Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 11: Alberto Ascari

This year, BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights, and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week, number 11 - Alberto Ascari

Alberto Ascari didn't didn't look much like the modern idea of a Formula 1 driver. His double chin and slightly chubby frame brought to mind a Milanese baker more than the lean, pinched athletes of the modern age.

Yet this was a man who, for a period, dominated grand prix racing like no other has before or since.

Statistics can be misleading - and never more so than when trying to assess a concept as nebulous as the greatest F1 drivers across many very different eras.

But some achievements are so remarkable they cannot be ignored.

Between the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix and the same race the following year, Ascari won every single world championship Formula 1 race.

In 1952, the first of the two consecutive world titles he secured with Ferrari, Ascari won every championship F1 race bar the first. Heading into the final race of the 1953 season, he had won 11 of the previous 13 grands prix.

Ascari factfile

  • Races: 32
  • Wins: 13
  • Championships: 2
  • Pole positions: 14
  • First race: 1950 Monaco Grand Prix
  • First win: 1951 German Grand Prix
  • Last win: 1953 Swiss Grand Prix
  • Last race: 1955 Monaco Grand Prix

From a career cut short by his death in 1955, and which covered only a total of about three seasons in five years, he started 32 races and won 13 of them - a win ratio of more than 40%. That is second only to the great Juan Manuel Fangio.

It was not like there was no opposition, either. Admittedly Ferrari were in a league of their own in 1952, but one of his team-mates was Giuseppe Farina, who had beaten Fangio to the first F1 world championship when they were Alfa Romeo team-mates in 1950.

Fangio missed most of 1952, without a car and injured in a crash at Monza early in the year. But he was back for 1953 in a Maserati, who also fielded Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the Argentine who won Ferrari's first ever grand prix victory at Silverstone in 1951. Ascari's Ferrari team-mates included Britain's first world champion, Mike Hawthorn.

It was Hawthorn, in fact, who underlined exactly how good Ascari was. The Englishman, who narrowly beat Stirling Moss to win the 1958 title, said: "Ascari was the fastest driver I ever saw. And when I say that, I include Fangio."

As his results suggest, Ascari was a ruthless winning machine. He was a phlegmatic character who approached his racing with an analytical style.

With his pale blue shirt and matching helmet, Ascari cut a distinctive figure in the scarlet Ferraris of the early 1950s. He sat upright, hunched slightly forward, closer to the large steering wheel than many of his rivals, his elbows forming sharper angles.

"Ascari had a precise and distinctive driving style," said Enzo Ferrari, "but he was a man who had to lead from the start. In that position he was hard to overtake, almost impossible to beat, in my estimation.

"Alberto was secure when he was playing the hare. That was when his style was at its most superb. In second place, or further back, he was less sure."

Through 1952 and 1953, Ascari rarely found himself anywhere other than first, but one such occasion was at Monza in 1953.

Seeking a win as a fitting end to a season in which he had already become champion, he battled throughout the race with team-mate Farina and the Maseratis of Fangio and Onofre Marimon.

Leading into the Parabolica, the last corner on the last lap, Ascari came across two backmarkers and, under heavy pressure from behind, spun. The win was gone.

He was not to know it at the time, but Ascari was not to score another.

Largely for financial reasons, he announced at the end of the 1953 season that he was leaving Ferrari to join the fledgling Lancia team, to drive their new and revolutionary D50 car.

The project was hit by endless delays, and 1954 was effectively a write-off, although Ascari superbly won the famous Mille Miglia road race in dreadful weather by more than half an hour. Later in the year, a Ferrari was made available to him so he did not miss the Italian Grand Prix, and he fought for the lead with Fangio's Mercedes until his engine failed.

The D50 did not appear until the final race of the season at the Spanish Grand Prix, held on the Pedralbes street circuit in Barcelona.

The car was tiny compared to its rivals, and looked very unusual with its cylindrical fuel tanks running down either side. It was also very difficult to drive and needed a great driver to tame it.

Ascari was up to the challenge - stunning onlookers by beating Fangio, who had dominated the season in his Mercedes, to pole by more than a second. The Lancia proceeded to lead the first nine laps before the clutch failed.

Suddenly it looked as if Fangio and Mercedes would have some serious opposition in 1955, but it was not to be.

Ascari ran strongly in the opening race in Argentina, qualifying second and leading before spinning off on oil, and won non-championship races in Naples and Turin. Then in Monaco he split the Mercedes of Fangio and Stirling Moss on the grid and chased them until their retirement.

Inheriting the lead with 20 laps to go, a victory seemed certain, but failing brakes pitched him off the road and into the harbour at the chicane. Ascari, his nose broken in the impact, needed to swim to safety.

Four days later, he was at home in his apartment in Milan when he got a call from his young protégé Eugenio Castellotti, with whom he was due to share a factory Ferrari in a sportscar race at Monza that weekend.

Castellotti was testing the car and asked Ascari if he wanted to come to watch. There was no intention he should drive, but after lunch he said he fancied a few laps.

To those watching, this was a surprise. Ascari was intensely superstitious and regarded his pale blue helmet as a lucky charm. He had left it at home, and instead wore Castellotti's white one as he headed out of the pits.

On his third lap, he crashed with sickening violence at the high-speed Vialone left-hander. Thrown out of the car and terribly injured, within a few minutes Ascari was dead.

Much has been made of the eerie coincidences between his death and that of his father Antonio, who had also been a leading grand prix driver.

Both were 36 when they were killed, Alberto on 26 May 1955, Antonio on 26 July 1925. Each won 13 grands prix, and drove car number 26. Both were killed in crashes at the exit of fast left-hand corners four days after surviving serious accidents. Both were survived by a wife and two children.

The accident that claimed Alberto Ascari's life remains unexplained. Whatever the cause, there was no doubting the magnitude of his loss.

"I have lost my greatest opponent," Fangio said. "Ascari was a driver of supreme skill and I felt my title last year lost some of its value because he was not there to fight me for it. A great man."

Number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

Number 19 – Graham Hill

Number 20 – Jochen Rindt