- Jul 23, 2014
It won't be in an official race session, barring an unforeseen emergency that sidelines either Felipe Nasr or Marcus Ericsson. But when Sauber reserve driver Raffaele Marciello takes to the track this Friday morning (or late Thursday evening depending on your time zone) at the first free practice of the Malaysian Grand Prix, he will break a ten-year streak for his home country of Italy and become the first new countryman to take part in an F1 session since Vitantonio Liuzzi's F1 debut for Red Bull all the way back in 2005.
Like every F1 hopeful these days, Marciello has substantial backing. But not in the form of a government-owned agency or some family-owned private company, oh no. The backing comes straight from the mighty Ferrari empire, whose Ferrari Driver Academy has in a very short time already launched Sergio Perez to F1 stardom, and should have propelled Jules Bianchi to stratospheric heights before it was all shattered on a rainy October afternoon in Japan.
And it's not as if this support was solely a matter of jingoism on Ferrari's behalf. Marciello, born in Zurich, Switzerland, but racing for Italy in honor of his family, had a standout career in karting not unlike many of his countrymen who have preceded him. Once he got to single-seaters, he finished in the top three of every championship he raced in from 2010 to 2013, starting in the as-seen-in-Assetto Corsa Formula Abarth championship as a fifteen-year-old, and peaking in 2013 when he became the second-ever Formula 3 champion of Europe (championship celebration pictured below). Those few drivers who have beat him to a title in that span, from Brandon Maisano and Patric Niederhauser in Formula Abarth, to Daniel Juncadella in his first year of European Formula 3, have already been surpassed by the Swiss-Italian Superman.
Marciello's 2014 rookie campaign in GP2 is better remembered for the novice struggles, which might be unfair. If you only looked at the results table, you might think that his 2014 season was an underwhelming disappointment aside from a big win at the feature race in Spa-Francorchamps and a double-podium finish at the Spielberg meeting, and if you were feeling harsher, you'd think Marciello wasn't all that good once he got out of Formula 3.
But if you were fortunate enough to see Marciello race in GP2 that year, you'd know he was the only other rookie that could consistently match or exceed the pure pace of fellow first-year phenom Stoffel Vandoorne, and you'd curse the awful lack of fortune that helped contribute to the six DNFs and eleven non-scoring finishes in twenty-two races. His win in Belgium (pictured below) was nothing short of an all-time classic battle with Vandoorne that was just as good as any of the Lewis Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg battles in the big leagues, he was aggressive, bold, and unafraid to overtake - and if not for a grid penalty in Abu Dhabi, he would have qualified in the top ten of all eleven feature races. No other driver on the grid could have matched that.
In three weeks' time, Marciello will set out on his sophomore GP2 campaign, where he will be a slam-dunk title contender in an elite group of talent including Vandoorne, Pierre Gasly, Alex Lynn, and Mitch Evans - that has helped to revitalize a championship was trending towards sickliness. Marciello had already tested for his "new" team, Trident Racing, months before his GP2 debut, driving a car that looked so feeble in the hands of lesser drivers right to the top of the time sheets. And if Trident were able to take the extremely problematic Johnny Cecotto Jr., reign him in, and power his most productive GP2 season by far last year, there is nothing to suggest that Trident could not make a serious championship push with Marciello - barring a cataclysmic implosion of team chemistry and effectiveness.
But this weekend is all about a ninety-minute practice session in which Marciello will get his first official F1 action, and be under the observation of the racing world at large. Some reserve drivers, most notably Williams Martini Racing's Valtteri Bottas, turned FP1 sessions into a winning audition for an F1 drive. In the case of Romain Grosjean or Nico Hulkenberg, it was a chance to show that they were ready to come back to the grid, better than they ever were before.
Others were not as fortunate, though surely they could not be as unfortunate as the previous lost generation of Italian talents that preceded Marciello. Right after Liuzzi's stellar debut, he hit his ceiling and eventually fizzled out in six years. Giorgio Pantano's legendary karting career could not be converted into any F1 success. Gianmaria Bruni was discarded after a year at Minardi, and had to reinvent himself as an elite GT driver. To say nothing of the likes of Davide Valsecchi, Luca Filippi, Andrea Caldarelli, Eduardo Mortara, and Davide Rigon, who didn't even make the show despite varyingly successful junior careers.
That generation of Italian drivers faded away from the F1 scene, and the bridge from the generation of Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, and Luca Badoer was never completed. And in the ten years between Liuzzi's Red Bull debut, and Marciello's first drive at Sauber yet to come, Italy has now gone without an F1 racing driver for the last three seasons, soon to be four. The San Marino Grand Prix has been dropped since 2006, and if a new deal can't be reached, the doomsday scenario of losing the Italian Grand Prix might be a reality very soon, to go along with the prospect of Scuderia Toro Rosso being sold to Renault and thus, rescinding the team's Italian heritage that traces back to the years of Minardi.
But Marciello has all the ability to restore that lost hope, and bring Italian drivers back to prominence in Formula 1. I'd stop short of saying Marciello can bring the San Marino GP back. But it would be a start to a long-term revitalization. And even if he spends all of FP1 tomorrow sitting in the garage because of a mechanical issue, he still has the prospect of a vastly-improved GP2 campaign in front of him to bolster his F1 prospects. He's already on the shortlist of driving candidates for the upstart Haas F1 Team, who, by no coincidence, will also be supported by Ferrari upon their 2016 debut, and will arrive with the most competitive plan for a scratch-made, non-manufacturer team in over twenty years.
In other words, don't expect the F1 grid to be missing an Italian driver next year, because there's a fairly good chance that the confident and refreshing "Mello Lello" is going to crash the party and assert himself as Italy's next racing hero.
And the prologue starts in just a few hours.