Why Are There No Italian Drivers in Formula 1? 3 Possible Candidates
In 1950, Italian Guiseppe Farina won the inaugural Formula One season, taking victory in half of the races in which he and his Alfa Romeo 158 competed (the Indy 500 was then part of the F1 calendar, but the European teams did not participate).
Then came the great Alberto Ascari, who won back-to-back world titles in 1952 and 1953. Ascari, in the dominant Ferrari 500, won nine straight races (again excluding Indy) over the two seasons—a record that still stands.
Nearly 60-years later, there hasn't been an Italian Formula One world champion since.
Italian-born and raised Mario Andretti won the 1978 title and Michele Alboreto might well have won the 1985 title but for his Ferrari failing to finish the final five races, but it's been slim pickings. Most recently Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli have won races, but neither ever really looked likely to take the championship.
Now, worst of all for Italy, there's not an Italian in the entire field.
How can this be for a country with such a rich motor sport history? After all, in Ferrari, Italy has the most successful formula one team of all time—shouldn't this be to Italian drivers' advantage?
Actually, a very widely-held opinion is that the popularity of Ferrari is actually a hindrance to Italian drivers. With the people and press of Italy far more interested to see the red cars than any particular driver, there's a wide spread belief that this can hold back the progress of any potential Italian drivers.
And, seeing as it is the most successful team, there's also a level of expectation that a Ferrari driver must have already proven himself. So if the door is not opened to a Ferrari seat, where does the Italian driver gain this experience?
You can't really rely on the other Italian-based team Scuderia Torro Rosso as, unlike their previous incarnation as Minardi in which drivers like Trulli did get their start, their affiliation with Red Bull means they have an entirely different agenda for young drivers.
Sauber is the obvious choice, and the Ferrari engine customer has a good working relationship with the Prancing Horse. Sauber has provided a place for former Ferrari proteges Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez to hone their craft.
So if there is, at the very least, this small opportunity that Ferrari can open, the resultant conclusion would be that there isn't an Italian candidate exceptional enough for them to take the chance on.
Be that again seems untrue. Let's have a look at three possible candidates...
1. Davide Valsecchi
Davide Valsecchi's star has suddenly begun to really shine in 2012.
Prior to this year, he had won the GP2 Asia Series, a few GP2 races and experienced one Friday practice run for Team Lotus, but had since dropped out of any formula one seat contention.
Like Romain Grosjean before him though, when F1 closed its doors, Valsecchi had a point to prove in GP2.
This year Valsecchi took five pole positions and four race victories for the DAMS team—including an impressive three straight wins in Bahrain—on the way to a 25-point championship victory.
Every single previous GP2 champion has raced in formula one at one time or another (the only one who didn't go on to race in F1 was, funnily enough, Valsecchi's countryman Giorgio Pantano who had previously competed for Jaguar in F1), so surely the question is when, not if, Valsecchi will make the transition?
And yet there's precious little "buzz" around the Italian in the F1 paddock. This may be attributed to a lack of sponsorship money brought by Valsecchi to a potential team, but of the other seven GPS winners only Pastor Maldonado can be said to have had any semblance of a "paid drive".
So where to next for Valsecchi? There is likely to be a space in HRT next to Pedro de la Rosa in 2013, but it's debatable that much can be proven by a young racer in that team. What constitutes success for an HRT driver? Is beating 41 year-old De la Rosa enough? With the Spaniard enjoying the home team advantage, is is even that likely?
Perhaps a race seat will be possible at Force India, with Hulkenburg departing for Sauber, but more likely is a test drive at either of these two teams.
If he cannot get a foot in the door this year though, time may be running out for the 25-year-old.
2. Mirko Bortolotti
Formula Two's status as an F1 feeder series is a little muddled. GP2 has taken on the mantle of support series and the relaunched F2 seems to suffer in status as a result; while the F2 winner gets a guaranteed F1 test drive, none of the series' champions have yet secured a regular drive in the premier category.
2011 winner Mirko Bortolotti has been no exception. The 22-year-old Italian was impressive in his championship year, taking seven of each of the major statistics: wins, pole positions and fastest laps.
But the native of Trento's forays into formula one have been a mixed bag: in 2008, Bortolotti got the chance to drive the F2008 Ferrari as a result of having won the Italian F3 championship, and took it to a faster lap than had previously been set by the car at Fiorano by any driver.
But his prize for the F2 championship was less successful. Testing the Williams car at the 2011 Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi, Bortolotti's fastest time was nine tenths of a second slower than Valtteri Bottas in the same car. More tellingly than the time itself was WIlliams' decision to take Bottas as their reserve driver for 2012.
Bortolotti has previously been part of the Red Bull driver development programme and was touted as a high on the list for a vacant Toro Rosso seat in 2010. And yet when it was at this point that he was apparently, and suddenly, dropped by the programme.
Still, Bortolotti has done his best work since and, with Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne not exactly setting the world on fire this year and rumours of Sebastien Vettel's move to Ferrari in 2014 refusing to go away, Red Bull may be tempted to have another look at the Italian in their feeder team.
He still had a profile page on redbull.co.uk.
The Italian driver who has arguably shown the most natural speed of late is Luca Filippi. Jumping into a GP2 car for the first time in a year, Filippi won the feature race on his first race weekend back. He went straight to Singapore for the last race of the season and followed this up with a pole position in the feature, suffering a crash so heavy that it did not let him participate in the sprint.
Three races back, a win and a retirement from pole position. Impressive by anyone's standards.
But Filippi has been around GP2 before, finishing runner up to Romain Grosjean in 2011 having won three races.
And it's this experience that might actually work against him since, at 27-years-old, Filippi does not fit in with the current trend toward ever younger F1 drivers.
If he returned to GP2 for 2013, Filippi could well win the series and attract even greater attention. But at 28, would he then be considered too old for F1? With an IndyCar drive falling through this year because of a lack of sponsors, the same would surely also be true if he tried to join the world's most expensive race series.
But Filippi is fast and with many current formula one drivers' inexperience currently being called into question, they might do well to consider a more seasoned pro.
So, contrary to popular belief, Italy appears to have a stable of drivers as strong as any other country in the junior ranks.
But, as ever, the problem comes down to money.
The big difference between now and previous generations of drivers, is that the current Italian pilots cannot bring tobacco sponsorship to Formula One teams. Many drivers of the past were backed by Malboro, but with this no longer allowed and Italy in the midst of a financial crisis, it seems unlikely that any other company will fill the void.
So it may be some time until we see another Ascari in Formula One. For now, we can just make do with the above video and reminisce.