F1 » Vitantonio Liuzzi
A karting win over world champion Michael Schumacher brought Vitantonio Liuzzi to the racing world's full attention, and has helped fast-track his road to the top flight ever since.
The Italian was largely just another promising kart racer before his meeting with Schumacher, starting his career at the tender age of ten, and collecting Italian junior titles and podium results on the international scene. Moving into the senior ranks, he finally earned a major honour with the 1999 European title and Ayrton Senna trophy, but it was two years later that his career received its biggest boost.
Much had been made about Schumacher's decision to contest the 2001 world kart championship event in Germany but, in poor conditions, it was Liuzzi who stole the rest of the headlines by winning the title. His name was then the one on everybody's lips, despite having simultaneously spent a year in the German Formula Renault championship, finishing as runner-up.
Having already tested an F3 car for the Dutch van Amersfoort team in 2000, many expected Liuzzi to step straight up into the category and go quickly. The crack Bertram Schafer team which had guided Schumacher in his formative years, provided a home for the Italian, and he was indeed quickly on the pace, taking three second places on his way to ninth overall. His speed was never in doubt, as three pole positions attested, and a maiden race win came in the non-championship outing at Imola.
Despite not being a title contender, Liuzzi's karting performances, allied to those in both FRenault and F3, had brought him to the attention of drinks brand Red Bull, and he was duly added to the company's roster of sponsored drivers. As a result, he was also handed a seat in F3000 with Red Bull's Junior team, which was run by Coloni Motorsport.
He was also invited, along with fellow Italian Giorgio Pantano, to test with the Williams team but, while Pantano was considered a possible contender for a seat with the team, Liuzzi generally out-performed him. Neither was offered a drive, however.
His first year in the FIA F3000 series contained a series of fourth place finishes that belied his rookie status, but also frustrated Liuzzi, who was keen to break on to the podium. He appeared to have his best chance of doing so at the Hungaroring, where he qualified on pole by almost half a second - despite never having seen the track before practice - and was leading comfortably when his mandatory pit-stop - only introduced at that event - went awry. A penalty for forceful driving as he attempted to recover lost ground eventually pushed him further down the order. There wasn't another chance to run at the front, but fourth in the championship was enough to convince champions Arden International to sign him for 2004.
The move cemented his reputation as, despite a concerted effort by compatriot Enrico Toccacelo, Liuzzi romped to the title on the back of a record-equalling seven race wins.
That set him up for a crack at Formula One but, just days before he was due to test with Sauber - an outing that many believed would confirm him as part of the Swiss team's line-up for 2005 - former world champion Jacques Villeneuve inked a contract. Liuzzi continued with his test, and impressed with both his speed and feedback.
Testing opportunities were being talked about at both Williams and Ferrari, but another important decision was being taken a little further down the pit-lane that would shape Liuzzi's immediate F1 future. With Jaguar Racing ailing badly, and owners Ford about to pull the plug, Red Bull staged a last-ditch buy-out, fulfilling Dietrich Mateschitz's dream of owning his own F1 team. Liuzzi was immediately touted as one of the team's drivers, but Mateschitz took the opportunity of bringing in the experienced David Coulthard to provide some knowledge and guidance, leaving just one seat for the Italian and Jaguar incumbent Christian Klien to fight over.
With both drivers already backed by Red Bull, Mateschitz decided that they should share the second seat, with Klien getting three races before Liuzzi finally made his F1 debut on home soil at Imola.
The Italian's first grand prix went well and he even managed a point, taking eighth place, following the exclusion of the two BARs. He then raced at Barcelona, Monte Carlo and at the Nurburgring, however he had to wait until the European GP to notch up another finish, after two successive retirements. A ninth place finish though at the 'ring was not enough to secure the seat and Klien was brought back for the following events.
Although Liuzzi was led to believe he would at least get another sequence of three or so races during 2005, Red Bull eventually decided that swapping drivers was counter-productive. Liuzzi therefore sat out the rest of the season, although he did continue to test and take part in the Friday practice sessions, as the outfit's official third driver. The only exception was the US and Canadian GPs, when Scott Speed, another Red Bull backed driver, got the nod for the Friday role due to his American passport.
As a reward for his patience at being on the wrong end of Red Bull's rather unhelpful driver rotation system, Liuzzi was immediately lined up for a full-season in F1 with the newly created Scuderia Toro Rosso squad, which took the place of Minardi in 2006.
Partnered with fellow Red Bull sponsored driver Scott Speed, the 'junior' team headed by Gerhard Berger proved controversial with their restricted V10 Cosworth engines at first, but ultimately the decision to use the already well developed units prevented them from progressing so much through the season and gradually Liuzzi slipped away from being a real threat to the mid-field early in the year to struggling somewhat towards its close.
Indeed, while Liuzzi showed various flashes of speed that saw him qualify into the second knockout stage of qualifying on numerous occasions in 2006, the single point he managed for the team was more to do with the high attrition rate of the United States Grand Prix.
Nonetheless, despite his performance advantage over Speed being eroded towards the end of the season and mistakes beginning to creep in, Liuzzi did enough to merit a second season with the team and, with Ferrari now supplying the engines, the Italian was expected to prove a more regular midfielder.
Despite controversially using a version of the latest product from Red Bull Technologies - which essentially brought it onto a level with the sister RBR operation - Toro Rosso was slow out of the blocks, and neither Speed or Liuzzi was able to make a mark early on. Lowly results were interspersed with driver- and mechanically-induced DNFs that left the axe hanging over both pilots.
In the end, Speed was the one to get the chop, but Liuzzi's relationship with bosses Gerhard Berger and Franz Tost was an unhappy one through the remainder of the season. Sebastian Vettel's arrival as team-mate from Hungary onwards prompted an upturn in STR fortunes, with both drivers scoring points.
Liuzzi was demoted from eighth in Japan, but made amends with sixth in China to end the season 18th overall, but it was not enough to keep him on board for 2008, with Sebastien Bourdais arriving from Champ Car to take his place.
A rumoured target for Williams, the Italian saw that door closed by Kazuki Nakajima, but he impressed the renamed Force India F1 team with his feedback and pace in post-season testing, and he duly secured the 'third' driver role at the Silverstone-based outfit for 2008.
Despite a relative lack of testing opportunities, Liuzzi remained on board at the minnow for 2009, and was rewarded for his loyalty when Giancarlo Fisichella decided to accept an offer to see out the season - and possibly his career - with Ferrari. Liuzzi replaced his countryman alongside Adrian Sutil from Monza onwards, and immediately showed that he had lost none of his pace as he put the neatly-developed VJM02 seventh on the grid in favourable low-downforce spec, only to be denied a likely points finish with mechanical problems. Thereafter, he failed to break the top ten, ending the season point-less after five outings, but had earned himself a return for 2010.
Although there was no repeat of the unexpected frontrunning performances seen in 2009, Force India again produced a useful car that allowed both Liuzzi and Sutil to show well on occasion. Sadly for the Italian, however, his days in the sun were fewer and farther between as he often found himself in the battle to escape the first round of qualifying. Not everything was down to Liuzzi though, for he suffered more misfortune than perhaps any other driver in the field, and showed what he was capable of with strong races in Bahrain, Australia, Canada and, most notably, Korea, where he out-performed not only his team-mate but also the awful conditions.
With only 21 points and 15th in the standings, however, he trailed Sutil at season's end and, despite speculation that the German may move on, found his own position called into question on more than one occasion, with reserve Paul di Resta being tipped as his replacement. Despite having a year to run on his contract, Liuzzi was indeed usurped by the young DTM champion, but stuck out the annual 'silly season' to land a seat at struggling HRT and retain his place in the F1 field.
The season started badly, when neither of the Spanish cars made the cut in Melbourne, but Liuzzi made the grid at each subsequent round that he contested. He comfortably had the better of F1 returnee Narain Karthikeyan, but found more of a match when rookie Daniel Ricciardo was parachuted in to replace the Indian.
Struggling to make his experience count, and with no sign of points as HRT again brought up the rear in 2011, Liuzzi's star began to wane once more. With new team owners Thesan Capital looking to stamp a more Spanish persona on the operation, and still in need of better-funded drivers, the Italian remained unconfirmed as the 2012 season drew near, despite again having a multi-year contract in his pocket. His exit was eventually confirmed when Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa were signed for the season. Liuzzi, determined to keep his hand in, transferred to the Italian-based Superstars touring car series, coming within a handful of points of taking the title in his maiden campaign.