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Formula 1: No Italian Job

Submitted by on March 5, 2012

Mastercard Lola Garage

Jarno Trulli’s exit from Formula 1 means that there will be no Italian Grand Prix driver on the grid this year for the first time since 1969. Yet Italy has a rich history in F1 – not just with Ferrari.

In terms of drivers, over time, Italy has been spoiled, but just as the French discovered, feast can become famine. Believe it or not Italy’s last Formula 1 World Champion was the dominant Alberto Ascari in 1952 and 1953. The only other Italian champion was Giuseppe Farinia in 1950. Really?

There has been no shortage of talent though. Here are just a few names that spring to mind: Giancarlo Baghetti, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Vittorio Brambilla, Riccardo Patrese, Elio de Angelis, Michele Alboreto, Alesandro Nannini, Giancarlo Fisichella, and Trulli. Grand Prix winners all.

Then there are those that got to F1, but never really had a chance. The French guys had Elf support. The Italians had backing by Marlboro, and in the 70s and 80s, the two nations swamped F1.

The French gang fared better than the Italians, Alain Prost especially. But for every Prost there was a Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Jean-Pierre Jaboullie, Jacques Laffite, Erik Comas and a Phillipe Alliot. Both Rene Arnoux, and Patrick Tambay gave it a good shot – in Ferraris!

The Italian contingent has had some stellar drivers over the years, and it is hard to believe the none of these guys had more F1 success, especially in the 80s. Stefano Modena, Emanuele Pirro, Pierluigi Martini, Nicola Larini, Ivan Capelli, Vincenzo Sospiri, Alex Zanardi… They and many more had such success early in their careers – so many so that I’m sure I’ve left a load out.

In karting Italians dominated. Even Ayrton Senna was never World Karting Champion. Between1989 to 2008, 16 of the 19 champions came from Italy. Only one, however, made it to F1 – Tonio Liuzzi.

Is Ferrari the hindrance? With such devoted fans in the tifosi, has the marque has become more important than the driver? Ivan Capelli’s move to Ferrari in 1992 should have reaped rewards, it had success written all over it. It didn’t happen. It was a disaster, and pretty much broke the talented Italian. He was sacked with two races to go having scored only two points finishes that year. He signed for Jordan, but his self-belief had gone, and two races into 1993 he quit F1. That was the end of his career.

Luca Badoer was also given the ‘Italian in a Ferrari’ chance, which is best left forgotten…

The 1974 World Karting champion, six-time Grand Prix winner Riccardo Patrese recently had his own thoughts on the lack of Italians in F1 after Trulli’s exit.

“Why this has happened I don’t know,” Patrese said. The man with 16 years in F1, 37 podium finishes believed the ‘power’ of Ferrari is the problem.

Maybe his most succinct thought is this one: “We know how important the Ferrari team is,” he added. “I remember at Imola in 1983 when the fans cheered when I crashed from the lead because a Ferrari, not an Italian driver, was going to win.”

Stefano Modena is perhaps the biggest enigma of them all. He had all the hallmarks of a future world champion. Modena was possibly the most superstitious driver of all, to the irritation of teams he drove for. Everything had to be just right. Two podium finishes in uncompetitive cars, and some other performances showed what he was capable of, but his stock too went down. After scoring a single point for Jordan in 1992, his F1 career was over too.

Then there is Gabriele Tarquini, who has a record that will almost certainly never be beaten. He was 1987 World Karting champion against some of the best. He jumped straight from karts to F3, and did only six races before he was in F3000, and then straight to F1. It’s an unusual career as he freely admits. “It’s true,” he laughs. “I got to F1 without winning a single car race.” He also explains why things weren’t so good in for him at the top…

“My best chance was in karts. I never actually raced against Ayrton Senna. We were at the same meetings for a long time, but in different categories. But I got to F1, so I have raced with many world champions: Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Senna, Keke Rosberg, Michael Schumacher…Although in F1 my car was never good!”

Working on another project, one question I ask a lot of drivers is “Who is the biggest ‘lost talent’? One name crops up over and over. Vincenzo Sospiri.

Rubens Barrichello on his year racing against Sospiri: “It was 1990, and the Opel Lotus Euroseries had some good drivers that year. I think the best was Sospiri. At Estoril he made a very good pass on me on the first lap. He was intelligent, and I learned from him.”

Sospiri, already a karting champion as junior team-mate in karting at DAP with Senna… the Italian had it all going for him after becoming the 1987 World Karting champion. He got to F3000 as teammate to Damon Hill in 1991, in a car that was far from competitive. Hill was given a new car for the final race, and came up to lap Sospiri in the older car. They collided. One of the two went on to be a Grand Prix World Champion, the other went into obscurity. That was the first of setbacks.

Vincenzo won the 1995 F3000 title with Super Nova, and in 1997 finally got his Formula 1 chance. I use the term ‘chance’ extremely loosely. Who remembers the MasterCard Lola F1 car? They went to the first race in Melbourne, Australia, and were 10 seconds away from qualifying. They withdrew from the race then went bankrupt. The whole project was a disaster – and spelt the end of Sospiri’s ever-so-brief F1 career. Was there ever a shorter one?

“I remember that everything happened so quickly,” says Sospiri. “Lola had a big rush to build the car after the go ahead came from the marketing people. The car was designed on a computer as there was no time and it was built straightaway. We went to the first race with hardly any track time – we did a shakedown at an airfield, just up and down, and then we had two days at Silverstone. I did about 8 laps and then my car caught fire. That was all the track time I had before we went to Melbourne. It was a shame because that car was in no way representative of the abilities of the Lola team and design staff at that time.”

Having tested for Benetton, surely he had another shot at F1 after Lola?

“No! After the Lola team went bankrupt I went to America and did the Indy 500,” he says. “I qualified on the front row and was the fastest rookie. Then I stayed in America for a bit before doing sportscars.”

Vincenzo is now a successful team owner in Italy with EuroNova Racing. Does he miss driving?

“I have been out of competitive racing for over 10 years but I reckon with a bit of testing I would be still competitive! I’m still quite fit and I can still keep up with my young drivers in a go-kart!”

So is Vincenzo nurturing a new wave of Italians ready to regain the pride of a nation obsessed with football and Formula 1? That’s one of those wait-and-see questions. Will whoever it is have a bigger chance if his car is painted scarlet red and has a prancing horse on it?

By Andy Hallbery follow me on twitter @Hallbean

Thanks to @EuronovaRacing

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Images: TheCahierArchive©

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