x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Italians can see only the red of Ferrari

The last Italian to win the world championship was in 1953, and the last Italian to win his home race, at Monza, was 45 year ago. In a country where Ferrari is the focus, drivers find it hard to make their way.

Jarno Trulli is one of two Italians in the field for this weekend's Italian Grand Prix, and neither drive for Ferrari.
Jarno Trulli is one of two Italians in the field for this weekend's Italian Grand Prix, and neither drive for Ferrari.

MONZA, ITALY // When Michael Schumacher arrived at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in 1991 for the first time, he was joined by 12 Italian drivers, all hoping to compete in their home Formula One grand prix.

Eight eventually started the race.

Five finished it.

By 1996, Schumacher had joined Ferrari and won the Italian Grand Prix on his first "home" race with the country's most famous manufacturers.

Giovanni Lavaggi was Italy's sole representative and was forced to retire with engine problems.

Italy's dearth of successful racing drivers has continued almost perpetually since, a situation Jarno Trulli believes is partly the fault of Ferrari.

The Maranello-based manufacturers are the most successful team in Formula One, yet the last Italian to pilot a Prancing Horse to victory was Michele Alboreto at the 1985 German Grand Prix.

"I'm a lucky guy," said Trulli, the Team Lotus driver, who has competed at every Italian Grand Prix since 1997, though he has never finished on the podium in those 14 attempts.

"Being one of the 24 lucky drivers is no ordinary achievement. Being Italian, it's quite hard to climb the ladder because of what we have here.

"Ferrari is the symbol of Italy and we're all extremely proud of it, but at the same time it creates some hurdles for Italian drivers because all eyes are on Ferrari. This takes a lot of attention away from motorsport and growing young drivers."

Trulli is one of only two Italian drivers competing in this year's world championship, and Vitantonio Liuzzi, the Apulia-born driver, who was given a seat with the Hispania Racing Team less than two weeks before the start of the new season, echoes his compatriot's sentiments.

"I agree completely with Jarno," Liuzzi said. "It's more difficult [as an Italian], for sure, because you are a bit more in the shadow."

Ferrari could argue that when they have given Italian drivers their chance, they have failed to capitalise.

In 2009, when Brazilian Felipe Massa was seriously injured at Hungary and ruled out for the rest of the season, the Italian manufacturer looked to Luca Badoer, 38, and Giancarlo Fisichella, 36, for cover.

But that was only after Schumacher withdrew with neck problems after initially agreeing to stand-in.

The age of both drivers was a telling sign of the times in regards to young Italian talent, but when Fisichella - the last Italian to win a grand prix (Malaysia in 2006 for Renault) - qualified last at the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, it also provided stark evidence of Italy's long-term problem.

The last Italian to win the world championship was Alberto Ascari in 1953. While the Italian Grand Prix has been a mainstay on the F1 calendar since 1946, the last Italian to win his home race was Ludovico Scarfiotti, 45 years ago.

Stefano Domenicali, the Ferrari team principal, accepts that nurturing native talent has been a problem, but he said work is being done to improve the situation.

"In the past, Ferrari was seen as a constraint by Italian drivers, but we now have a group of young drivers - of all nationalities - and we've decided to focus on them from a very early age, in karting," he said.

"There's now a great desire to bring Italian drivers back to the top of F1. We think now is the time to invest in this programme because the young drivers will be the sap that will nourish us in the future."

The Ferrari website lists five drivers as registered in the Ferrari Driver Academy: Sergio Perez of Mexico; Jules Bianchi and Brandon Maisano of France; Raffaele Marciello of Switzerland; and Lance Stroll of Canada.

Davide Valsecchi, a 24-year-old Italian, who was enrolled in Renault's Driver Development programme in 2009 and is now a reserve driver for Team Lotus, said he had not experienced any particular difficulties because of Ferrari's stature in Italy, but he did acknowledge that in his home country the focus is on the team rather than the home drivers when it comes to showing interest and having an interest in the sport.

"There are some good drivers here in Italy, and if you deserve to get into Formula One you will get there," he said.

"Every young driver in Italy dreams of racing for Ferrari. For us, Ferrari is like an idol or a legend, but maybe it is different from other teams in other countries.

"If you look at motorbikes, all the focus is on Valentino Rossi, because he is the Italian star and everyone pushes for him. Then there is Ducati - almost an afterthought.

"Ferrari is the opposite because we do not have an Italian driver who is strong. If [Lewis] Hamilton was Italian and racing for McLaren, the newspapers would all be about Hamilton, but for now we have to accept Ferrari is the legend, and there is no Italian driver that deserves so much attention."

That is unlikely to change this weekend.

Trulli may have the experience of winning a grand prix back in 2004 at Monaco, when he was with Renault, but his best race finish this season with Team Lotus is 13th.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae