It has filled me with huge pleasure to see the name Giorgio Pantano once again aligned with top level racing, announced as he was last night as the replacement for the unfortunately injured Justin Wilson for the next two IndyCar races.
It is easy to forget just what a mega talent Giorgio Pantano truly is… and so here, whether you’ve never heard of him or whether you’re questioning why he’s the right man to step into Wilson’s seat, is an article I wrote for F1 Racing Magazine, which was printed in January 2011.
“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 is not a man who hands out plaudits to rivals on a whim. A double Formula 1 world champion and one of the hardest racers of his generation, it must be a truly special driver who merits such words from a man recently voted as the best driver racing in Formula 1. But the driver of whom he speaks so highly is not one of his Formula 1 rivals. It is not a Hamilton, a Raikkonen nor even a Schumacher.
The man whom Fernando Alonso once referred to as “invincible,” is Giorgio Pantano.
From the second he first stepped into a go kart at the age of eight the people that mattered, the people who made things happen in motorsport, knew one thing and for once were all agreed. This kid was going to change everything. But the story of Giorgio Pantano was set to become one of the great tragedies of modern motorsport. Because today, devoid of budget and luck, Giorgio Pantano plies his trade racing in championships so far beneath his ultimate skill level it is tantamount to watching Picasso creosote fences. Talent. Epic talent. Completely wasted.
But it could all have been so different.
Giorgio Pantano was an enigma. A phenomenon. Between 1993 and 1999 he dominated the karting world in a manner never seen before or since. He took eight titles including three Italian, three European and two world championships. Pantano was the benchmark and the man everyone wanted to beat. Even today, his is a name which resonates within the minds of Formula 1’s current generation of superstars as being someone that extra bit special.
Nico Rosberg grew up with a poster of Pantano on his bedroom wall and remembers fondly the hero status in which he held the Italian. “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.”
The top ranking International Super A title, however, was the one crown which eluded Pantano. He came close but was ultimately beaten to the punch by one of the fiercest rivals of his career, 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button. “Racing in Formula 1 is obviously the pinnacle,” he smiles, “but for raw racing and forgetting all the bullshit, karting is the best. And Giorgio was great.”
Pantano’s progression from karts through the junior ranks of single seaters was astonishing. Under the management and financial aid of Danish investment banker Lars Christian Brask, the Italian moved to German F3 in 2000 and won the title in his rookie year. In 2001 he graduated to Formula 3000, the GP2 of its day. A race winner in his first season, in 2002 he missed out on the title by just two points.
By now Formula 1 was calling. He had already tested for Benetton and McLaren and impressed, and a call up to test for Williams at the end of 2002 confirmed that the pinnacle of single seater racing was interested in him.
“Probably for me it was too early in those tests because to be honest I had just arrived from F3 when I tested with Benetton,” Pantano reflects today. “I didn’t have enough experience to test a Formula 1 car. That was probably a mistake to start testing so early like that.
“But I believe the Williams test went very well for me. I was not driving at my maximum because I did not want to make any mistakes, just to learn lap by lap, not go off and have an accident. And I think I did a good job from my point of view.”
Jonathan Williams, son of Sir Frank and the team’s New Driver Manager, remembers Pantano’s test well.
“His adaptability to the car was good and therefore the speed that you would expect somebody within his experience bracket to deliver was good. I think overall it 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.”
With no open seat at Williams, Pantano had now tested for three F1 teams and had not been offered a ride. It’s pretty unsurprising that a perception had therefore started to form within the F1 paddock that, if he really was so special, surely somebody by now would have taken him onboard. But there had been real interest. Back when he tested for Benetton there was much talk that Flavio Briatore had wanted to take over the Italian’s management, but was rebuked by Brask. While hindsight is always 20:20 it seems that Pantano’s career could have been incredibly different had he just sacrificed that fabled 25% to Flavio.
And so it was that Pantano went back to F3000 for 2003 and again he won races. But over the next winter came the chance he’d been waiting for. An F1 drive. With Jaguar.
“Two days before I was due to go up and sign with Jaguar they called us and said that unfortunately Klien has come along with $10 million from Red Bull. I didn’t have that much money so we had to change. Two days before! That could have been a big opportunity for me. There was a big difference between Jaguar and Jordan. But Jordan was the only opportunity left and we went to see Mr Jordan, who was a very nice guy, and did a deal. But if I had known then what I know now about the situation at the team, for sure I would not have raced there.”
And so it was that Giorgio Pantano’s F1 debut came at the wheel of a Jordan. But by anyone’s standards, the EJ14 was not a good car. And Pantano struggled to adapt. In the first seven races of his F1 career he outqualified team-mate Nick Heidfeld just once.
Pantano’s engineer at Jordan, Dominic Harlow, believes that the Italian had serious potential, but that the step between F3000 and F1 had perhaps been too great given the limited testing Pantano was afforded before the season began.
“I don’t think anybody is ready for F1 when they get there in terms of what’s available to them in terms of set-up and what differences you can make to the car. 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.”
But there were other factors at play. Giorgio’s financial position had become rocky. The money for the deal had come partly from Brask, but mostly from his family and a new group of Italian motorsport faces who had started to take greater control of Pantano’s career behind the scenes, edging Brask out of the picture.
When Pantano’s money failed to show up before Canada, he was replaced with Jordan’s third driver Timo Glock who, after the Williams and Toyotas were disqualified from the race, was classified in seventh and scored championship points on his debut. Glock became the hero… Pantano, the underachiever.
He would get back in the car to race, but by the end of the European season it was obvious that the money had dried up. When Pantano’s family went as far as putting their house up as collateral against a bank loan, the Italian had some soul searching to do.
“The car was not good and then on the political side I am sure they wanted to push Heidfeld more than me. They wanted to sell him because BMW was coming with Williams. 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.’”
Eddie Jordan is philosophical about Pantano’s time with the team. “Some drivers are able to withstand any amount of pressure. I think with Giorgio the financial requirement that was made on his family, or what his family had obliged to provide, was always on his mind. For sure he was very talented, but things became a little bit difficult for him and I think that had a remarkable downward effect on his ability.”
Pantano’s F1 dream had collapsed around him, and as Brask suffered the financial after effects of 9/11, the Italian took management into his own hands from 2005. He moved to GP2 and was immediately a pace setter. He would become the category’s fourth champion in 2008 after setting up a win tally which, when combined with his F3000 results, took him above first Jochen Rindt and then Mike Thackwell as the most successful F1 feeder series driver of all time.
But after taking four years to win the crown and now aged 29, there were many who felt Pantano was past it and had missed his chance.
“People need to see what I did. The first year with Super Nova, we started in Imola very well and we could have won without the brake problems. From there I had problems all year with the engine, but I was racing not with the top teams all the time. I went with Super Nova, Coloni, Campos…”
It is a fair point, and one often missed by those within the Formula 1 paddock who chose only to look at raw figures rather than the larger picture. When he arrived at Campos in 2007 the team, much as with Coloni in F3000 back in 2002, had never achieved more than a podium. Pantano took Campos from a mid grid at best operation, to a race winning team. He and Campos took third in the 2007 championships, establishing a platform from which the squad would go on to win the teams’ championship in 2008. His team-mate that year was Vitaly Petrov.
“You saw quite a big improvement on the car when he started to work with Campos. I think he always knew exactly what he wanted. He always knew what to do.”
Having seen his former Jordan team-mate Timo Glock graduate back to F1 as GP2 champion at the end of 2007, Pantano expected the same call to come his way in 2008 after he, too wrapped up the crown. It was a call which never came.
“I think there are some people who hate me because I’m too quick, probably,” he grins. “Listen, in all my career I won everything. Wherever I went, apart from Formula 1, I won in every category. You need to tell me, who is in Formula 1 who has my CV? There is nobody. So, why am I not in Formula 1? This is also my question. Yes I won the title in the fourth year of GP2, but people need to see where I went in GP2 and what I did at those teams. I didn’t go to race with iSport or ART.
“But to be honest, 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.”
So why didn’t the call come from F1? To some extent, there wasn’t really a seat available and certainly not one into which Pantano could have stepped without serious backing, something which has always hampered his career. Pantano has always had to sit tight and wait for people to call him, and he has often jumped into the first seat, and often not the best seat, available. Because for Pantano driving something, anything, is better than driving nothing at all.
But there also appears to be an opinion of Giorgio Pantano in the Formula 1 paddock which is that, as Christian Horner relates, “just because you’re a karting world champion doesn’t guarantee that form will carry into Formula 1.” There is a perception that he was incredible in karts, but lacked the intelligence or the work ethic to be competitive in F1.
Furthermore, there are many who believe he can’t set up a single seater, instead choosing to drive around a car’s problems rather than adapting it to iron out its creases.
But as Chip Ganassi, who ran Pantano in two Indycar races back in 2005 says, “That would surprise me to hear that. That was somebody that either had a really bad car in Formula 1 or doesn’t know much about Giorgio… or people.
“Not only was he diligent technically, he was also very professional. No baggage, no Hollywood, just down to business. And fast. Smooth fast. He was fast in a way that didn’t look fast… a lot like Dario Franchitti.”
It’s a view shared by the man who took Pantano to his GP2 crown, Racing Engineering Team Principal, Alfonso de Orleans Borbon.
“Along with Sebastian Vettel, Giorgio was by far the best driver we ever had. He had a very good technical background and we were actually very surprised because of what we’d heard. He was always quick no matter what happened. If someone hit him and the tyre was sideways he’d keep on driving the car no problem. But at the same time, 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.”
The loss of a supposedly talented driver to Formula 1 is nothing new. You see it year in, year out. Drivers don’t get the breaks, they lose their sponsors, or people simply discover that they’ve reached their peak before getting to the top. But Giorgio Pantano was different. He wasn’t ever just another driver. For his entire career he was the driver. He was the benchmark in every category he ever stepped into. He still is.
To many people in this paddock Giorgio Pantano remains one of the greatest lost talents of his generation. It has been said that if a kid with half of the ability the Italian showed in karts turned up today and did what Giorgio did, there would likely be a bidding war between the F1 teams like we have never witnessed. He would be nurtured step by step, financially supported, well managed and groomed for a future as an F1 world champion.
Pantano is, then, perhaps still something of an enigma: one of the fastest drivers of his generation, but a man and a racing driver misunderstood by the sport he always saw as his natural home. How sad it is that such misconceptions have turned a driver, who could have helped to shape the modern era of the sport, into a minor footnote in Formula 1’s rich history.
“I don’t want to think about Formula 1, because I see my future now in America and if I go there I want to stay there,” he sighs. “I won’t come back.
“To be honest, only Formula 1 doesn’t want me. And that I have never understood.”