Antonio Ascari was born on the 15th of September 1988 in Bonferraro, Italy, the son of a corn dealer and one of three brothers and a sister. Link many young men his age he loved machinery and driving and after a spell at maintaining agricultural machines he took a job in Milan as mechanic with Officine Meccaniche De Vecchi builders of sound but not very exciting four-cylinder cars in the via Peschiera. In 1909, Antonio and his brother Amedeo emigrated to Para, in Brazil, to work on cars, but his brother died from yellow fever and Antonio returned to Italy and to de Vecchi, where he became a service manager.
The firm’s chief tester, Ugo Sivocci, arranged for Ascari to drive one of their touring cars in the 1911 six-day Criterium of Regularity at Modena and he did well before having to retire. No further chance came to drive before World War I when he was busily engaged on aircraft repair work with a firm called Falco, but with the return of peace Ascari set up an Alfa agency in Milan.
An unexpected chance to go motor racing came in the very first post-war Italian event, the Parma Poggio di Berceto hill-climb in October 1919. This was a hectic 32.8-mile point-to-point dash over tortuous mountain roads-and when the Fiat company with-drew its entry shortly beforehand, Ascari jumped at the chance and bought one of the cars the Turin company intended to run a Fiat 1914 Grand Prix car that was modified for the event, which he won Four weeks later he took the Fiat to Targa Florio and was up amongst the leaders before a crash put him in the hospital with a broken hip. Ascari spent seven weeks in Palermo hospital, then returned home to recuperate, devoting most of his time to running his thriving business. His brief stint had however impressed the team principles over at the Alfa team and they offered a drive once he had he returned to health.
The first few years at his new team did not produce the results that he or the team expected but the speed was definitely there.
Finally in 1923 Ascari won the the Circuit of Cremona, where he averaged 83.37 mph in the win in an Alfa RLTF. At the Targa Florio he was leading and within sight of the finish only to come to grief when his car broke allowing his teammate Sivocci to come through for the win. 1924 would turn out to be the Italian’s best year with the arrival of Vittorio Jano and the Alfa P2. Asked to the test the new car Ascari raved about its speed and driveability begged for the chance to enter the new car in that year’s Circuit of Cremona. Jarno initially alarmed that his car was not ready finally relented. Ascari dominated the race and the P2 was timed at 121.164 mph through a 10 km stretch, setting a world record for the distance, and Ascari averaged 98.3 mph, winning the 199-mile race by almost an hour from the second car.
In those days the top race on the calendar was the French Grand Prix. The Alfa Romeo team entered four teams but with Ferrari ill three started the race. Ascari seemed to have the race well in hand, only for his luck to run out three laps from the checkered flag. Campari went on to win the race that should have been Ascari’s something he would ne soon forget. In the Italian GP at Monza five weeks later, Ascari led from the start and was quite unassailable this time. He won the 497-mile race at 98.6 mph, heading a glorious Alfa Romeo 1-2-3-4 victory by sixteen minutes and setting fastest lap at 104.24 mph.
Ascari put on a similar performance in the 1925 Grand Prix of Europe at Spa, in Belgium. This was the first ever grand prix held at Spa. The race however turned into a dreary affair no more so than for Campari. Ascari and teammate Campari were the sole finishers, twenty-two minutes apart. In those days the race didn’t stop when the leader crossed the line so it was left for poor Campari, now the only car left, to circle the course twice by himself. A proud man and a champion in his own right, Campari must have been seething with indignation those last two lonely laps. Ascari and Campari were fierce rivals and it was not enough to beat Campari, he had to destroy him and this would prove his undoing at 1925 French Grand Prix at Monthlery …
During practice Campari had, most unusually, set a faster time than Ascari. Grid positions being decided by ballot in those days, the team gave their fastest drivers the front positions. This always went to the younger and more talented Ascari, Alfa’s number one. “But one of the directors, Rimini, who normally didn’t attend and knew nothing about racing, insisted that Campari be given the front slot, based on his practice time. Ascari was furious, for there had always been some envy and friction between the two drivers. Antonio had a point to prove and charged ahead from the start, increasing his lead despite my signals to slow down. He just misjudged that long corner. It was not even raining at the time, and he died in my arms.” The 24-year-old Giulio fainted, and took some time to recover, for he idolized Ascari, telling me “He was the first Nuvolari, very soft on his cars , smooth and so fast.”
The quote from Ramponi was relayed to Patrick O’Brien during a personal interview fifty years later and is used with his kind permission. More can be seen here: http://grandprixratings.blogspot.co.uk