FOR THE FIRST time in over 40 years, there will be no Italian driver on the Formula 1 grid for the coming season.
That was the stark realisation being faced into in Italy on Friday evening after it was announced that Caterham’s Jarno Trulli would be replaced by well-backed Russian Vitaly Petrov on the eve of the 2012 Championship.
The veteran himself insisted that he saw the decision coming, but it has been some time since a racer with Italian blood was genuinely competitive on the grid – think of the likes of Giancarlo Fisichella and Vitantonio Liuzzi.
Many F1 watchers would argue that Trulli has been the best and most capable driver produced by Italy in recent decades. He could almost be very quick but never seemed to have the luck of having a car that was both reliable and fast. His sudden departure follows that of Rubens Barrichello, another one of the sport’s older guys forced to move on over the winter.
The last Italian World Champion was Alberto Ascari back in 1953; now Italy will look to Ferrari and its drivers in the pursuit of success. Team boss Stefano Domenicali spoke of his disappointment after hearing of Trulli’s news.
“I am very sad that, after so many years there will not be an Italian driver in the Formula 1 World Championship field,” he told his team’s website. “I say this on the sporting front and on a personal level when it comes to Jarno, who only on a few occasions has had a car capable of showing off his talents.”
The Scuderia, too, faces a huge battle over the coming months if it’s to regain the Driver or Team Championship, considering the form of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Ironically, the new season will see the return to Formula 1 of the last man to win a title in Ferrari colours (Kimi Raikkonen, 2007), though he will be racing for Lotus.
Led once more by two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, Ferrari was quickest of the teams on the final day of testing in Jerez last week but the Spaniard was anxious for fans not to read too much into the week’s activities – given just how early in the year it is.
“It has been a positive four days for us and understanding the car,” he told reporters. “But obviously, with a completely new concept and a completely new design, there is a lot of room for improvement for us and that’s what we need to focus on in the next couple of tests.
Hardly the sentiments the Tifosi would have been yearning for following Trulli’s departure, but pre-season testing is notoriously difficult to gain accurate readings from as teams rarely admit to fuel levels or settings as they themselves are as keen as anyone for rivals to believe their speed.
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All of which leaves a nation, which has always prided itself on its motorsport traditions, teetering on the edge of becoming irrelevant. It’s not impossible to imagine either. France was once a powerful influence on the sport – helped by the success of Alain Prost and popularity of Jean Alesi – but doubts over the future of French Grand Prix and the struggles of Renault did see interest levels wane significantly.
The presence of a handful of younger racers on the grid this year – Romain Grosjean (Lotus), Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) and Charles Pic (Marussia) – should help to reverse the trend.
However, as Germany and its F1 history demonstrates (numbers took a huge dip after Michael Schumacher’s retirement only to regain ground as Vettel made his presence felt), countries need competing drivers as well as teams to sustain the serious levels of support needed to be a meaningful player in a racing series that is as reliant as ever on finances.
The current Ferrari squad is working hard to repeat the success overseen by ‘dream team’ Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Schumacher, though their most critical contribution could well be their efforts to bring an Italian starlet into the sport in the near future.