2012 F1 season
Only once in F1 history has a season passed without an Italian driver starting a race. That was in 1969, when Ernesto Brambilla was the only Italian driver to appear at a race, and he failed to start it.
The situation contrasts with that of France, another country with great motor racing heritage. France has been without an F1 driver for the last two years but boasts three in 2012.
Italy’s roster of F1 talent has been dwindling for some time. For many years Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella were its only representatives in the sport’s top flight. Vitantonio Liuzzi has also lost his seat this year.
Italian drivers in F1, 1950-2012
This graph shows how many Italian drivers started F1 races in each season since the world championship began:
At the dawn of the world championship, Italian involvement in F1 reached a peak in terms of both drivers and teams – the latter including Alfa Romeo and, of course, Ferrari.
During the first four seasons the championship went to an Italian on three occasions – first Giuseppe Farina, then Alberto Ascari in 1952 and 1953. But there have been no Italian drivers’ champions since then (though Mario Andretti, who was born in Italy, won the championship as an American in 1978).
The number of Italian drivers in F1 boomed again in the late eighties and early nineties. This was partly because the number of places in F1 had swelled, with a record 39 drivers entered at some rounds in 1989. Of these around a third were Italian.
Similarly in the following two seasons 13 Italian drivers started races. Once again, a rise in Italian constructors helped bolster their numbers: in addition to Ferrari the grid at this time featured the likes of Minardi, Dallara, Osella and others.
Of course, this is not to say that places at Italian teams exclusively went to Italian drivers, or vice-versa. But it provided more opportunities for local talent to progress through the junior ranks into F1.
Today the upper limit on entrants is much lower – the sport’s governing body grants space for just 13 two-car teams, and one of those slots is currently vacant. Of the Italian constructors, Ferrari remains, and Minardi has been transformed into Red Bull’s young talent hothouse Toro Rosso. The rest are gone.
We shouldn’t assume that any country automatically deserves to have a driver in F1 – regardless of whether it’s Italy or India, Britain or Brazil. There are only 24 places available and it can hardly be argued that the quality is not very high – one-quarter of this year’s drivers are world champions.
And it’s hard to make the case that any of the Italian drivers who’ve lost their seats recently have been hard done by. Both Fisichella and Trulli have long careers behind them. Liuzzi made a comeback after being dropped by Toro Rosso, but was comprehensively beaten by Adrian Sutil in 2010 – a driver who has also failed to find a place on the grid in 2012.
“Nobody did anything about it, probably nobody cares”
The problem appears to be that the ascent of young Italian talent through the junior categories has slowed to a complete stop. It’s notable that every GP2 champion and runner-up since the series was inaugurated in 2005 has progressed to F1 with just two exceptions: both Italians.
They are Giorgio Pantano, GP2 champion in 2008 (and previously an F1 driver with Jordan in 2004), and last year’s runner-up Luca Filippi.
Filippi bemoaned the state of Italian racing talent in F1 after the news of Trulli’s departure broke on Friday. “Sad day for the Italian motorsport,” wrote Filippi on Twitter. “From being the most represented country in F1 to this year that we are just going to be spectators.
“We all knew this day was going to come. Nobody did anything about it, probably nobody cares about it. Sad, sad day.”
Former F1 driver Max Papis was even more vocal in his criticism: “With Trulli out F1 has no Italian driver for first time shame on CSAI [Italian Motor Sport Commision] and the Italian federation to make this happen,” he wrote, adding: “Fire the president.”
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali came to the the CSAI’s defence, saying: “For a few years now, Ferrari, through its Driver Academy, has established a long-term plan to create a new generation of young drivers, which works also in collaboration with the CSAI, and I am pleased to see that just now, we can announce that two talented youngsters, Raffaele [Marciello] and Brandon [Maisano], will be given a great opportunity to progress in the sport.”
“Among the group of drivers available to the Scuderia for racing and promotional activity, there are three Italians born and bred, in the shape of Andrea Bertolini, Giancarlo Fisichella and Davide Rigon, while Jules Bianchi has obvious Italian roots and will be able to make himself known this year in his role as reserve driver for Force India, as well as by racing in the World Series by Renault.”
Not all the upcoming Italian racing talent share Filippi’s view. Take last year’s Formula Two champion Mirko Bortolotti, who has tested for Ferrari and Wiliams: “So F1 without Italians this year,” he wrote.
“OK it’s a shame but not a defeat though, because F1 isn’t the top of motorsport any more.” Tellingly, he signed off using a hashtag “JustMoney”.
Sponsorship is hard to come by for many drivers at the moment and the economic situation in Italy is particularly difficult.
Inevitably, attention will turn to the role of Ferrari in developing young driver talent. Only a select few Italian drivers have won races for the Prancing Horse.
The team have increased their driver development activity in recent years as Domenicali describes above. But as one of the leading teams in F1 they can hardly be expected to give one of their seats to unproven talent. Lewis Hamilton’s appointment at McLaren in 2007 is a rare example of this happening with a front-running team.
Nor should Ferrari be expected to focus solely on the talent they find in their backyard. Hence the leading drivers in their development programme are a Mexican and a Frenchman.
Ultimately, Ferrari’s priority is making great Italian racing cars – not great Italian racing drivers.
Do you think there are any Italian drivers missing from the 2012 grid who should be there? Have your say in the comments.
2012 F1 season
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Images © Renault/LAT, Alastair Staley/GP2, Ferrari spa