Ascari, on the first lap he skidded off a snow-covered mountain road into a deep ravine and as a result, broke his thigh.

Despite his accident, Antonio Ascari had shown enough promise as a driver that he was asked to join the Alfa Romeo racing team for 1920.  It should be noted that none of the three Alfa Romeo team drivers finished the 1919 Targa Florio either.  In addition to Ascari, the 1920 Alfa Romeo team was made up of Ugo Sivocci, Giuseppe Campari, and Enzo Ferrari.

Early in 1920, Antonio Ascari won the racing car division at the Parma to Berceto hill climb in an Alfa Romeo 20-30hp Corsa.  During this period Alfa Romeo did not have special race cars, but they modified production cars for racing.

For 1921, Alfa Romeo modified the 20-30hp series car into the ES model. In May 1921, Alfa Romeo entered two of the ES cars in the Parma to Berceto hill climb – one for Ascari and one for Sivocci.  The ES had the standard engine bored out to 4,250cc, a shorter lighter, chassis, wire wheels, and a self-starter.  This engine was a little behind the curve as it had a side-valve arrangement and only developed about 67 horsepower.  Despite this Ascari and Sivocci finished one-two in this hill climb.

Ugo Sivocci in an Alfa Romeo 20/30 ES

In 1921, the Targa Florio was held at the end of May.  Alfa Romeo entered four cars in this race.  Campari drove an older, larger 40-60hp car while Ascari, Sivocci, and Ferrari were entered in the new 20-30 ES cars.  In the end, the 1921 Targa Florio was won by Max Sailer in 7-litre Mercedes, but Campari finished third, Sivocci finished fourth, and Ferrari came in fifth.  Unfortunately for Ascari did not finish due to mechanical troubles.

In the 1922 Targa Florio, Antonio Ascari finished fourth, the best finish for the Alfa Romeo team that year, in the 20/30 ES.  The rest of the Alfa Romeo team had only mediocre results with Sivocci finishing ninth, Campari was 11th, and Enzo Ferrari was 16th.

In 1923 Ascari was leading the Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo RLTF with a lap to go when a tire blew causing him to  spin.  Ascari got the wheel changed, but his engine would not restart immediately.  As it turned out his Alfa Romeo team-mate, Ugo Sivocci, was able to pass him for the victory.

Ugo Sivocci Winning the 1923 Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo RLTF

Ascari was very disappointed to finish second, although he still won his class.  It was on the Alfa Romeo RLTF that Alfa Romeo first had a decal of the green four-leaved clover symbol for good luck.  Certainly at Targa Florio, which was a major event for Alfa Romeo, Antonio Ascari did not have a great deal of luck.  The following month at the Cremona Circuit Ascari drove to his first major Grand Prix victory.

Ascari Finished Second at the 1923 Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo RLTF

Giulio Masetti, Ugo Sivocci, and Antonio Ascari Celebrating at the 1923 Targa Florio Although Ascari was Probably trying to Drown His Sorrows 

During 1923, while the Alfa Romeo team drivers were competing in the RLTF cars, the Alfa Romeo designers led by Cavaliere Giuseppe Merosi were working on a two litre car in which to compete in the 2 litre Grand Prix races in 1924.  The two -litre car originally called the GPR (for Grand Prix Romeo) is more commonly known as the P1.

Antonio Ascari Finished 3rd at Mugello in 1923 in an Alfa Romeo RLTF

The P1 cars were ready to go in late 1923, so they entered three P1 cars in the Italian Grand Prix to be held at the Monza race track in September.  This turned out to be a terrible event for the Alfa Romeo race team.  During practice for the race, Ugo Sivocci lost control of his car and had a fatal accident.  The loss of the popular Sivocci was quite a blow to the Alfa Romeo team and the other two P1 cars were withdrawn from the race.  As it turns out, the other two Alfa Romeo P1 cars never were to race anywhere.

Ugo Sivocci in an Alfa Romeo P1 at Monza in 1923 Before His Fatal Crash

At the Targa Florio in 1924 Antonio Ascari again had the lead on the final lap in an Alfa Romeo RLTF when, only less than 100 yards from the finish, his Alfa spun and stalled, with a seized engine although some said that the brakes might have seized during hard braking on the last curve.   In any event, the engine could not be started and eventually the crowd pushed and carried Ascari’s car over the finish line, but by this time two others cars had passed Ascari.  However such assistance from the crowd was ruled as being contrary to the rules.

An Alfa Romeo RLTF

During 1924, Alfa Romeo, in a major coup, was able to lure Vittorio Jano away from Fiat.  Vittorio Jano is considered to be one of the best automotive designers of the 20th century.  Jano immediately began to work on a new race car for Alfa Romeo and what a car it was – the P2.

In 1924, Ascari was again the winner at Cremona in the first race for the P2 race car.  Ascari then went on to Monza where he won the Italian Grand Prix also in an Alfa Romeo P2.

In 1925 Antonio Ascari dominated the competition at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps winning the inaugural Belgian Grand Prix in the Alfa Romeo P2.

Antonio Ascari After Winning the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in an Alfa Romeo P2

The next race for Ascari and the P2 was the French Grand Prix.  This race resulted in another tragic result for the Alfa Romeo team.

 The Alfa Romeo P2 Cars Before the French Grand Prix.  Ascari’s Car is No. 8 

Unfortunately, the 36-year-old Antonio Ascari was killed while leading the 1925 French Grand Prix in an Alfa Romeo P2 at the Autodrome de Montlhéry south of Paris.  As a result, the Alfa Romeo team withdrew the other two cars driven by Campari and Count Gastone Brilli-Peri.  To clearly show that the cars were being withdrawn due to respect for Ascari’s death, the two withdrawn cars were revved up in the pits to demonstrate that their engines were still strong.  One of the great drivers of that era had died that day.

The Alfa Romeo P2

When he died Antonio Asacari had a seven year old son, Alberto, who went on to become a two-time winner of the Formula One world drivers championship in 1952 and 1953 while driving for one of his father’s Alfa Romeo team-mates, Enzo Ferrari.

The Straight 6-Cylinder P2 Engine

The Alfa Romeo P2 was a successful car, but it begat the Alfa Romeo P3 which was one of the best looking and successful Grand Prix racing cars of all time.

Some of the interesting books that I used to put this posting together are as follows:

  • “Viva! Alfa Romeo” by David Owen
  • “Alfa Romeo” by Peter Hull
  • “Great Marques: Alfa Romeo” by David Owen
  • “Historic Motor Racing” by Anthony Pritchard
  • “Road Race” by Chris Jones
  • “Historic Racing Cars to 1939 in Color” by Anthony Harding
  • “Alfa Romeo, Always With Passion” by David Owen
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3 Responses to Antonio Ascari – The First Racing Ascari

  1. Walter Herter says:

    Does anybody know why – during the entire 1925 season – the Alfa Romeo P2 racing cars carried a 3-leaf cloverleaf? In 1924 and again in 1926 and ever after the cloverleaf had 4 leaves (quadrifoglio).

  2. lesmo says:

    My understanding is that the 1921 Targa Florio was won by Count Giulio Masetti driving a FIAT S57A/14B fitted with a 4.5 litre engine. Max Sailer came second in the Mercedes 28/95. (cf Targa Florio by David Owen 1979 pp49-50)

    • Hi Duncan,
      You are correct. I can’t recall the reference that I had when I put that post together, but it was incorrect. Just now I looked up the results of the 1921 Targa Florio as listed in “Motor Racing Facts & Figures” by Rod Walkerley, 1961 and indeed he lists the winner as Masetti in a Fiat. Sailer was second in a Mercedes with Campari third in an Alfa Romeo. Thank you for pointing this out!
      Steve McKelvie

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