Formula One

Italian Formula 1 drivers – The triumphant beginning and the challenging years since

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Photo by Grand Prix Photo / Icon Sport

Although Italy is not represented on the grid by any active drivers and success in recent decades has been sporadic at best, the nation has a steep history in Formula 1, partly because of Ferrari’s stature in the sport and the infamous Monza Circuit, but also because of its 83 drivers, third-most in the sport.

Most of those participated in the early stages of the sport, in the 1950s and 1960s. Fifteen of those have Grand Prix winners, with two of those going on to become World Champions.

The early days

A large percentage of Italian drivers that made it to Formula 1 raced in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the sixties. A significant reason for this is the involvement of Ferrari, Maserati and Lancia in the sport, which gave more opportunities to local talent. However, two stood above the rest:

Alberto Ascari

Italy’s only multiple World Champion is Alberto Ascari, and he is also the nation’s last. The driver from Milan started racing after World War II and his F1 career began with Ferrari in the sport’s first season, when he claimed two podiums, followed by four more in 1951, which included his first two victories and his first championship challenge.

However, it was in 1952 and 1953 when he made his mark. In the first of those two years, he remarkably claimed six consecutive victories and dominated the championship. Three more wins the following season gave him nine wins on the trot, a record that stood until 2013, when it was beaten by Sebastian Vettel, which led him to a second consecutive dominant title. However, disputes over his salary led him out of Ferrari.

He moved to Lancia but a late start to the 1954 season and uncompetitive machinery left him with no opportunity to defend his title or add to his thirteen victories. In 1955, at the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed into the harbour, but escaped his car, after it dove into the sea. He was not as lucky though a week later, at Monza, when he crashed while testing a sportscar, and he was dead at the age of 36.

Giuseppe Farina

Giuseppe Farina is a historic figure in Formula 1, as he is its first Grand Prix winner and World Champion. His career started before the outbreak of World War II, when he enjoyed plenty of success. When he was 44, the World Championship was established and his status earned him a place at Alfa Romeo, a team that provided him with a dominant car. Despite entering the championship finale in third, behind Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli, he benefitted from a mechanical failure for the former and beat the latter to claim the crown, with three victories.

In the following seasons, success was not as frequent. He was fourth in 1951 and a switch to Ferrari for 1952 gave him the runner-up spot in the standings and his last win in the next season. After sustaining injuries early in 1954, his stamina declined and the death of Alberto Ascari was another blow, leading him to retirement.

The resurgence in the 1980s

During the 1980s, with grids getting larger and Italy enjoying a period of prosperity, several Italian drivers made it to Formula 1, partly thanks to the involvement of Italian sponsors helping them. Two of those achieved five or more victories.

Riccardo Patrese

The driver from Padua had a remarkable career that lasted seventeen seasons, with six wins putting him second on the respective list of Italians. Following a few races with Shadow in 1977, Patrese joined Arrows. Occasional points finishes, with three podiums, put him on the map and in 1982 he made the move to Brabham, next to the reigning World Champion, Nelson Piquet. In a transitional phase for the team, as it switched to turbocharged engines, Patrese claimed his maiden victory in a chaotic Monaco GP and in the next season he added one more in the finale.

His move to Alfa Romeo for 1984 did not prove fruitful, as did his return to Brabham two years later. For 1988, he moved to Williams, a move that resurrected his career despite a tricky first year. In the second, he took six podiums to finish the season in third place. In 1990, Patrese returned to winning ways after seven years. In 1991 he won twice and the following season he was second in the standings, driving the all-conquering FW14B, behind Nigel Mansell. A move to Benetton came next, as Patrese bid farewell to Formula 1 with two more podiums and the record for most starts in Formula 1, which has since fallen.

Michele Alboreto

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Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

Michele Alboreto had a strange racing career, with a blinding start and an underwhelming conclusion. The Italian joined the declining Tyrrell team in 1981 and in his first three seasons he defied expectations to claim the team’s final two victories. His performances earned him a seat at Ferrari for 1984, where he stayed for five seasons. He often featured on the podium, claimed three more victories, but a championship challenge in 1985 fell apart with five retirements in the last five races.

For 1989 he moved back to Tyrrell, but he did not back down when sponsorship conflicts rose and he was dropped after six races. From then on, he raced for various backmarkers and, despite good performances he did not return on the podium until he left for sportscar racing in 1994. He won at Le Mans in 1997, but lost his life in a testing accident four years later.

The recent past, the present and the future

After another drought in the mid-90s, later years saw the return of Italian drivers. Most significant among those were Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, both going on to become Grand Prix winners and significant drivers in their time in the sport. Antonio Giovinazzi is the last driver to race in the championship, driving for Alfa Romeo until 2021.

However, a new era looks to begin for the historic nation in Formula 1, as two drivers are coming up through the ranks. Gabriele Mini is a promising prospect, racing in Formula 3 as part of the Alpine Academy. Andrea Kimi Antonelli has been one of the best young drivers for the past few years and his connection with the Mercedes Junior Team is a contributing factor in his hopes for a bright future. He is currently racing in the Formula Regional European Championship, after dominating various other series on his way.

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