The Death of Alberto Ascari: Formula 1 Champion

Here at GP Evolved, I try to make each post line up with the next Grand Prix due to be covered as I crawl through the annals of F1 history.  However, once in a while, something external to a race occurs, which impacts the Formula 1 Championship so significantly that it justifies its own post.  There are two such events during the 1955 F1 Championship season.  The first is the tragedy at the 1955 24 hours of Le Mans, the sports car race–to be covered later in the season.  The second, and our instant topic, is the unfortunate death of Alberto Ascari, a former Formula 1 champion.

The Events Surrounding Alberto Ascari’s Death.

The previous post, “A Dude Goes into the Harbor,” is the starting point for the story.  This time, I will recount the accident in my own words.

A Chain of Events Begins Four Days Before Alberto Ascari’s Death.

Even in modernity, Monaco is consistently described by drivers as a track requiring intense, and absolute, concentration (for much longer than humans are used to concentrating).  In those days, you were throwing a car with vague steering around the haybales demarcating the line between the track and the Mediterranean harbor.  There was no arm-co barrior (I’ve never known how to spell that term).  Concentration alone kept you on  the track.

Long since knighted, Britain Stirling Moss had been in the lead.  But, his car had a particularly complicated valve-train setup (for non-gear-heads, the valve-train governs the opening and closing of the ports permitting the proper mixture of fuel and air into the cylinder–the heart of the propulsion of the internal combustion cars).  Moss’ complicated valve-train had a flaw in this race.  On the 81st lap, Moss’ engine blew up and he limped into the nearby pits.  Although not confirmed, it is likely that he left a trail of oil behind his blown engine.  This is not my supposition, but something that his been suggested time and time again, over the years.

The crowd was aware that Moss, the former race leader was out.  At the top of the track, Ascari’s concentration was broken by a crowd waiving, signaling, and generally gesticulating toward him wildly.  Keep in mind–younger readers, in these days, radio-communication to the drivers was a long, long way off.  Alberto had  no idea what the crowd was communicating.  He pressed on.

Within seconds, he entered into the tunnel of Monaco.  The tunnel is fast and dog-legs to the right before you head straight downhill to a chicane around the harbor.  One of the timeless aspects of the tunnel, is that the drivers eyes are in the darker tunnel long enough to enlarge the pupil.  When you pop out, the light hits you and for a split-second, it is difficult to see.  Readers who live in mountainous regions may be familiar with this phenomenon.

Ascari popped out of the tunnel.  Rarely are accidents in racing or daily driving the result of a single factor.  Usually, two or more unexpected events occur before an accident results.  This is the case here.  As Ascari’s eyes adjusted to the light, following his exit from the tunnel, the crowd, again, caught his attention.  The fans on the other side of the track were waving and signaling to him.  They were trying to communicate that Moss was out of the race.  They wanted Ascari to know that he had the race essentially won and that he could slow to a conservative pace.  But, Ascari simply looked away from the track, at the crowd, trying to understand what they were excited about.

By looking up, he missed the trail of oil left behind by Moss’ exploded engine.  He slid and could not make the chicane.  All he could do was point his car away from the imposing iron structure on the side of the track.  He missed it by about 12 inches, and instead hit the hay bales demarcating the end of the track, and the beginning of the drop into the harbor.

Ascari flew off the track into 25 feet of water.  Apparently, Monaco authorities has prepared for this eventuality and “frog-men” were nearby to help get Ascari to safety.  It is unclear whether he was able to surface on his own, or whether he was immediately extracted from the car.  In any event, for the magnitude of the crash, he survived essentially unscathed.

The Aftermath of Alberto Ascari’s Monaco Harbor Plunge.

In terms of physical injuries, Alberto Ascari broke his nose and that was about it.  The shunt, as it probably would for anyone, threw him into full shock.  For that reason, he was kept overnight in the hospital.  Let’s remember that hospital care, in those days, lacked advanced tools to analyze the human brain such as magnetic resonance imagining (“MRI”) or computed tomography (“CT”) scans.  Apparently, basic neurological signs such as pupil size and reaction must have been normal, because he was released the next day.  I bring this up, because we will never know whether Ascari had suffered and covered some sort of neurological injury, or other abnormality.  In the absence of any signs, symptoms, or laboratory findings, he was released.

Vittorio Jano, on the far right, with drivers ...

(Vittorio Jano, on the
far right), with drivers Luigi Villoresi, Alberto Ascari and Eugenio
Castellotti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Four days later, Ascari had made his way to Monza, in Italy.  He was practicing for the Supercortemaggiore race.  Now, like many drivers to this day, Ascari was reported to be notoriously superstitious.  He never raced without one particular blue crash helmet.  To me, a fan of modern F1, this is a bit quaint.  For example, modern racers such as a Sebastian Vettel are known to show up at the track with a new $15,000.00 custom-painted state of the art helmet every handful of races (to their credit, modern are auctioned with the proceeds going to charity).  However, his chin-strap was cut off to remove his helmet following his accident.  It was at the repair shop getting the chin strap on the day of the accident.  He borrowed his friend Castellotti’s helmet, the chap whose Ferrari he was testing on the fateful day at  Monza.

In terms of the accident, nobody knows exactly what happened.  He was not in a race suit, but trousers, shirt, and tie.  Theories have abounded over the years.  Some have even suggested that his tie obscured his vision.  In any event, he careened around what was reputed to be an easy left hand turn.  At the exit, he lost traction, and his car flipped at least twice.  He was thrown onto the unforgiven tarmac of the track.  He suffered massive injuries.  Minutes later, Alberto Ascari, a great Formula 1 champion, left this earth.  To this day, nobody knows exactly why he crashed on that fateful day.