On This Week #21: Alberto Ascari | Pirelli

On This Week #21: Alberto Ascari


On this week in 1955, Alberto Ascari – one of the most charismatic and talented drivers of his generation – mad headlines at the Monaco Grand Prix, despite not even winning or finishing the race. Instead, on May 22, he grabbed the world's attention by taking an unexpected early bath: going off the track on lap 81 and plunging his Lancia D50 into the harbour.

Up to that point, it had all been looking good for Ascari: he had just inherited the lead after Stirling Moss suffered an engine failure on his Mercedes. Earlier in the race, the other Mercedes of the great Juan Manuel Fangio had also retired with transmission failure, so the way seemed clear. But Ascari then made a mistake under braking for the chicane – possibly distracted by Moss's sudden retirement – and went through the hay bales, ending up in about 20 metres of water.

The accident looked dramatic, but thankfully the consequences were much less so. The Italian, aged 36 at the time, managed to quickly escape his car (one of the few advantages of not having compulsory seat belts at the time, which only became mandatory in 1972) and swim to a nearby yacht. Just three long seconds after the Lancia plunged below the surface, Farina's familiar blue helmet popped up above the waves, his only real injury being a broken nose. And Monaco breathed a sigh of relief.

After just one night in hospital, he was discharged the following day. Once the race was over (won by Maurice Trintignant in a Ferrari) the sunken Lancia was finally recovered late at night, with a special crane having to be brought to the site; this was before the time that cranes were regularly littered around the Monaco Grand Prix track…

But there was a very dark ending to this episode. Only four days later, the double world champion suffered a fatal accident at Monza while testing a Ferrari 750 sports car. He wasn't even meant to be driving: instead just watching his friend Eugenio Castellotti, but at the last minute he borrowed Castellotti's helmet and decided to have a go, crashing inexplicably on just his third lap at the high-speed Curva del Vialone (now known as  the Ascari curve).

Was Ascari somehow suffering from the after-effects of his dramatic Monaco crash? We'll never know, but the late Tonino Ascari, the son of Ferrari's only Italian champion, said in an interview nearly 40 years later that he believed his father was suddenly confronted with a person crossing the track – having been asked by Castellotti for an opinion on the rear handling of the car – and had to take sudden corrective action.

Lessons were learned from Ascari's watery accident in Monte Carlo that are still in place to this day. Monaco is famous for beautiful people watching from beautiful yachts, but those yachts are only moored to the harbourside when the cars are not on track. Before the start of every session, following a pre-arranged signal,  the yachts all have to move forward several metres away from the harbourside, in a carefully choreographed ballet. That's to leave enough space between the track and the nearest yacht should one of the drivers decide to emulate Ascari's adventures in Monaco.

Uncannily, a similar happened again exactly 10 years later. Australian driver Paul Hawkins crashed his Lotus Climax on lap 79 of the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix, managing to escape his car before it sank to the bottom and earning himself the nickname of the ‘swimming kangaroo'.

Hawkins too would meet his end as a result of a banal sports car accident, in a Lola T70 at England's Oulton Park circuit. He died on May 26, 1969: exactly 14 years to the day since Ascari himself, a deeply superstitious man, was killed at Monza.