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Six of the Best: Italian Nearlymen

3 September 2013

Despite its enduring status as one of the historic cradles of motorsport, Italy hasn't produced a Formula One world champion for 60 years, since Alberto Ascari's 1953 championship win sealed a third Italian title in the first four seasons of the new formula.

While Ferrari has successfully carried the honour and affections of Italy to the tune of 204 wins, 16 Constructors' Championships and 13 Drivers' Championships since the days of Ascari, the fortunes of Italy's drivers during the same period have been much less favourable. Of the 13 Italians to have tasted victory since Ascari's 1953 championship win, only four have won more than one race, and arguably only one, Michele Alboreto in 1985, has mounted a serious title challenge.

There have been extenuating circumstances though, with generations of supremely talented Italian racers cursed by bad timing, ill fortune, and, in some cases, tragedy. Crash.net profiles six of the Italian racers who came closest to breaking the 60-year jinx.


RICCARDO PATRESE

F1's original 'Mr Longevity', Riccardo Patrese won six races and took 31 podiums across a 17-year career that took in a then-record 256 grands prix.

An initial burst of success in F1 with Shadow and Arrows was tarnished by Patrese's implication in Ronnie Peterson's fatal accident at Monza in 1978 – for which he was eventually cleared at trial in 1981. The damage to his reputation took longer to shed though and, despite wins for Brabham at Monaco in 1982 and South Africa in 1983, Patrese's early career was defined by erratic performances and volatile reliability – twin factors that saw him dropped by Brabham after trailing home ninth in the standings to world champion team-mate Nelson Piquet in 1983.

The mid-'80s were hard on Patrese, as his career bore the rapid decline and poor performance of the Alfa Romeo and Brabham teams. Patrese earned enduring respect for his consistent temperament and refusal to criticise his team through the lean years though. His calm, considered and 'un-Italian' reaction to consistent hardship underscored a fierce loyalty to his team, helping to shed the aspersions of aloof arrogance that dogged his early career. Over time, the enfant terrible became a venerable elder statesman, a benevolent team player motivated by the simple serenity of racing F1 cars.

Raw speed may have always been part of Patrese's make-up, but it was only later aligned to consistency and success. The autumn of his career was an extended Indian summer, with five seasons at Williams ultimately bringing four wins in ever-more competitive machinery. Patrese had the fortune to race one of F1's greatest cars, the 1992 Williams FW14B, but the misfortune of doing so alongside an inspired Nigel Mansell, taking a career-best but distant second to Mansell in the championship.

The odd-man out in the scrap between Prost, Senna and Mansell for a Williams seat in 1993, Patrese switched to Benetton, but was resoundingly crushed in his final campaign by the up-and-coming Michael Schumacher. Patrese retired as F1's most experienced driver, a record he held until Rubens Barrichello took the baton in 2008.


MICHELE ALBORETO

A genial, self-effacing and studious racer, Michele Alboreto came closest to exorcising the ghost of Ascari, with a battling second place to Alain Prost for Ferrari in the 1985 championship.

A Tyrrell protégé, Alboreto rose steadily up the grid following his debut in 1981, taking wins in Las Vegas in 1982 and Detroit in 1983 to establish himself as a regular front-runner – and a formidable street circuit specialist. Alboreto's Detroit win was the last victory for a normally aspirated car before the turbo monopoly, an era that would see Alboreto's zenith as Ferrari's lead driver.

Signing for Ferrari for the 1984 season, Alboreto became the first Italian to race for the Maranello outfit since Arturio Mezario in 1973 – with Enzo Ferrari breaking his famous rule about hiring Italian drivers in order to secure Alboreto's services.

After picking up a win at Zolder en route to fourth in the 1984 championship, Alboreto really came to the fore in 1985, winning the Canadian and German grands prix as Ferrari took the fight to Prost and McLaren. Alboreto was level in the standings with Prost at the mid-point of the season, but four successive mechanical retirements at season's end gifted the Frenchman his first title.

Alboreto would never challenge again, and Gerhard Berger's arrival at Ferrari in 1987 put paid to his lead driver aspirations. Asked to seek a drive elsewhere for 1989, Alboreto rejoined Tyrrell, but this was the start of a dramatic downturn in the Italian's fortunes. Alboreto would spend his final years in F1 bouncing around the bottom order, and despite a renaissance for Footwork in 1992, would score only seven points across his final five seasons – three of which finished pointless.

After leaving F1 in 1994, Alboreto established a successful sportscar career, winning Le Mans in 1997, but was tragically killed testing for Audi in 2001.


ANDREA DE CESARIS

One of F1's true Jekyll and Hyde characters, Andrea de Cesaris had a career that encompassed the ridiculous and, all too rarely, the sublime. A veteran of 208 grands prix, de Cesaris holds the unfortunate record for the most race starts without a victory.

Prone to bouts of Latin temperament, de Cesaris had to work hard to overcome his early-career moniker of 'de Crasheris'. Catapulted into F1 aged 21 by his Marlboro connections, his first disastrous forays were summed up when McLaren withdrew him from the 1981 Dutch GP out of concern that he would wreck the car following five straight retirements through driver error.

Sacked by McLaren after scoring one point to team leader John Watson's 27 in 1981, de Cesaris showed flashes of speed in 1982 for Alfa Romeo, becoming the then youngest pole-sitter aged 22 at Long Beach and famously running out of fuel when poised to win on the last lap in Monaco.

Despite his improving form, de Cesaris found himself sliding down the grid from Alfa Romeo to Ligier, and was summarily sacked after a spectacular barrel-rolling exit from the 1985 Austrian GP.

Taking his Marlboro sponsorship from team to team, the mid-late 80s were a dismal time for the Italian, setting astonishingly poor finishing records: 18 consecutive non-finishes across 1985/86, 12 consecutive mechanical failures from his first 12 races started in 1986 and finishing just three races from 31 starts across the 1986/87 seasons for Minardi and Brabham.

After nomadically meandering from Rial to Dallara, de Cesaris enjoyed a resurgence for Jordan in their 1991 debut season, famously losing second place at Spa just four laps from home with a blown engine. It was the high point of a slow decline though, with de Cesaris' career ending in trademark absurd style when he couldn't be reached on holiday to stand in for Karl Wendlinger for the last two races of 1994 at Sauber, losing the chance for a swansong drive.


ELIO DE ANGELIS

F1's last gentleman racer, Elio de Angelis was a dashingly handsome, highly cultured and stylishly enigmatic swashbuckling racer.

As a junior, de Angelis walked away from an option with Ferrari to enter F1 with Shadow – quickly dispensing with his reputation as a wealthy playboy pay driver by scoring a sensational second place at the 1980 Brazilian GP.

He would become inextricably linked with Lotus, signed by Colin Chapman and spending the bulk of his career racing the iconic JPS black-and-gold alongside Nigel Mansell from 1981 to 1984. Almost as legendary as his on-track exploits were his exhibitions behind the piano – as a concert-standard pianist, he famously kept the drivers entertained during a lock-in strike ahead of the 1982 South African Grand Prix. A strong 1982, backed by a maiden win in Austria, was followed by a dismal 1983 before de Angelis' strongest season in 1984, taking third in the championship behind the all-conquering McLarens.

Lotus may have endured wavering fortunes, but de Angelis consistently had the better of Mansell during their time as team-mates. His loyalty and honour would see the Lotus team pull ranks around him, leading to an uncomfortable chalk-and-cheese tension between the working class Brummie and the charismatic Roman.

A prodigal talent, de Angelis trusted in his natural talent and allied a lifelong hatred of testing with limited inclination to over-exert himself for the technical aspects of the sport – traits which stood him in poor stead alongside Ayrton Senna in 1985. The Brazilian changed the face of F1, harnessing stunning speed with unparalleled intensity and fitness.

de Angelis couldn't live with Senna, and left for Brabham for the 1986 season. With heartrending irony though, he was killed aged just 28 in a testing accident at Paul Ricard after just four races of the 1986 season. His death was a needless loss, with de Angelis succumbing to asphyxiation from a secondary fire after suffering only minor injuries in a violent accident – robbing F1 of one of its last great personalities at the dawn of the new professional era.


ALESSANDRO NANNINI

He may have only raced F1 cars for five years, but Alessandro Nannini's short career was on a singularly upward curve before being truncated in a helicopter accident towards the end of the 1990 season.

Coming late to single-seater racing from a sportscar background with Lancia, Nannini ascended the junior formula ladder in tandem with the Minardi team, finally entering F1 in 1986 having been controversially denied a superlicence for 1985.

Showing undoubted potential, Nannini immediately outpaced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris, but his raw speed was aligned with error-prone tendencies, especially in wheel-to-wheel combat situations. Despite two pointless seasons at Minardi, Nannini's speed convinced Benetton to hire him for 1988 alongside Thierry Boutsen.

Nannini frequently outpaced his veteran team-mate, but couldn't match the Belgian's consistency. By the end of 1989 though, the Italian was blossoming into a consistent front-runner, finishing the year with a maiden win following Ayrton Senna's disqualification in Japan and a fine second place in Australia.

As number two to Nelson Piquet in 1990, Nannini matched the pace of his three-time champion team-mate, taking a brilliant second in Germany before losing a likely win in Hungary after a collision with Senna. Nannini had already signed an extension to his Benetton contract for 1991, despite interest from Ferrari, but was ultimately lucky to survive after severing his arm in a helicopter crash on the family compound in Siena.

Although surgeons were able to re-attach the limb, Nannini's single-seater racing days were over. The racing bug remained thought, and Nannini made a touring car comeback before retiring to run the family bakery business. Like de Angelis, Nannini may never have had a shot at the world championship, but his career will forever be asterisked with the 'what if' of a racer cut down in his prime.


GIANCARLO FISICHELLA

Although his career ultimately flattered to deceive, Giancarlo Fisichella remains the last Italian to win a grand prix, in Malaysia in 2006, and was regarded as one of F1's hottest prospects in the late 1990s.

Fisichella was a selective specialist, whose career was pockmarked with stunning performances, often at Montreal or Spa, and frequent lulls of anonymity. Some of his early drives, such as the 1997 German and Belgian GPs, and the 1998 and 1999 Candian GPs, marked Fisi as a potential future champion.

From his 1997 debut with Jordan to his first year alongside Fernando Alonso at Renault in 2005, Fisichella outperformed his team-mate in every single season – including such luminaries as Ralf Schumacher, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa.

After years of steadily diminishing returns, victory in the crazy 2003 Brazilian GP for Jordan propelled the Italian back towards the top. A move to the front-running Renault team in 2005 alongside Fernando Alonso seemed a dream ticket for Fisi – especially after winning on his debut for the team in Australia.

However, Alonso annilhated Fisichella during their two seasons together, winning consecutive titles and scoring double Fisi's points across the two campaigns. Fisichella was never the same again, and nor would he ever again taste victory, although he came close with a classic 'rolling back the years' performance for Force India at Spa in 2009.
A passion-driven swansong for Ferrari, replacing the hapless Luca Badoer as Felipe Massa's stand-in, yielded no reward in the unwieldy F60, but Fisichella did fulfill a lifelong dream by racing for the Scuderia.

His career though will be remembered as one of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential. As Martin Brundle famously surmised, Fisichella 'underperformed in a good car and overperformed in a poor car', ultimately flattering to deceive when handed the opportunity he had seemed destined to grasp.


by Will Saunders


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