Ahead of the Italian Grand Prix, we’re taking a look at the country’s most successful F1 protagonists.
Though inextricably linked with F1, particularly through Ferrari and the historic Monza circuit, Italy has enjoyed little success in terms of grand prix drivers. Their last world title win came way back in 1953, their most recent race win in 2006, and there are currently no Italian drivers on the grid.
Nevetheless, the country has produced a number of very talented racers, particularly in the sport’s early years. Honourable mentions must go to Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy’s most recent Italian grand prix winners; Elio de Angelis, a two-time winner who lost his life aged just 28; and Vittorio ‘The Monza Gorilla’ Brambilla, a local-boy-done-good who rarely enjoyed any luck on home turf.
Now, on to the big hitters.
5. RICCARDO PATRESE
Six race wins from 256 starts may seem a slightly lacklustre return, but Riccardo Patrese’s 16-year grand prix career is testament to the consistency and intelligence he developed behind the wheel.
Debuting in 1977, he quickly made a name for himself with a string of impressive drives for the Arrows squad. After switching to Brabham he won a crazy Monaco Grand Prix in 1982, but largely spent the eighties driving uncompetitive or unreliable machinery.
His break came in 1988 when he joined Williams. The Grove-based squad were on the cusp of greatness, though unfortunately for Patrese he was joined by a very determined Nigel Mansell in 1991. The following year’s car was streets ahead of the competition, but it was the Englishman who made the best of it. Nigel won nine races and the world title while Patrese took a single victory and runner-up spot.
He switched to Benetton for 1993 but was put in the shade by a rapid young German named Michael Schumacher. Patrese hung up his helmet that year, but his record of 256 starts stood for more than a decade before finally being surpassed by Rubens Barrichello.
4. MICHELE ALBORETO
Always a popular figure, Alboreto almost appeared too happy and jovial to be an F1 driver. But on track he knew how to perform and made an impressive start to life in the sport by winning grands prix for Tyrrell in 1982 and ’83. That landed him a dream move to Ferrari, albeit during a fallow period for the Scuderia. Nevertheless, Alboreto was World Championship runner-up in 1985 and delivered plenty of strong performances for the team. He became the first Italian to win for them in 28 years, a feat that is still yet to be repeated 30 years later.
After leaving the team in 1989 Alboreto quickly slid to the rear of the grid, remaining in F1 until 1994 with the likes of Footwork, Scuderia Italia and finally Minardi. He then made a successful switch to sportscar racing, winning the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1996 aboard a TWR Porsche.
Tragically, Alboreto lost his life testing for Audi in 2001, aged 44.
3. NINO FARINA
Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina holds a special place in motorsport history: in 1950, the Alfa Romeo driver won the very first Formula 1 World Championship race and a few months later went on to clinch the inaugural title.
He could have won more had he not found himself sharing a team with one of the greatest talents in motor racing history, the Argentine five-time champion Juan-Manuel Fangio. That prompted him to join Ferrari, but here he was again faced with a younger, faster team-mate who also hailed from Italy. More on him later.
Despite this Farina continued to perform, finishing as runner-up in 1952 and third in ’53. He stepped away from competitive racing in the late fifties but never lost his love for the sport, and continued to attend numerous events. Tragically, he lost his life in a road accident while travelling to the 1966 French Grand Prix.
2. MARIO ANDRETTI
If this was a countdown of the top American drivers in F1 history Mario Andretti would be number one; as it is he’ll have to settle for second, not something the man himself has ever been fond of.
Mario always raced under the Stars and Stripes, but his heritage makes his spot on this list essential. Born in Italy, Andretti moved to American as a teenager, later becoming a U.S citizen. However it was in his native Italy that he first fell in love with motorsport, catching the bug watching grand prix racing at Monza and the famed Mille Miglia.
He went on to make a name for himself in the States, winning both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 during the sixtes, before becoming a full-time F1 driver in the mid-seventies. He claimed the World Championship for Lotus in 1978, a fact some Italian fans will point out when it is said that their last title came in 1953. Appropriately, Mario’s final grands prix came at Ferrari during their tragic 1982 season.
Now in his forties, you’d have expected Mario to hang up his helmet. No chance. He returned to IndyCar with great success, winning the 1984 title and plenty more races besides. Take a bow, Mario: not many can claim to be a racing legend in both Italy and America.
1. ALBERTO ASCARI
Numero uno has to be Alberto Ascari. Almost 60 years after his death, the Milan-born racer remains his country’s only multiple World Champion, their most successful driver with 13 race victories, and holds the distinction of being the only Italian to win the title for Ferrari.
Ascari’s success came in two fantastic years for the Scuderia. In 1952, six successive race wins in an eight-race season secured him a commanding win. The following year he was only slightly less dominant, taking five victories to become F1’s first double champion.
Ascari then left Ferrari after a disagreement over money, joining the burgeoning Lancia team while also making appearances for Maserati. He even made a brief return to the Scuderia at Monza.
In 1955 he was a full-time Lancia driver, but it would be a fateful year. Ascari crashed into the harbour while leading the Monaco Grand Prix, but incredibly was pulled from the water with no more than a broken nose. However his luck had run out and less than a week later he lost his life in a sportscar testing accident at Monza. His name lives on, however, and will be heard plenty this weekend as F1’s modern day heroes negotiate the Ascari chicane.