Investigating the lack of Italian drivers in recent Formula 1 history, GPRejects.com discusses the impact of an old favourite team on the success of a nation’s drivers.
At the beginning of Formula One’s history, Italy was incredibly well represented within the paddock in terms of teams, drivers and success. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati were just some of the teams hailing from lo Stivale, the Boot, and the driving talent on show was just as remarkable. Italian drivers won plenty of races in the 1950s, and Giuseppe Farina and Alberto Ascari were drivers’ championship winners. Nevertheless, the nation’s participation in F1 slowly began to drop; despite a surge in the 1980s, by the year 2000 only two teams based in Italy were left: Ferrari and Minardi.
By the end of 2005, Australian airline magnate Paul Stoddart agreed to sell the Minardi team to energy drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz and would serve as a feeder team to the Red Bull team. As a result, there is currently the curious statistic that no Italian drivers have made their F1 debut since Minardi became Toro Rosso. Vitantonio Liuzzi, the last Italian to join the sport, would drive for Toro Rosso in 2006 but made his full debut in ’05 alternating with Red Bull’s Christian Klien. The two other Italians on the grid in that time, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, made their debuts in 1996 and 1997 respectively with Minardi. Fisichella hung up his helmet in 2009 after a year split between Force India and Ferrari, Liuzzi lost his HRT drive at the climax of 2011, and Jarno Trulli turned his attention to his vineyards after being dropped by the Caterham team before the 2012 season, to be replaced by Vitaly Petrov. 2012 was the first season to feature no Italian drivers. Was this as a result of the gradual decline in Italian teams? How important were these teams, in particular Minardi, to the fortunes of budding young Italian racers?
Between Minardi’s active years of 1985 and 2005, the following drivers were all handed their first race start by the team: Pierluigi Martini, Alessandro Nannini, Paolo Barilla, Fabrizio Barbazza, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli and Gianmaria Bruni. Martini, Nannini, Fisichella and Trulli all went on to have relatively lengthy careers with varying degrees of success. Minardi were part of the “Italian boom” of the late 1980s, where seemingly endless Italian teams would come and go to try and replicate the success of Ferrari, the most famous team of all. Largely speaking, these little teams would tend to take a nationalistic approach to hiring drivers; presumably, they would recruit engineers from the Italian talent pool and would require drivers who could give feedback in the same language. Osella handed debuts to seven Italian drivers, Coloni blooded Nicola Larini and Enrico Bertaggia and Scuderia Italia was the first team that Gianni Morbidelli and Luca Badoer raced for. All of these teams would hire other experienced Italian drivers as well, creating a relatively self-sufficient cycle of compatriot drivers. Then, as the years went by and costs rose, financial issues started to eat away at these teams. So, the drivers moved on to different forms of employment, mostly in sportscar racing.
Since 2012, the Italian driver closest to making the grade was perhaps Davide Valsecchi. The former GP2 champion joined Lotus as a reserve driver in 2013, and was primed to replace Kimi Raikkonen for the final two races of the year after the Finnish driver underwent surgery to rectify a back problem. Instead, Lotus elected to draft in Heikki Kovalainen to little effect. Valsecchi, with experience of testing the Lotus E21, may have felt that he could manage more than the pair of 14th places that Kovalainen contributed. After losing his Lotus reserve gig to Charles Pic and unable to inch any closer to F1 in the meantime, Valsecchi has carved out a niche as an excitable pundit on Italian TV, occasionally bringing his explosive commentary to GP2’s world feed alongside Alex Jacques.
It’s perhaps fitting that Valsecchi has been able to cast his eye over the next batch of young Italian racers, and in the 2016 edition of GP2, viewers have been treated to the impressive exploits of the lightning quick Antonio Giovinazzi and serial overtaker Luca Ghiotto. Former Ferrari young driver Raffaele Marciello has also improved, presenting greater consistency than he has managed in previous years. Further down the junior series, GP3’s Antonio Fuoco still has his Ferrari backing and is considerably less erratic this season, whilst Leonardo Pulcini is beating some highly-rated opposition in Euroformula Open.
All of those drivers have the ability to play a part in Formula 1. However, without the bridge into the sport for young Italians that existed in the past, it has become increasingly difficult for them to find a platform to show that they can perform in F1. Nannini, Fisichella and Trulli were able to use Minardi as a stepping stone to bigger teams, and all became Grand Prix winners. Could Giovinazzi and Ghiotto, who have never been a part of a Formula 1 team’s young driver squad, benefit from being able to ply their trade at a modern-day Minardi, Osella or Scuderia Italia? Undoubtedly.
With the recent rumblings over the future of the Italian Grand Prix, the Automobile Club d’Italia’s position would certainly be strengthened with a few home interests on the grid aside from Ferrari. For example, Formula 1 has surged in popularity in the Netherlands after the successes of Max Verstappen. Bernie Ecclestone cites F1’s recent partnership with Heineken as a by-product of Verstappen’s popularity, and the rumours (although precarious at best) of a return to Zandvoort point to the effect a successful driver can have on their home fans. Just imagine the effect of a quick Italian driver in a Ferrari.
Having another Italian team on the grid would not be the automatic silver bullet to success for the once great motorsporting force. Historically speaking, however, the smaller Italian teams have blooded a number of home drivers with varying degrees of success. If such a team was able to capture the imagination of a nation which was such a force in the old days of international motorsports, then the young driving talent of lo Stivale will at least have a tangible way into Formula 1. Currently, this is unlikely due to the astronomical budgets required in modern F1, but if a lower-cost formula could appeal to a smaller team like Prema or Trident, then the Italian drivers in the lower categories could have a bright future to look forward to.