But despite being home to F1's most successful team and one of the most famous circuits in the world, Italy has struggled to produce top-level grand prix drivers—particularly in recent years.
In fact, the 2014 season (Caterham's driver decision notwithstanding) will be the third in a row without an Italian driver on the grid.
Aside from the current drought, there has only been one season since the F1 World Championship began in 1950 where an Italian did not start at least one race: 1969. And that year, Tino Brambilla almost made it onto the grid for the Italian Grand Prix, but Ferrari only had one car available, opting to give the drive to Pedro Rodriguez.
On the surface, the current situation for Italian drivers seems quite odd, given the deep motorsport tradition in the country. So, what are the underlying reasons for it?
One is the current financial crisis, which has hit particularly hard in Italy. With so many F1 teams struggling with the increasingly bloated costs of the sport, more of them are looking to sign drivers who bring sponsorship money with them. As Italian businesses continue to struggle, they do not have the spare cash to support the country's drivers.
Davide Valsecchi, Lotus' third driver in 2013, is a perfect example. He is a talented driver, having won the GP2 championship in 2012, but he was passed over for Kimi Raikkonen's seat when the Finn missed the last two races of the 2013 season. For 2014, it seems Valsecchi will be out of F1, one of only two GP2 champs (along with the reigning title-holder, Fabio Leimer) never to race at the sport's highest level.
In a recent interview with F1passion.it, Valsecchi said that:
Today, quality doesn’t matter that much, to get a seat one just needs the budget that is currently not within my reach. We’re talking about huge sums, so high that they’re very hard to find in Italy. ... When there are drivers, such as the Mexicans or Venezuelans, who bring even 15 million euros, if not more so, the mission becomes impossible for me.
Another potential barrier for Italian drivers is Ferrari itself. If any Italian companies do come up with money for a sponsorship, all things being equal, they would likely prefer to associate themselves with an icon like Ferrari, rather than an up-and-coming driver.
Beyond that, the team has been somewhat reluctant to hire Italian drivers, in keeping with the preferences of its founder, Enzo Ferrari.
After several drivers—including Italians Alberto Ascari, Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso and Lorenzo Bandini—were killed driving Ferrari cars, The New York Times noted in Ferrari's obituary that, "the Italian press branded him a 'Saturn'—a devourer of his children." At least without Italian drivers behind the wheel, he could not be accused of killing his countrymen.
When it became apparent that no Italian drivers would make it to the grid in 2012, team principal Stefano Domenicali told the official Ferrari website (via Autosport) that he was, "very sad."
And it does seem that Ferrari is trying to help. The Ferrari Driver Academy now includes two Italian drivers: Antonio Fuoco and Raffaele Marciello (who was born in Switzerland). This bodes well for the future of Italian racers, as the Academy has already assisted Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi on their journeys to F1.
Still, the shadow cast by Ferrari is not completely positive for the prospects of Italian drivers. In Italy, it is not individual drivers that matter, but the Ferrari team (and especially winning for the Ferrari team).
In the first four years of the World Championship, two Italian drivers—Ascari and Nino Farina—won three titles for the Scuderia. Since then, Ferrari has won 12 more Drivers' Championships, but none by an Italian. Drivers like Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Niki Lauda and, more recently, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen have become champions in the blood-red cars and been embraced by the tifosi.
Even men like Gilles Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell and Fernando Alonso have been adopted by the rabid Ferrari fans, even though they have not brought a title back to Maranello.
This is in contrast to the U.K. where, spoiled for choice with the number of teams to cheer for, the fans seem happy to support any and all British drivers. The Italians, on the other hand, are able to focus all their love on one team, Ferrari, to the exclusion of everyone else.
So, what are the future F1 prospects for Italy's young racers?
Marciello, the more polished of the two Italians in the Ferrari Driver Academy is still at least a year or two away from being ready for F1. He won the European Formula Three title in 2013 and could spend 2014 in GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5. The latter series was won by Kevin Magnussen last year, catapulting him into a McLaren race seat.
Valsecchi was the best hope for an Italian to return to the F1 grid in the immediate future. But in the F1passion.it interview he said, "I won’t stop exerting myself to have a steering wheel in hand soon. In the meantime, I don’t conceal my desire to get into IndyCar." Therefore, it seems unlikely that Valsecchi would be interested in another third driver role, even if it were offered to him.
There are no other immediate candidates. Kevin Ceccon, who tested for Toro Rosso in 2011, spent the first half of last season in GP2 before losing his seat, and Giovanni Venturini won the GP3 sprint race at the British Grand Prix. Both are still a long way from F1, though.
When Jarno Trulli—with Vitantonio Liuzzi, the last Italian driver to race in F1—was replaced by Vitaly Petrov before the start of the 2012 season, he lamented to the Italian news agency, Ansa (via Reuters):
Formula One without Italian drivers is a shame. I'm sorry but the problem is not mine: others must take responsibility for this impoverishment, for a situation that in fact did not start yesterday and that people have not woken up to.
In Italy there's no system to help drivers reach a high level, so it's normal that we reach a situation like this. There are talents, but if nobody supports them there's no hope.
With Fuoco and Marciello in the Ferrari Driver Academy, there is hope for Italian drivers. However, the indifference of the country's racing fans to anyone not driving a Ferrari and the inability of Italian companies to provide support means it may still be a few years before we see another Italian in an F1 cockpit.
Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert
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