Pascal Wehrlein’s run of misfortune continues as he has been forced to sit out the first Barcelona F1 test starting on February 27, due to an ongoing back injury incurred at the Race of Champions.
The Swiss team, which has had a long history of collaboration with Ferrari, has turned to the Scuderia to provide its reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi for the test. The 23 year old was a GP2 front runner last season.
Wehrlein had a tough 2016; the German had a reasonable season with Manor, with a couple of standout drives, but was passed over for the Force India opportunity in favour of Esteban Ocon, another Mercedes protege. It got worse in December when Nico Rosberg suddenly retired after winning the world championship and Mercedes chose to pay Williams to release Valtteri Bottas rather than promote its junior driver to the works team.
Wehrlein was Sauber’s main target when they decided to dispense with Felipe Nasr and the seat with the Swiss team that is bouncing back after coming close to going under, is a good opportunity for Wehlein to show Mercedes what he is capable of.
Wehrlein was injured in the Race of Champions in Miami in a collision with Felipe Massa last month. The new F1 cars will have higher G forces than last year’s and medical advice to Wehrlein was that he should take the extra time to ensure that he is fully fit before driving. The German will he hoping to drive in the second test from 7-10 March.
Giovinazzi will get an invaluable chance to put several hundred kilometres of F1 mileage under his belt. He drove an F1 car for the first time at Fiorano earlier this month in a short test permitted under FIA rules for correlation of wind tunnel and track data (above, photo Ferrari).
Ferrari has been discussing with Sauber the possibility of the Italian driving on a number of Friday morning practice sessions at Grands Prix, to increase his experience bank. This will make him more attractive next time in the driver market, having missed out on the Sauber race seat this year. He is also believed to be slated for some of the Pirelli tyre testing with Ferrari in season.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had discussions with the Italian at the end of last year and there were rumours around the time of the Brazilian Grand Prix that he had signed him, with a mixture of F1 testing and DTM in mind. But Ferrari signed him.
Ferrari also has the young Monégasque driver Charles Leclerc coming through. The GP3 champion drove for Haas F1 on Fridays last season and will be challenging for an F1 seat next year.
The occasion has a certain poignance for Italian F1 fans as it makes them realise that it is now five years since we saw an F1 car driven by an Italian, when Jarno Trulli was at Caterham. Like the drought for the French after Olivier Panis, which has now been reversed by Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon, it is hard to believe that the country which is home to Ferrari and which has such a proud motorsport history should be bereft of drivers at the top level.
Twenty years ago there were five or six Italians in any given F1 season, but they were bankrolled by Marlboro money. Since the ban on tobacco advertising ten years ago, the pipeline of Italian F1 drivers has dried up.
* As a side note, it is interesting to see in the advance notices for the Geneva Motor Show that Ferrari is set to launch a new model the 812 Superfast, powered by an 800hp V12 engine, a very different direction from the hybrid turbos used in F1.
A debate is underway about the power unit for F1 beyond 2020 with some advocating a return to entertaining engines like V10 or V12 that have nothing to do with the electrification of the automotive industry.
What do you think? Leave your comments in the section below