Gathering the Lost: Tonio Liuzzi, A1GP, and F1

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Gathering the Lost: Tonio Liuzzi, A1GP, and F1
(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

There are a great many drivers, past and present, who could be considered "lost talents" in the world of Formula One. Drivers who promised and excelled in the junior formulae, only to never receive a proper chance at the top level and fall out of favour.

One such driver is Vitantonio Liuzzi.

The 2004 Formula 3000 champion, the last winner of the pan-European category before it was replaced with current F1 feeder series GP2, came into F1 with significant promise at the beginning of 2005, driving for the Red Bull Racing team.

He was supposed to share the second seat on that team with Austrian Christian Klien, but internal politics at Red Bull meant that he only competed in four races, a point in the very first one (at the San Marino Grand Prix) being all he had to show for what was supposed to be his first Formula One campaign.

By "internal politics," it is meant that Liuzzi was the wrong nationality. Eager to promote drivers from his own country, Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz gave Klien the nod over the Italian.

In his season-and-a-half at Red Bull, Klien rarely impressed, and was dropped by the team toward the end of 2006 after they finally grew tired of his underperformance and signed Mark Webber for 2007 instead. Reserve driver Robert Doornbos filled in for Klien in the last few races of the season.

Meanwhile, Liuzzi was doing the best he could in the uncompetitive Red Bull "B" team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, with Mateschitz bringing Italian backmarkers Minardi in late 2005 and rebranding them according to his own company.

Throughout 2006 and 2007, Liuzzi outperformed American teammate Scott Speed. In the time the pair were together, Liuzzi scored the team's only point, at Speed's home race in 2006.

Speed fell out of favour with the STR management, literally coming to blows with team principal Franz Tost at the European Grand Prix of 2007. From then onward he was replaced by upcoming superstar Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel was clearly a favourite of both STR and the Red Bull senior team, with many believing that Speed's poor treatment had been a ploy to free up a race seat for the talented German.

After he left STR at the end of that year, Liuzzi also commented that he felt ignored at the team in comparison to Vettel, despite mostly being on a par with him in the time they were teammates.

Indeed, the only times Vettel convincingly beat Liuzzi were, unfortunately for the Italian, the only occasions STR were capable of scoring points: in Japan, where Vettel ran third before falling foul of erratic driving from some frontrunners and crashing into Mark Webber behind the safety car, and in China where the German finished a brilliant fourth.

Liuzzi drove a great race from a lap down in Japan to finish eighth, only to have his point taken away after it was adjudged that he had overtaken Adrian Sutil under yellow flags.

In China, he was sixth, but his teammate stole all the limelight.

For 2008, Liuzzi signed up as Force India's test and reserve driver, with team principal Vijay Mallya making it very clear that if either of the team's main drivers failed to perform, he would have no hesitation in promoting Liuzzi to a race seat.

Now it is being reported that the team is losing patience with veteran Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, so Liuzzi could be about to get his big chance.

With the in-season testing ban in F1 this year, the role of test driver carries less importance than it used to.

It is no surprise, then, that Liuzzi is trying his hand at other racing categories: This week it was announced that he would race for Italy in A1 Grand Prix. Today, he has marked his first weekend in the series by qualifying on pole position for his first race.

This shows that Liuzzi has lost none of his talent nor any of his hunger after more than a year on the sidelines. It is widely believed he has a contract to race with Force India in 2010, and he could convince Mallya to let him return to F1 racing even sooner if he continues to impress in A1GP.

Fisichella is a strong personality and has plenty of experience, but the 36-year-old Roman is nearing the end of his career and may be better placed in an advisory role, or indeed focusing on running his own team, which currently competes in GP2.

And Force India's other driver, Adrian Sutil, has never really shown anything beyond his ability to pay for a race seat, an oh-so-near fourth place at Monaco last year his only real F1 highlight.

With this in mind, and Liuzzi's talent being displayed yet again in the Algarve this weekend, Mallya may well be pondering if it is time to give this lost talent another chance.

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