Defending overall World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria was fastest in both runs to post an emphatic victory in a night slalom on Tuesday that was marred by the death of a gate keeper.

The win moved Hirscher past American rival Ted Ligety into second place in the overall standings.

Under the lights with thousands of fans lining the course, Hirscher clocked a two-run combined time of 1 minute, 42.50 seconds. Felix Neureuther of Germany finished second, a distant 1.67 seconds behind, and Naoki Yuasa of Japan was third, 2.28 back.

Yuasa put down a blistering second run to move up from 26th after the first leg. It was the first podium finish for the 29-year-old, in his ninth season on the circuit.

"He's a real fighter," Hirscher said of Yuasa, who had trouble walking after his run due to a back problem.

Until Hirscher and Neureuther skied last in the second run, racer after racer failed to match Yuasa on the bottom section of the Canalone Miramonti course, which features gradients of up to 60 per cent. While the course was firm and icy, large ruts that built up after each skier came down made it difficult for racers to maintain their balance.

Risk and reward

But Hirscher attacked all the way and vastly improved on his 0.06 advantage from the opening leg — then slammed into the protective padding in the finish area out of exhaustion.

"I risked a lot and also was very lucky. It was really tough today," Hirscher said. "When you have the right setup, it's really cool here. It was so cool."

Yuasa said he was in agony due to the back problem.

"It was so bad that I can't recall my last six gates," he said. "I still can't believe all that happened today — nobody believed I could ski like this with the pain. It's difficult to say how I was able to ski like I did in the second run ... But this is my job and as long as I can make my way until the bottom of a course I will try to ski and do my best." The race marked the World Cup's return to Madonna Di Campiglio, Italy after a seven-year break. Fans lined most of the course and despite temperatures firmly below freezing there was a festive atmosphere, with the finish area nearly in the centre of town.

Ligety, who has dominated in giant slalom this season but hasn't reached the podium in slalom in five seasons, finished ninth.

"Wow Marcel Hirscher's second run was nasty!" Ligety tweeted, adding that it's a "season of race blow outs" — as all three of his GS wins have also come with massive margins of victory.

On the speed side, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway has been dominating.

Svindal, who does not excel in slalom and did not race, still leads the overall with 614 points. Hirscher is next with 560 and Ligety has 537.

Hirscher also took the lead in the slalom standings, with previous leader Andre Myhrer of Sweden placing fourth.

14th career victory

It was Hirscher's second win this season, having also taken a giant slalom in Val d'Isere, France, last weekend — and he's now been in the podium in all seven technical races this season. It was his 14th career win.

There was a delay of about 15 minutes after the first eight starters in the opening run when a 70-year-old gate keeper, positioned midway down the course, died from cardiac arrest.

Gate keepers observe racers to make sure they go around each gate correctly, and are usually assigned two or three gates in slalom races.

Olympic champion Giuliano Razzoli of Italy was on course for a podium finish when he lost his right ski and fell only a few gates from the finish during the second leg.

The first run was set by Croatian coach Ante Kostelic, who is known for his radical course sets, and 25 racers in the 76-man field failed to finish.

Alexis Pinturault, the Frenchman who won the last slalom on home snow in Val d'Isere last weekend, straddled a gate on the top section. Also in the first run, Michael Janyk of Canada was nearly half a second quicker than Hirscher at the first checkpoint — before skiing out.

Giorgio Rocca, the Italian who won the last race here in 2005, was one of the forerunners who tested the course immediately before the race.

Three-time winner Alberto Tomba was also in attendance.

After a break for Christmas, the men's circuit resumes with a downhill in Bormio, Italy on Dec. 29.