Yesterday’s news that Michel Jourdain Jr would take the second Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing seat at the Indy 500 confirmed unfortunate rumours that Luca Filippi’s deal to be the team’s second driver for 2012 had hit financially rocky waters.
It’s an all too familiar story. Talented Italian lacks budget and doesn’t get the chances he deserves.
But why does it always seemingly affect Italians over any other nationality?
Let’s get one thing straight right away. I’m not arguing that the Italian nation has a God given right to see its drivers in top championships and at top teams. I’m not saying that Luca should be gifted a seat and some sponsorship simply because he’s Italian.
I’m saying that he merits it on talent, but seems to be denied it because of his nationality.
There’s a statistic that I constantly refer to in this argument, and its one that is, to my mind, fairly staggering. In the seven years of the GP2 Series, every driver who has finished either as Champion or Runner Up has progressed to a race seat in Formula One. There are, however, two exceptions to the rule. See if you can spot the odd ones out.
2005 Nico Rosberg
2006 Lewis Hamilton
2007 Timo Glock
2008 Giorgio Pantano
2009 Nico Hulkenberg
2010 Pastor Maldonado
2011 Romain Grosjean
2005 Heikki Kovalainen
2006 Nelson Piquet Jr
2007 Lucas di Grassi
2008 Bruno Senna
2009 Vitaly Petrov
2010 Sergio Perez
2011 Luca Filippi
Spotted the anomalies on the list? Yep, one champion and one runner up failed to graduate into an F1 race seat. And they’re both Italian.
“Ah yes,” comes the rebuttal. “But they’d both been racing for so many years in the championship, they were too old to be taken seriously. Surely if they’d been any good they would have been successful in their earlier years?”
There was something of an irony that at Monza in 2008, when Giorgio Pantano was wrapping up his GP2 title, over in Formula One Sebastian Vettel was dominating the weekend in his Toro Rosso, en route to becoming the youngest pole sitter and race winner in F1 history. Giorgio, was 29. Too old for a second chance? Apparently so.
But not every driver is Sebastian Vettel. Not every driver is a Kimi Raikkonen, who can jump into an F1 car after less than two dozen single seater races in his life and be competitive. It takes every driver a unique amount of time to mature, to find his feet. You cannot rush it. Drivers are ready when they are ready.
It’s why I felt so sorry for Jaime Alguersuari at the start of the year. To be dumped by Red Bull and to be told you don’t have what it takes to be a champion… when you’re 21? Not only is that harsh, it’s incredibly unfair. And to my mind it is also untrue. Did he and does he have potential? Absolutely. Just because he’s not yet won a race, just because he’s not on the same curve as a Vettel, doesn’t mean he won’t become as good as the two-time champion.
Jenson Button is a prime example of a driver who came in early and, if he’d arrived in this modern era, might have lasted for a season or two. He was in his seventh season of Formula 1 when he won his first race. He was in his tenth season when he won his first championship. I’d say that last year, in his 12th F1 season, Jenson Button was driving better than he ever had in his life. He was a more complete racer, and a more complete man.
Experience and maturity are words which are usually seen as being strong factors in the make-up of an individual’s character, not deficits. So why should it matter that it takes a driver a few years to win a feeder championship? If a feeder category exists to prepare a driver for Formula 1, is it not better that he spends as much time as he needs to in that category until he has amassed the experience required to find the maturity to win a championship?
When you think about it, who would the stronger theoretical racer be? The 19 year old kid who jumped straight out of karts into Formula Renault, did a year in GP3, a year in GP2 and arrived in F1 with 60 single seater race starts to his name, or a driver in his mid to late 20s, with 100s of races behind him? All of that experience, all of that accrued knowhow. How to set up a car, how to race in any and all conditions, how to race with a younger team-mate, how to race with an equal team-mate, how to race with a better team-mate, how to fight adversity, how to manage a race, how to overcome the odds. And more than that, a driver who has been racing long enough that he has made his mistakes, and learned from them.
Why do we see such a high turnover of young drivers in F1 and a reluctance from the bigger teams to give youth a shot? Because they are rushed in and have to make their mistakes on the biggest stage going. The junior formulas are where mistakes should be made. Where lessons should be learned. If it takes a few more years for those lessons to sink in, what’s the big deal?
The fact that Filippi and Pantano are linked by their longevity in GP2 and the failure of Formula 1 to recognise their talents, and that they are linked by a common nationality, has made me ask whether it is simply an Italian trait… and I think perhaps it could be. That Latin temperament, that natural ability which looks so rough around the edges in the early years because of that fire which burns within them. Perhaps it just takes Italians a little while longer to iron out those passionate creases?
As examples, look no further than Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy’s Formula 1 poster boys for the past decade. Jarno sits third in the all time list of races completed before taking a first Formula 1 victory on 119. Giancarlo is 6th on 110. The F1 driver with the most races and no wins to his name is Andrea de Cesaris… an Italian.
Ferrari, that great bastion of Italian passion, seems to steer clear of giving Italians a proper shot, too. OK it gave a run out to Luca Badoer when Felipe Massa was injured back in 2009 but we all remember how well that turned out. Even poor old Fisichella never got a proper crack of the whip. There are rumours that Jarno Trulli might even get a call up if Massa doesn’t pull his finger out this season. “Ahhh yes”, comes the argument, “but Ferrari has its junior driver academy. Salvation!” Or not, because its two leading lights are a Mexican (Sergio Perez) and a Frenchman (Jules Bianchi.)
The reason that all of this has been weighing on my mind this week, is due to two things. First, there’s the on going situation with Luca Filippi and Giorgio Pantano in America. Indycar wants them to race, there are seats available, but they are both struggling to find budget. Pantano is a driver whom Fernando Alonso once described as “Invincible.” I’ve always rated him highly. Chip Ganassi feels the same way.
And as for Filippi? Take a look at the opening four races of the F1 season and think about how fabulously Romain Grosjean has done, how warmly he has been embraced and how impressive he has looked. Now think about this… Luca Filippi outscored him in the second half of last year’s GP2 series. Then take a look at how the respective teams those drivers raced for last year are faring in GP2 this year… Grosjean’s Dams team have amassed two poles, two wins and two podiums in four races. Filippi’s Coloni team has one 5th place finish and one 8th place to its name. Filippi’s performance last season should thus now start to come into focus.
How is it that these boys can struggle to find backing?
But what sparked my thought process was in the very performance of Dams that I have just touched on in GP2. Because last weekend in Bahrain, Davide Valsecchi completely annihilated the field. Pole position, fastest lap, Feature race winner, Sprint race winner… it was an incredible performance. He leads the championship. And it may be early days, but what if he wins it?
He is an Italian. In his fifth year of GP2.
Will he, as Pantano and Filippi before him, be passed over by the Formula 1 paddock? Will he, as Pantano and Filippi, be forced to search for scraps of funding to race in America?
Formula 1’s pompous and arrogant denial of the talents of Pantano and Filippi, should be America’s gain. It should be Indycar’s opportunity to show Formula 1 what it is missing.
I hope Valsecchi’s fate allows him to forge a different path to his Italian forerunners in GP2.
But I fear Formula 1 is far too preoccupied with appearance over ability.