The Italian Dilemma

Luca Filippi c/o GP2 Media Service

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.

Champions:

2005 Nico Rosberg
2006 Lewis Hamilton
2007 Timo Glock
2008 Giorgio Pantano
2009 Nico Hulkenberg
2010 Pastor Maldonado
2011 Romain Grosjean

Runners Up

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.

Pantano and Filippi c/o GP2 Media Service

“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?

Giorgio Pantano. At 29, too old for an F1 return. c/o GP2 Media Service

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.)

Luca Filippi c/o GP2 Media Service

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.

Davide Valsecchi c/o GP2 Media Service

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28 thoughts on “The Italian Dilemma

  1. How is it that these boys can struggle to find backing?

    Is that not a reflection of a lack of interest in Italian drivers at the moment? It seems to me many Italian F1 fans have eyes only for Ferrari, regardless of the nationality of its drivers.

    In the years I began watching there were loads of Italian teams in F1 – Minardi, Forti, Coloni, Osella, Scuderia Italia and so on. Many Italian drivers got their F1 breaks through these teams including the last two Italians to forge lengthy careers in the sport – Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli.

    Now those teams are all gone – OK, Toro Rosso remain but that’s Red Bull’s kindergarten.

    I don’t think Ferrari should be criticised for not having any Italian drivers high up in their young driver programme. They should want the best, irrespective of nationality. But an Italian driving for Ferrari would always suffer the additional burden of expectation. And I wonder if Ferrari would not want to slot one into the ‘number two’ seat for fear of the furore when they are eventually told to move over and let the other guy win.

    And then of course there’s the economic situation which is not great all round but Italy appears to be particularly struggling with.

    But what I’m surprised by – and perhaps you can shed some light, Will – is that there seems to have been plenty of Italian drivers with sufficient backing to stay in GP2 a long time, but apparently not quite enough to buy their way onto the F1 grid. After all there are quite a few names in F1 who are not quite pay drivers but could be termed “talent-plus-cash” drivers.

    • Hi Keith. I brought up the Ferrari point merely because I’d blasted the programme on twitter yesterday when my initial thoughts on this topic were being made in 140 character stabs and I thought it only fair I include them here. To be fair, they did have Bortolotti but dropped him because his performances were pretty bad. Can’t blame them for that.

      I think you are right. Luca had the backing for a few years of GP2, same with Valsecchi, Giorgio took the first and not always the best deal available which was why he never raced for an Arden in F3000 or an ART in GP2… but you’re right I think in that the budget for GP2 is not the same as for F1. Perhaps its just a step too far.

        • The next Italian that Ferrari is grooming is Raffaelle Marciello, who will race in the F3 Euroseries this year for Prema. If he can beat championship favorites Dani Juncadella and Felix Rosenqvist, Ferrari will presuambly use him to replace Rigon and eventually a Formula One-bound Bianchi. If not, Ferrari will dump him just like his predecessors Bortolotti and Daniel Zampieri. But he has looked strong in pre-season testing, so I do believe he can reach F1 one day.

          There are only four other noteworthy young Italians in the feeder series right now, in my opinion. The first is Kevin Ceccon, who spearheads Ocean’s GP3 assault this year. He tested for Toro Rosso and has Red Bull decals on his helmet (although he’s not part of the Junior Team). He won AutoGP (but I believe Afanasyev would’ve won had he not encountered that glitch with his visa). Still, he’s an interesting prospect given his age, speed, and increasing maturity.

          And then there’s Lorenzo Camplese, a challenger for the German Formula Three title. Camplese was very quick in Formula Abarth and JK Asia. There’s also Luca Ghiotto. He’s a sophomore in Formula Abarth and is leading the championship in a field mostly comprised of South Americans. Given his nationality, winning the championship would attract Ferrari’s attention as he’d be the first Italian to win.

          Finally, there’s Eddie Cheever, Jr., who races under the Italian tricolor. He was mediocre last year in Italian F3, but is much stronger this season. His last name should help attract funding.

  2. Pantano, Filippi and now Valsecchi are good drivers, but they have spent 4 or 5 years in GP2. This is too much. If you don’t succeed in the first 2 or 3 years, you fail. Valsecchi has spent 2 years in Formula Renault 3.5 (and he was far from the top places) and already 4 in GP2. His current results are down to experience, not talent. Filippi has won 5 times in 107 starts. This is not enough.

    Pantano was in F1, Filippi was linked with Honda, Valsecchi was part of Renault Driver Development. They had support. They lost it because they were not good enough.

    • The entire purpose of the article is to ask that question… a feeder series is about preparing drivers. Why should it matter how long it takes? You are ready when you are ready. And why should experience be a deterrent to an F1 team? If you go in for a job interview in the real world, who is more likely to get the nod… the kid just out of college, or the applicant with 10 years of experience in the field and an impressive CV? Why should it be any different in F1?

      • There is only half an hour of practice before quali in GP2… So someone who already know the car and the track has a big advantage over drivers who have eveything to discover. I think that somebody like Hülkenberg, who is champion in his first year, has more talent than somebody who is champion in his fourth of fifth year, whith the benefit of experience. Maybe some drivers need more time, but you can’t spent 4 years in every category

        • Grosjean spent 3 1/2 years in GP2. Just a few races under that magic 4 year cut off you mention. Does that mean his 2 Asia titles and Main championship last season are worthless? That he doesn’t deserve his return to F1, or his podium last weekend?

    • I don’t agree that Valsecchi’s lack of success in GP2 was entirely down to lack of talent, but to the teams he’s driven for. He’s driven for Durango, who never won more than one race a season and ended up running out of money, and for Air Asia, who were a new team at the time, and in both he performed admirably. The only disappointment was his performance at iSport, which is a good team.

  3. Hopefully it’s not too late for Filippi to make it to Formula One, though it’s very disappointing that he’s not going to be able to compete in IndyCar this season. But if Italy wants another drive in Formula One, where are the sponsors willing to put their money where their mouth is? If Davide Valsecchi wins this season then I can see him having difficulties, as he doesn’t have the same backing as, say, Giedo van der Garde or his team-mate Felipe Nasr.

  4. Should all of the Italian drivers cast out to America get funding in front of all of the American drivers who are also finding it difficult to get funding?

  5. I totally agree with Will Buxton. The Italian public should make their feelings known about the absence of Italian drivers in F1 and especially those that love motor sport. They should start a support movement demanding that Filippi, who still has time, be given the opportunity in F1. He is currently by far the fastest Italian driver and was ranked number 23 in the Castrol World Drivers rankings, with approximately only 6 current F1 drivers appearing ahead of him. Wake up Italy, your future F1 world champion is sitting at home waiting to bring the championship home to you.

  6. Valsecchi was on the books of the team that’s now Caterham – I remember him at the media event at Duxford where the (then-named) Team Lotus purchase of Caterham was announced.

    Presumably he’s been dropped by them? And it’s not easy to come back once one team has, effectively, given you a vote of no confidence.

    It’s true his recent double win was a remarkable result in the context of past results in the series – wasn’t the previous best Sam Bird’s win/3rd place at Monza? Or did someone beat that later? But anyway, GP2 changed its car recently so it’s not like he’s had ALL those years to learn it compared with rookies.

    But this year’s GP2 field drops off in quality very quickly once you’re past the top few drivers. So the likes of he and van der Garde should be taking them to the cleaners every weekend.

    We’ll see what happens over the course of the season. But it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re right, and he sinks like a stone in a pond as champion.

    I think all eyes, this year, will be on FR3.5.

    (By the way – isn’t Bianchi Franco-Italian? I could be wrong.)

    • Valsecchi raced for Caterham in GP2 last season and as a result got a run out in the F1 car. Same as Gonzales and Van der Garde this year. Razia was Valsecchi’s team-mate last season. Note that they were 1-2 in the Bahrain feature race, Valsecchi for Dams, Razia for Arden… can’t have been happy viewing for Caterham.

      There have been many double wins, the first being Nico Rosberg in Bahrain in 2005. There have also been a few perfect weekends of pole, fastest lap x 2 and win x 2. The first of those was Nelson Piquet Jr in Hungary 2006.

      FR3.5 does look good this year, but I hope the car is up to it. Hearing they’ve got a few issues which will be par for the course when you make such a huge step in technology and speed. Bird, Bianchi, Rossi could fare well. I’ll be very, very interested to see how Stanaway does, too. I’ve got a very good feeling about him.

      • Hi Will,
        A quick question about Caterham – do you think Gonzalez getting a day at the Mugello F1 test had much to do with van der Garde’s difficult time in Bahrain?
        I gather Mike Gascoyne was less than impressed.

        • Not at all. I know the team was impressed with Van der Garde when he tested earlier this year. But watching Valsecchi and Razia do so well over the opening three rounds must hurt Gazza and Caterham, knowing they ran the two of them last season.

          Gonzales will run in Mugello because his wallet says he will.

          It seems that right now, all a young driver needs to make inroads into the higher echelons of motor racing are a Venezuelan passport and five simple initials… P.D.V.S.A

          • That I know all too well sadly. Anyhoo, it was just an impression. Great stuff from the first 3 rounds by the way – really enjoying it.

  7. A very interesting question you put up here Will! I do agree with you, that staying in the series that prepares until a driver is ready should be the obvious way to go, and it should not be a problem when it takes a few years of that, instead of having to mess up in front of an F1 audience!

    • I actually thought a feeder series’ aim was to improve a driver’s skills.
      Whether a driver is good but is slow at showing it, or whether a driver is not good, but becomes better within a few seasons, he should be evaluated based on his talent at the end of his career in that series, not at the beginning. Otherwise everyone would be in F1 at 14.
      If a driver won a series when he had 6 seasons’ experience and all the other were poor rookies, maybe it was just about time, but when you’re talking about the strongest series below Formula 1 luck is never involved so much to bring success to a driver.

  8. This is not a new phenomenon. Both in feeder formulae and F1, the assumption is cream will rise to the top and the talented drivers will be able to adapt and deliver results in 1-2 years.

    If the driver doesn’t deliver in that period, s/he is essentially a journeyman.

    While Jenson Button example is shared by racing fans in last 2-3 years of how a driver needs time to mature, lets be honest if F1 circus was not so “British Centric” with media, teams and majority F1 insiders were not British Jenson wouldn’t have got a long rope, if he was European, (American/Latino) or Asian. The long end of the rope would have been in that order.

    Jenson even had entire BAR-HONDA team built around him, with car design taking into account his style, his preferences and still only thing he had to show was distant third place in 2004 and one condition assisted win in 2006.

    In case of Jenson, teams he worked with at feeder series level were not exactly going ga ga over him either ( just like say Pantano)

    Part of the problem is the elitist nature of motorsports and part of it is just the roll of dice, sports merely reflects life and one has to be at right place at the right time.

    Personally I believe given the amount of time and effort all the drivers spend honing their skills, all of them are in the same bandwidth when it comes to talent. Its just the matter of opportunity and resources at their/or their teams disposal.

  9. Excellent post. You summed up everything I ever thought about this argument.
    I’m Italian. I obviously have a soft spot for Italians as I want to see my compatriots do as well as possible. I was sad to know no Italians would have taken part in F1 this year: if it were for talent, no problem, but I think, like you do, that Filippi, Valsecchi and Pantano had enough talent to be given a shot in F1 (or another shot for Pantano).
    Pantano never won a race in his first GP2 season with Super nova, but frequently visited the podium, and still finished 6th. Then in 2006 he missed 6 races but finished 5th, and he won races in three consecutive seasons, ending in his 2008 title but also passing from his 3rd place in 2007.
    Filippi, stuck for a long time at underperforming Super Nova, was sometimes impressive, taking surprise wins and podiums, and even pole positions. As he switched to a car he liked, the 2011 Coloni, he showed what he was capable of, becoming 2011 runner-up. His most notable failure was the poor showing at ART in 2008, which was, to his defence, the team’s worst GP2 season ever.
    Valsecchi has always had ups and downs in GP2, and he never chose the strongest teams, apart from this year (and it shows). The most notable failure is, in my eyes, underperforming at Addax in 2009, where Grosjean was able to secure third place taking part only in half the championship. But you could also say that Grosjean’s performances were dropping off since the start of the season. He won, however, the 2009-10 GP2 Asia (the top three were Italians, actually), agains talents like Vietoris, Bird, Bianchi, Perez and Rossi.
    One thing that I always liked thinking of was having an Italian in a strong rival team, like McLaren, because with an Italian at Ferrari there will always be claims that he is there based on his nationality, especially if he fails to impress, while if he was in another team it would be based on talent.

  10. I forgot to add: perhaps teams didn’t want rookies who would have taken a long time to become competitive. Established teams can’t allow it, while new teams like Lotus wanted experienced drivers. Probably no one was willing to make a long-term deal with them.
    Another thing I think might have an impact on these drivers’ training is the fact that in Italy everyone wants to drive for Ferrari – and most people are Ferrari fans rather than F1 fans. The additional pressure of not only reaching the top motorsport category, but also drive for the most desired team, might lead drivers to decide to concentrate on other categories, and might lead sponsors to withdraw if the driver isn’t the best of all.

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