When it comes to Formula 1 and any other sport, not everyone is a Boris Becker or a Max Verstappen. Some are indeed late bloomers and take unusual paths on their way to the top. The following reject, the Italian Giorgio Pantano, was one of the most gifted karting drivers of his, and any generation. Unbeatable at that level, his brief and unconvincing Formula 1 stint was sandwiched by one of the most determined and long-lasting junior careers of the modern era.
Sadly, in spite of a brilliant raw talent and a will like no other to reach F1, Giorgio Pantano was defeated by a combination of timing, ageism, and an inability to seize the precious moment, and he has sadly gone down as one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated talents of the last 30 years of motorsport.
|Date of Birth||February 4th 1979|
|Best Result||13th (Malaysia / Europe 2004)|
Early Years: A Teenage Sensation
“When I arrived in go-karts at the top level, racing in World and European championships, he was winning all of them. I thought that guy was very special, a very good talent.” – Fernando Alonso, elderly fan
“He was probably the best of all time in go karts. At the time when I was growing up and getting into the international karting scene he was dominating everything.” – Nico Rosberg, from the car adverts.
Born in Padua in the north-east of Italy, Giorgio had a magnificent career in karting for a decade before he moved to single-seaters. In fact, he is one of the most decorated karting drivers in motorsport history, with winning trophies all the way back from the early 1990s in junior Italian championships, then junior European, and then the junior World Championships in 1994. By the age of 15 he had taken the golden trophy in almost every series he had participated in, and had joined the ranks of other karting champions of that era such as Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso, and Jan Magnussen.
Moving into the adult leagues in 1995, he again won the European Karting Championship and competed in World Championships and exhibition events. In fact, from 1993 to 1996 he won at least one national or continental karting championship every year – no mean feat. The World Championship Formula A, the name at that time for the highest level of the world karting championship, was on the cards, and for five straight years Pantano was in the running to be world karting champion. He never took the title, but finished 3rd in 1997 and 1999, and some of his races have gone down in local legend – at Mariembourg in Belgium, he took his kart from 34th on the grid to 3rd in the race! It was also in 1999 when, at the age of 20, Giorgio decided to move on from karting and into single-seaters.
1999-2003: The Wait
Giorgio’s family were not supremely wealthy, and his benefactor to make this move happen was a Danish investment banker named Lars Christian Brask. Brask saw the same immense talent that everyone else did, and felt that Pantano was a driver worth investing in for the future. He opened doors that Giorgio would not otherwise have had, such as early tests for International F3000 and a full-time drive in German F3000, whose championship Pantano won in his rookie season in 2000!
Success bred further success, as the Italian was promoted straight up to International F3000 and to the doorstep of Formula 1. He tested for Benetton in 2000, for McLaren in 2001, and for Williams in 2002. He won races from the start in F3000 and lost out on the title by only two points in his second year.
While it was obvious that major Formula 1 teams were interested in him, Pantano himself understands in retrospect that it was too much too quickly, saying that it “was probably a mistake” with his lack of experience to work with such top teams with immense expectations. Jonathan Williams, who had observed Pantano’s test in 2002, was able to damn him with faint praise:
“I think overall [the test] was positive but there’s always the argument that if you were über impressed, you might be moved to make something of it. Clearly he was very talented, but we just didn’t go on to develop a role from the test.”
As with so many rejects, their career ended up resting on a relationship with the infamous Flavio Briatore. Flavio had been the only one of F1’s team managers to properly approach Pantano with a deal, though it had ended up being one that neither Giorgio nor his investor Brask were willing to agree to.
Pantano’s rise to the top was now beginning to seriously stall, and another year in F3000 was pragmatically a stop-gap season until he could get to F1. That chance finally did come in the later stages of 2003, when Jaguar approached Giorgio for a deal. Tests were no longer necessary – Pantano’s pace was well understood by this point – and so the Italian was a few days away from signing up for 2004 when everything fell apart. Red Bull had come along with a boatload of money to fund the career of one of their juniors, Christian Klien, and Pantano was now out of the picture.
By the time of this last-minute disaster (in Pantano’s words, two days before he was himself due to sign!), it was now the winter break and there was only one team still extending a hand to him. Eddie Jordan invited Giorgio and his management to a meeting, and had found a way to charm the Italian into signing a contract for 2004. It was this contract that was to sink Pantano’s prospects and his entire career.
2004: Promise and Deliverance
For the 2004 season, Eddie Jordan was his usual overpromising self, claiming that his team were aiming for 5th in the constructors championship by year-end. However, Jordan were very short of sponsors, and the car itself wasn’t realistically going into the season with high expectations. Pantano was at least an unknown entity, and at the age of 25 had a hefty junior career behind him going into the big leagues. However, turbulent Eddie’s primary interest was in the Italian’s money, and he and Giorgio quickly fell out over that and everything else.
The EJ14 was very unreliable, with seemingly an engine blow-up every weekend, but it wasn’t backed up by Pantano’s own driving skills. He never qualified higher than 15th, and never finished higher than 13th. In a season with a lot of stinkers and dull affairs, he never had or took chances to throw his car into a place it shouldn’t have been. He also had the double problem of a teammate in Nick Heidfeld, known for being both dependable and fast on any weekend, who was fighting for his own career out of the backmarker business. Seeing the level Quick Nick was pushing only heightened the difference between the two teammates.
Pantano was also graduating from International Formula 3000, which was in many people’s eyes an outdated series that did not properly prepare drivers for Formula 1. Pantano’s engineer at Jordan, Dominic Harlow, was one of his biggest sympathisers in this regard:
“To be honest the F3000 car back then was a heap of shit, so to come into something with all the electronics, a very high level of downforce and a dependency on aero and in a team that’s not particularly competitive, on grooved tyres in the middle of a tyre war… technically unless you’ve got degrees in engineering you’re not going to understand it.”
Outside of the car, money troubles plagued Pantano, and his father and he struggled to negotiate with his manager to pay Eddie what was due. Behind the scenes, Brask was being bought out by a variety of Italian businessmen who were investing in Giorgio, but their promises were unfulfilling to both the Pantanos and to the Jordan team.
Pantano dealt with a hostile Eddie Jordan from the start of the season, as the Irishman threatened him with the sack after only four races for underperforming. Thankfully, Pantano’s decent pace at Imola (a track he knew well) made Eddie eat his words. It didn’t stop the Irishman from continuing to threaten his replacement by Jos Verstappen, all in a bid to “psychologically boost” Giorgio’s performance. Thankfully for Giorgio, Jos like Nigel Mansell before him was too big to fit in the car. (The story gets stranger: only a few months later Mansell himself drove the EJ14 at a demonstration in London – one wonders at the size of Jos in that case!)
This negatively-fuelled relationship carried on throughout the season. When shady Italian businessmen failed to pay Eddie his cut on time, Jordan benched Pantano for the Canadian Grand Prix in place of test driver and rookie Timo Glock. Glock, jumping at the opportunity, did remarkably well under the pressure of his first race. Mid-race he jumped ahead of Heidfeld when the latter had pitstop problems, and finished the race in 11th. When Toyota and Williams were thrown out for “brake irregularities”, this promoted Timo up a whopping four places to seventh, giving him two points on debut! Eddie now had real leverage to pressure his Italian driver.
As with all great rejects, the few times Pantano was seen on camera were due to clumsy unforced errors, such as when he took two separate trips over the grass at Silverstone, eventually spinning himself out. On the restart at Spa, he drove at the lowest speed possible right into Gianmaria Bruni’s crashed Minardi. On the TV he was seen waving furiously at every deity under the sun, for some sympathy or some better results. At Monza, another track he knew well, he span off into the gravel all on his own.
With three races to go, Pantano was officially sacked for good and made way for Timo Glock to fill out the final few races. The reality was that in the background, the Pantanos were offering their house as liability on their bank loans for paying the Jordan team, and Giorgio decided that enough was enough.
“I decided to stop after Monza because I said ‘No.’ There is no reason to go to Japan or Brazil where I didn’t know the circuits and pay another million. No, I’m sorry. For my family I said, ‘No that’s it.’”
With such performances shown, there was no realistic way he was going to be able to continue a career in Formula 1, and so Giorgio started looking elsewhere. Heidfeld too was trying to secure an early move to Williams but would have to wait until 2005, while Eddie himself was selling his stake in the team to new owners. It seemed that just about everyone was jumping ship.
2005-2008: Dreams of a Second Chance
Aside from a stint in IndyCar (in which he performed remarkably well) and International GT, Giorgio focussed his efforts full-time on getting back into Formula 1. His method? A return to the prime feeder series, this time the brand-new GP2 Series that began in 2005.
In many ways the timing was perfect, as Pantano could test himself against the very best in a brand-new and invigorated junior series. By comparing himself against the younger up-and-coming talents, he could show he still had the skills to make it big in Formula 1. After four years of increasing success in GP2, he eventually won the series in 2008.
However, the Italian was very clearly a special case. By the time he took his championship, he was the only driver in the series who had driven for that long. He had the most wins and accolades therefore, and in 2006 was the first driver in GP2 or Formula 3000 who was being paid to drive there (the second was fellow reject Antonio Pizzonia). To have that kind of financial support is not coincidental to the talent he brought to the seat. Campos Racing, for example, had only a podium to its name before Giorgio arrived, and in 2007 the Italian was taking them to near to championships overnight.
Perhaps his greatest GP2 weekend was at Monza 2006, where he made new series champion Lewis Hamilton and title rival Nelson Piquet Jr. look like a bunch of scrubs.
Unfortunately, things are always more complicated than how they seem. Pantano did do very well, but his competition were not rated by the likes of Formula 1’s team bosses, who were the people he needed to impress:
“I don’t feel it is a particularly competitive field this year… I cannot see any young talent coming out of the category.” Ron Dennis on the 2007 GP2 season.
His championship win wasn’t crushing as it needed to have been: he still made mistakes often, didn’t ever break a strong lead away from raw rookies like Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean; and Lucas di Grassi was able to mount a championship challenge after returning to the series halfway through! Therefore, regardless of Giorgio’s excellent pace, wins (Magny-Cours 2007 being a particular highlight), and eventual championship, it wasn’t enough to entice any teams to take him. At this point he was, after all, 29 years old. The drivers he beat were all rising stars: Romain Grosjean, Sébastien Buemi to name a few, and in spite of his efforts, he was a waning star.
Having led most of the GP2 championship all year, Pantano had not even been invited for a test – a fact that had made him particularly angry. It was understandable why he was so angry at this lack of attention: after all, a world championship in any sport does not come easy. But younger drivers can be more easily moulded into stars, and they have more potential for teams looking for champions. Buemi, who finished 6th with only two sprint wins to his name, did get the Formula 1 seat, while Pantano went with nothing.
“For me to win the GP2 championship was a disaster. Because nothing happened. I can’t race in GP2 again because I am a champion. So put me in Formula 1. And if I’m not in F1 then let me race again in GP2.” Pantano vents his frustration a few years later at being set back by the rules of the junior series.
2009-2014: A Waning Star
Further chances did seem to float around for Giorgio. While he kept himself busy during some stints in Superleague Formula (where he drove for AC Milan and won for them at Magny-Cours) and EuroCup Renault Megane, he was linked mostly by the media to the Campos outfit for their 2010 F1 debut. The truth again was that Formula 1 teams were simply not interested in the Italian. Not only that, but Giorgio’s focus on finding F1 seats caused him to miss the window of many seats opening up in IndyCar, such as one at Panther Racing. Missing these windows and finding himself lost, he ended up participating in a whole variety of series in the early 2010s.
“This year I have just been on the phone. Phone, phone, phone, always trying to find sponsors. I decided to come here [EuroCup Renault Megane] to keep driving because otherwise it was just on the phone.” — Giorgio Pantano, 2009, in an interview with Autosport.
2009 was a sad and unfulfilled year, and 2010 was not much better. For that year he participated mostly in just the AutoGP season. Driving in almost every round and with three separate teams, he did little to show himself to potential employers aside from a successful weekend at Spa that yielded him a podium.
Opportunities really dried up in 2011, and Giorgio found nothing to satisfy him. Indeed, his only entries there and 2012 were in IndyCar, where he made SuperSub appearances for DRR after Justin Wilson sustained an injury, and then for Chip Ganassi when Charlie Kimball broke his hand. From these races there is not much of note.
2013 was the first time Giorgio set foot in sportscars, and it was to be a fruitful period for the Italian. At the age of 34, he joined the International GT Open series, driving in the GTS class. While it wasn’t all plain sailing by any means, the Italian started getting top success very regularly. By Round 3 at the Nürburgring, he scored a second and a first in his class, and from there pushed through with a chain of top results almost every weekend. With the Italian Bhaitech team he drove a McLaren MP4-12C GT3 to the championship, his last. It was another showcase of the Italian’s talents after many years out of full-time driving, and in an entirely new kind of racing. It seemed to briefly light a spark in him, and he professed a desire to try endurance racing and other series.
From International GT, the McLaren team promoted him up into the Blancpain GT series. With the same car at a higher level, he achieved much less success against the competition. With a cameo in the 24 Hours of Spa that year, this season was to be his last, and at the end of 2014, Pantano officially hung up the racing gloves and became a driver manager. With Blancpain GT as his base, he has since run an autonomous platform from Bhaitech for Giorgio to effectively manage Italian juniors. Perhaps understandable given what has always been his publicly stated intention for his career, he now manages young drivers in their junior careers.
Some would argue that Giorgio Pantano was “waiting in the wings”, so to speak, for over eight years of his career. Formula 1 was his desire and where he was trying to get to, but the Italian spent almost all of his 20s fighting in vain in the main feeder series unsuccessfully to make it. In spite of his achievements, of which there were many, even these were not enough to convince a team to take on a driver of his age. The only anomaly of his era in terms of age had been Sébastien Bourdais, who joined F1 the age of 29. However, with four consecutive Champ Car titles to his name, even the Frenchman could impress enough to take one of F1’s limited number of seats.
Giorgio’s continued strong success in the feeder series were as much a testament to his inability to get to Formula 1, as much as they were to his natural skill. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the Italian and his determination to show his talent and fight for his dream, and still not make it. He wasted the best years of his career fighting the talent of his own generation and the next, and regularly succeeding. What’s strangest of all is the number of people in and around F1 who would speak to Pantano’s talents. For example, his old boss at Racing Engineering said of him:
“Along with Sebastian Vettel, Giorgio was by far the best driver we ever had. He had a very good technical background … when he came in, Giorgio would always come back with specifics. They’d look at the data and he was on the spot every time. He was one of the best we’d ever had technically.”
Pantano kept up his dream of reaching Formula 1 for an admirably long time. However, by the early 2010s, he was now going through the motions and being forced through necessity to try new things. It’s quite clear from every interview and his entire career progression that F1 was where he felt he was destined and deserved to be. Sadly, that dream held him back from other opportunities, in spite of world championships from over three decades. Shall we admire his tenacity and sympathise with his undying effort to follow his dream? Shall we pity his stubbornness and criticise his lack of vision? Whichever we choose, Giorgio’s love of F1 remained unrequited, and his chance never came again:
“To be honest, only Formula 1 doesn’t want me. And that I have never understood.”
Sources: driverdb.com, vroomkart.com, bleacherreport.com, buxtonblog, autosport.com, tkart.it, racefans.net, technogym.com