The 2013 season marks 60 years since Alberto Ascari won his second world title.
Italy dominated the early years of the world championship. In the first four seasons every title was won by a driver in an Italian car, and three of those four drivers were Italians. At the time it would have been unthinkable that, 60 years later, Italy would still be waiting for another world champion driver.
Ferrari has gone on to become the most successful team in the history of the sport. But the success of Italy’s great team has seldom been matched by its drivers.
Many have tried to follow in Ascari’s footsteps: only Britain* has had more competitors than Italy’s 98. But while there have been race winners and runners-up, the wait for a champion goes on.
From Ascari to Bandini
Having won the championship for the second time Ascari turned his attention to a new Italian racing project: Lancia’s spectacular D50, which did not see racing action until the end of the 1954 season.
But the project collapsed after Ascari’s death while testing a sportscar at Monza. Italy mourned their lost champion and it fell to the next generation to succeed him.
Luigi Musso and Eugenio Castellotti both fitted the bill of young, handsome and talented but both were killed at the wheel. Like Ascari, Castelotti perished while testing a new Ferrari in 1957. Musso crashed to his death during the 1958 French Grand Prix while pursuing team mate Mike Hawthorn for the lead of the race.
Italian hopes were restored in 1961 by the tantalising prospect of Giancarlo Baghetti in a Ferrari. The young Italian caused a stir by winning his first two non-championship races in Syracuse and Naples, but the real sensation was caused by his remarkable and unique success in his first ever championship Grand Prix; the French Grand Prix at Reims.
From twelfth on the grid, Baghetti benefited from the mechanical misfortunes of others to find himself in second place entering the final lap. With a last gasp slip-stream manoeuvre, Baghetti edged his Ferrari ahead of Dan Gurney’s Porsche to win by inches and became the first – and so far only – driver to win on their debut. Baghetti’s promise faded rapidly after that fortunate win, with just two more points scoring races.
Lorenzo Bandini took up the mantle as Italy’s leading light and showed clear promise, putting his Ferrari on the front row in his first race for the team at Monaco in 1962. This extraordinarily talented Italian was touted as Italy’s best prospect since Ascari and his career had the backing of influential senior figures at Ferrari, notably team manager Eugenio Dragoni.
Bandini’s first victory at Zeltweg in 1964 underlined his status as a coming man. Team mate John Surtees won the championship that year but the pressure on Bandini was amplified as internal politics at Ferrari elbowed Surtees out of the picture the following year.
Now Bandini carried the hopes of an expectant nation at a time when Ferrari’s cars were no longer the front runners. At Monaco in 1967 Bandini flicked his Ferrari into the harbour-front chicane for the 82nd time when it got away from him, crashing into straw bales and exploding in flames. He succumbed to his injuries three days later.
Ludovico Scarfiotti was the next Italian driver to score a single win – a delirious home victory in 1966 – then perish at too young an age. After that nine years passed until the next success for an Italian driver.
In 1969, the year after Scarfiotti died, no Italian driver even started a race. Ferrari too were in the doldrums, only sending a single car to most rounds and skipping the German Grand Prix entirely.
Vittorio Brambilla’s aggressive driving style earned him a reputation – and his sole victory celebration in F1 earned him some laughs. As he crossed the finish line of the rain-shortened 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, Brambilla raised both arms in celebration, only for his orange March to slide out of control and slam into the crash barriers. The victory was his, but it would be his only triumph.
Italy could lay claim to 1978 champion Mario Andretti. But Andretti’s family left Italy when he was eight and he became an American citizen in 1964, four years before his first appearance in an F1 car.
During the eighties and nineties F1’s Italian contingent first recovered, then boomed. This was thanks in part to a growth of Italian teams in the sport: Alfa Romeo returned first as an engine supplier then, from 1979 to 1985, as a full constructor. Minardi, Osella and others soon joined them.
But Italy’s next great hope made his F1 debut with a British team. Michele Alboreto spent three years with Tyrrell, winning the 1982 Las Vegas and 1983 Detroit Grands Prix and earning the call-up from Enzo Ferrari.
In 1985 Alboreto took on Alain Prost for the drivers’ championship, scoring a brilliant win in Monaco. But the performance and reliability of Prost’s McLaren told and in the second half of the year he seized the initiative from Alboreto. Prost sealed the title with two races to spare. Alboreto never won another F1 races and lost his life when the Le Mans car he was testing for Audi crashed at the Lausitzring in 2001.
For a while Italy was often the most represented country on the Formula One grid thanks to drivers like Elio de Angelis, Andrea de Cesaris, Bruno Giacomelli, Pierluigi Martini, Alessandro Nannini, Gabriele Tarquini, Alessandro Zanardi and others.
Riccardo Patrese came closest to championship success in 1992, finishing runner-up to team mate Nigel Mansell, but his single victory to Mansell’s nine and his team mate’s contracted number one status meant Patrese’s championship chances were not a realistic proposition. But he was Italy’s most successful driver for many years, scoring six wins in a career which had lasted a record-breaking 256 races when he retired in 1993.
In 1997 Jarno Trulli captured the imagination when he was called up from Minardi to drive for Prost as a substitute and led convincingly in Austria until his engine failed. He lost his F1 seat at the end of 2011 after scoring a single victory in Monaco for Renault seven years earlier.
His successor at that team, Giancarlo Fisichella, was another Italian driver billed as a future champion. He produced three wins but was emphatically seen off by Fernando Alonso while the pair were at Renault.
As of last year, Italy no longer has a driver on the F1 grid. The difficulties faced by a future successor to Ascari is exemplified by Davide Valsecchi, who won the GP2 championship last year but is yet to find a race seat. Other Italian drivers before him have succeeded in GP2 yet failed to find an F1 berth, such as 2008 champion Giorgio Pantano (who briefly raced in F1 in 2004) and 2011 runner-up Luca Filippi.
Although the Italian desire for victories has been sated by Ferrari’s continuing successes, the wait for a new world champion driver goes on. With Italians finding it hard merely to gain a foothold in F1 at present, it looks likely to last a lot longer.
*The USA has also had more drivers compete in rounds of the world championship, but most of these only raced in the Indianapolis 500 when it counted towards the title.
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