Heading into this weekend’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix, a number of eyes will be on the three full-season rookies gearing up for their race debuts.

For the first time since 2010, all of the top three finishers in last year’s primary feeder series – then GP2, now Formula 2 – will be on the F1 grid after George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon all managed to secure seats for this year.

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But there will be a fourth full-season rookie also facing similar emotions when the lights go out at Albert Park. Unlike the aforementioned trio, he’s had to wait a long, long time for this moment.

Antonio Giovinazzi’s GP2 ‘Class of 2016’ contrast last year’s raft of F2 graduates. While the top three in the series that year – Pierre Gasly, Giovinazzi, and Sergey Sirotkin – all did reach F1, none did so instantly. Gasly was posted to Japan before getting his chance towards the end of 2017 with Toro Rosso; Sirotkin spent a quietly impressive year at Williams in 2018 before being offloaded; and Giovinazzi… well, he was put on hold.

After pushing hot favourite Gasly close for the GP2 title in his debut season, interest in Giovinazzi was high. Ferrari snapped the Italian up for its junior scheme, paving the way for him to make two F1 appearances for Sauber in place of the injured Pascal Wehrlein at the start of the 2017 season. While his run to 12th place in Australia was foot-perfect, a troubled showing in China that saw him suffer two heavy crashes in the weekend, including one in the race on the start-finish straight acted as an off-note on which to end his surprising F1 audition.

“I always believed that it wasn’t a good shot,” Giovinazzi says of his two-race bow. “Melbourne was only from Saturday, and the same in China - I missed FP1 and FP2.

“So I was sure it was not the end of the story. This is what I believed throughout these last two years.”

And it has been a long, largely repetitive two years. Giovinazzi spent plenty of time in Ferrari’s simulator, and would then appear for both Ferrari and Sauber in the in-season F1 tests – red suit one day, white the next – to fulfil their young driver requirements. But no racing.

In fact, Giovinazzi’s sole race between his second F1 start and his third came at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year, when he raced for Ferrari’s factory GT team, AF Corse, and finished fifth in class.

“I’ve missed the stress of racing,” Giovinazzi concedes. “I did Le Mans, but it was a different type of race. I miss the stress of the weekend, before qualy, before the race. I can’t wait to be in Melbourne and start my first grand prix.”

Note how he deems this to be his “first grand prix”. It’s the proper start of his F1 career – and it comes with a very different team to the one he appeared for twice in 2017. Giovinazzi says himself that “the people are still the same” and that “it’s just a different name” – Sauber now being Alfa Romeo Racing – but in truth, the troubled times Sauber faced back then when it languished at the very rear of the grid are now ancient history. Greater resources, closer ties to Ferrari, and a bolstered workforce saw Sauber rise from the rear of the field to lead the midfield on occasion across the course of last season.

“I think it was a positive season last year. We started fighting from the last position, and then in the end they were always fighting in the top 10,” Giovinazzi says.

“If we can go from where they were at the end of last season, fighting in the top 10, it’s something really good. It’s our target.”

So long as Alfa Romeo do pick up where Sauber left off in 2018, Giovinazzi will have the opportunity many F1 rookies do not get: a chance to impress. His GP2 classmate Sirotkin found out the hard way in 2018 how punishing life at the rear of the F1 grid can be, with his one-point haul for Williams failing to reflect the true contribution he made.

Such a fate would have been hard to swallow for a driver who has waited so long for this opportunity. Giovinazzi was in contention for a race seat at Sauber in 2018, but missed out as Marcus Ericsson clung on to his seat alongside Charles Leclerc. Instead, another year on the sidelines followed.

Was it hard to keep motivated? “Yes, of course,” Giovinazzi freely admits. “But at that moment, my work was to work for Ferrari in the simulator, and testing, Pirelli testing or rookie tests. Giving the best feedback to Ferrari in the simulator and on the track, and to do the best job that I could do, this was my main motivation.

“But now of course it is a different motivation, finally. I’m really happy and really motivated to start this season.”

Giovinazzi has a very clear sense of duty. Any cracks of frustration there may have existed privately were never shown publicly over the past two years. When Sauber announced last year it had signed Kimi Raikkonen for 2019, it looked like his opportunity may have passed once again – only for the team to drop Ericsson, giving Giovinazzi his long-awaited opportunity. It had been worth the wait.

The partnership of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen would have seemed an unlikely one 12 months ago, yet the pair offer a good balance: youth meets experience; potential meets proven record; apprentice meets master.

“I know him already from the past two years,” Giovinazzi says, having worked with Raikkonen during his time at Ferrari. “He’s a really good guy, and a world champion driver. He’s the right teammate to start with in Formula 1.”

A chance to learn, but the chance to potentially beat an F1 world champion and recent grand prix winner is not one Giovinazzi wants to pass up: “It will be really important to be close to him through all the season. It’s my real target.”

Some things are worth the wait. Had Giovinazzi landed a Sauber seat in either of the past two seasons, he’d have found himself in a very different position and with different targets than to now (as he found at the start of 2017). The man who beat him to the GP2 title in 2016, Gasly, is proof of how what seem like setbacks at the time can, in fact, be hidden blessings. He’ll be making his Red Bull debut in Melbourne, driving just one of six cars seemingly in contention to win races this year.

Sunday’s race will mark the end of a long and often fraught road for Antonio Giovinazzi – but he never lost faith. And now he’s here, he wants to make sure it is for good. 

“I knew I could do it, and I knew I had the right people behind me and beside me. Finally, I got back my opportunity.

“It’s not the end, because it’s a new start. I want to make sure it’s a new start, and I will work really hard to keep this seat as long as I can.”

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