The news that Jarno Trulli has lost his drive to Vitaly Petrov means that there will be no Italian driver in the F1 field for the first time since 1969.
For the country which gave the world Ferrari, Maserati, the Mille Miglia, Ascari and so many other motorsport legends, it’s hard to believe that there will be no driver on the grid in 2012. France, where the sport was born and which gave the name “Grand Prix” to the F1 events, went through the same thing recently. Now they are represented again with Grosjean, Pic and Vergne, while it is Italy’s turn to do some soul searching.
This situation has been coming for some time. When you speak to Italian drivers they always say that Ferrari is so powerful, such a dominant force in the country, that a driver will always been in its shadow. It’s very hard for them to get sponsors especially at the higher end. Far from being a rallying point for Italian motorsport, creating a culture of excellence in Italian motorsport, Ferrari is motorsport in the eyes of many Italians and it draws attention away from up coming talent and other team operators. Toro Rosso is based in Faenza, but only because that’s where Minardi was based. And when that team couldn’t carry on the struggle to survive any longer Red Bull bought it and decided to keep it there, not because Italy is a centre of excellence, but because the facilities were in place and it would be more trouble to move.
To their credit, Ferrari have recognised this situation for some time and have made efforts to address it in recent years, inducting young Italian drivers into the Ferrari Driver Academy. So far it’s not produced any real talents, but that’s not stopped them from continuing to plug away.
“I am very sad that, after so many there will not be an Italian driver in the Formula 1 World Championship field,” said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali on the Ferrari website. “It’s a difficult moment for our sport, partly for external reasons. For a few years now, Ferrari through its Driver Academy, has established a long term plan to create a new generation of young drivers, which works also in collaboration with the CSAI (Italian motorsport federation) and I am pleased to see that just now, we can announce that two talented youngsters, Raffaele Marciello and Brandon Maisano will be given a great opportunity to progress in the sport.” The pair are being supported to race in F3 this year.
But of course this “impoverishment” as Jarno Trulli calls it, of Italian talent, is not just about the long terms story of Italian motorsport and business failing to establish a conveyor belt of talent. It is exacerbated by the financial crisis which Italy has passed through recently, meaning that even if there were some Italian companies who wanted to sponsor drivers, they would either not be able to afford it or would find it hard to justify. Many Italian drivers in the past were backed by Marlboro, but now that tobacco sponsorship is no longer allowed, they’ve been left without a leg up the ladder.
Trulli was very pragmatic about his situation and described the fate of current Italian drivers as “A problem which hasn’t just appeared out of the blue and with some people just closing an eye and letting it come about. In Italy there isn’t a system which helps drivers to emerge at high levels and it’s normal for things like this to happen. The talent is there, but if no one supports them, they have no hope whatsoever. I would like to see more involvement, on everyone’s part, but at a time of crisis like this in our country, I can’t see how a young driver can break through and find help in order to be considered by a team.
He went on, “I personally have no regrets. I was expecting a separation from Caterham, as I knew that the difficult economic situation would have prompted them to seek a driver with substantial sponsorship backing. The smaller teams have certain needs and contracts state this clearly. I hope that with Petrov’s contribution everyone who works there can have a more secure future.”
It is also a statement about the way that the global financial crisis is finally impacting on F1. It’s taken a while to work through, because many sponsorships were contracted forward, but now looking at the field and at some of the drivers, its clear that bringing a budget is a priority. But that’s a story for another time.