Analysis: When will the Italian driver renaissance come?

Formula 1 has been without an Italian driver on the grid for the past four seasons. But will that change any time soon? Emanuele Pirro discusses the future of Italians in F1 with Sam Smith.

For a country completely immersed in F1 and with the most famous brand in the sport's history, Italy's success rate in producing winning grand prix racing drivers has been lamentable.

The statistics are only a part of this anomaly: 100 Italian drivers have started 782 grands prix since the world championship began in 1950. Of those 100, 15 have shared just 43 wins. The most successful of course was Alberto Ascari, with 13 grand prix victories and two world titles – 1952 and 1953.

Compare this to British drivers, and the sorry story of Italy's under-performing talent pool emerges: 160 drivers have started 911 races. Nineteen British drivers have won 243 races, with 10 different drivers claiming a total of 15 world titles.

Four-season absence

With no Italian F1 drivers taking part in a grand prix for the fourth consecutive season, and almost a decade since Giancarlo Fisichella's last F1 win, why such a dearth in Italian top flight achievement and more importantly how can things turn around in the future?

One of Italy's most successful racing drivers of recent decades is Emanuele Pirro. As well as five Le Mans 24 Hours wins and two ALMS titles, the Roman also competed in 37 Grand Prix between 1989 and 1992, for Benetton and Scuderia Italia.

"My personal opinion is that the economic situation that makes motorsport in a country healthy, has got quite a lot to do with it," said Pirro. "Italy hasn't been healthy economically for a few years now and generally racing has not been hugely popular.

"We have Ferrari of course, which is good and bad at the same time for Italy, because it attracts a huge amount of attention, but at the same time it takes away some attention from the rest of motorsport too.

"The average Italian motorsport fan is a Ferrari and F1 fan, but is pretty much unaware of anything outside that. It is not like the UK for example where the knowledge of most motorsport is very large."

"We have people who can make it to F1 in the next few years. Drivers like Antonio Giovinazzi could make it with some backing and some luck," opined Pirro.

"There is a lot to think about when you consider there has not been a World Champion for over sixty years since Alberto Ascari. There have been a lot of very good drivers since but we have not been able to produce a truly outstanding talent."

Deep rooted social and behavioural shifts over the last two generations could also be a contributing factor for the paucity in Italian talent coming to the fore, believes Pirro.

Working for the future

There may not be too much he can personally do about that, but the 53-year-old now has a role where can at least impart his experience and professional wisdom that brought him so much success in international racing.

"Since July I have been the president of the Italian karting federation, and my targets are to build something with a direction whereby we can find, but also form talents," he said.

"You have to develop someone who is a fighter and someone who is willing to give everything. In my opinion I think some kids are too protected by their parents, in the sense that they always are made out to be right when they do something wrong and things are never their fault.

"Maybe this comes from previous generations and the fact that maybe they had things tougher and now parents are over compensating, I don't know.

"Do this generation have the will to sacrifice so much, to fight for what they want? I mean really fight and focus? There is a culture that I see which goes against how I was brought up, and this culture is not many rules, misbehaviour being tolerated and so on. In my opinion this is not in favour of making a good, tough and successful sportsperson."

Could it be up to the sport and those within it to change such cultures? Can a clearer message come from the idols and stars that youngsters look up to now?

"I'm not sure that motorsport gives a clear enough message just how tough it is to really succeed," states Pirro. "You see the heroes, and you see the wealth and the fame and they seem to have everything, but the message of how hard they have been fighting to get to this stage is not really there is it?"

"As an example, when I became test driver at McLaren-Honda, I saw the level of commitment, dedication and desire of both Prost and Senna. They obviously had the great talent that Mother Nature had given them.

"It was only when I got close to this type of driver that I realised what extra they had, and this came through their work ethic and their intelligence. Working harder to improve technique, fitness, engineering understanding is a message which is not well communicated at the moment in racing, but especially from what I see in Italian motorsport."

Time will tell if Pirro, or anyone else can succeed in helping new talent to emerge from the country which has the passion, the heritage and the willing, but Ferrari apart, has nothing tangible to show for it yet.

The main candidates

Raffaele Marciello

Marciello has looked like Ferrari's big home-grown hope ever since starring in his debut season of European F3, and confirmed his massive potential by taking the title in 2013 before making the step up to GP2.

The Italian hasn't had things easy in the F1 feeder category, especially in his sophomore season following a switch from Racing Engineering to the lesser-fancied Trident squad. Overlooked for a Sauber F1 seat in 2016, Marciello needs to step up his game to keep his future with the Scuderia on track.

Antonio Fuoco

A debut title in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps established Ferrari junior Fuoco as the real deal, but he was overshadowed by teammate Ocon in F3 last year – and he has struggled for consistency since his switch to GP3 with Carlin this year.

But he still has time on his side and appears to be highly-rated by Ferrari, getting the chance to sample the SF15-T at the Austria test in June, so there remains a good chance of him making it to F1 if he can rediscover his past form on the junior single-seater ladder.

Antonio Giovinazzi

After showing immense potential with a Formula Pilota China crown and a shockingly good Formula Abarth one-off in 2012, Giovinazzi has taken a while to come of age in European F3 – but has done so now in his third season, leading closest rival Felix Rosenqvist by 20.5 points.

The leader of arguably the toughest championship on the junior ladder, he's surely gotten some F1 inquiries, but his future appears much more likely to lie in DTM after his one-off at Moscow replacing the banned Timo Scheider at Audi, thanks to his Volkswagen links.

Luca Ghiotto

After steadily progressing through Formula Abarth and Formula Renault 2.0, the underrated Italian struggled with the move to Formula Renault 3.5 before opting for a u-turn to GP3, a move that has paid dividends in 2015.

He now leads that series – ahead of highly-rated opposition such as European F3 champion Esteban Ocon – but any future F1 prospects will depend on whether he can prove himself at a higher level, and indeed whether he can assemble the budget to have the chance.

Alessio Lorandi

Having amassed a long list of accolades in karting over the last few years, Lorandi has been thrown in at the deep end in European F3 this year and is finding the going tough in his rookie campaign with Max Verstappen's former Van Amersfoort Racing squad.

The 16-year-old's sheer speed is undeniable, but he definitely needs more time to smooth the rough edges – it won't become clear whether he is F1 material for another year or two yet.

Written by Valentin Khorounzhiy

 

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Series Formula 1
Article type Analysis