One third of the way into the 2019 Formula 1 season, there has been one consistently underwhelming driver. In 2016 he was Formula Scout’s top driver of the year, so what’s gone wrong?
Let?s rewind the clock exactly three years ago to June 19, 2016. That?s not quite taking things back to the era of majestic facial hair and clothing choices questionable by today?s standards, but it must feel like a different period altogether for that year?s GP2 runner-up Antonio Giovinazzi, who on that date secured a fantastic double win on the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan.
It was almost the perfect weekend ? with the all-rookie driver-and-team combination of Giovinazzi and Prema bagging all bar two of the available points, thrusting him into title contention seemingly from nowhere. Arguably what impressed most was how, in their fifth race, it was he who took the team?s first win and not his more experienced Red Bull-backed team-mate Pierre Gasly.
Fast forward to last fortnight?s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal and while both Gasly and Giovinazzi outqualified their illustrious and team-mates (who is also a world champion in Giovinazzi’s case), it was another fairly uninspiring – if not poor – performance from both. Red Bull Racing?s Gasly finished behind the inferior Renaults and Giovinazzi finished well out of the points and had contact in the opening metres of the race.
Dispelling the ex-Prema pair based on these poor seven races and by extension dismissing the 2016 field entirely would be very harsh. The pair ? who finished one-two in the championship with Gasly narrowly on top ? overcame the likes of Sergey Sirotkin, Rafaelle Marciello, Alex Lynn, Oliver Rowland, Artem Markelov and Mitch Evans ? all of whom have gone on to become highly regarded in other categories ? to achieve such a feat.
Giovinazzi received huge praise for his championship effort and became closely linked with Scuderia Ferrari from then on. While never an academy driver, he spent a lot of time in the simulator refining setups throughout 2017 and 2018. In fact, he was crucial to Ferrari’s victory in last year’s Canadian GP and can stake some claim to the improved competitiveness of the team over those two years.
In the opening two races of 2017, Giovinazzi was given an opportunity to showcase his racing ability in an F1 car. After deputising for the injured Pascal Wehrlein in pre-season testing, he was called up for the Australian and Chinese Grand Prix.
The immediate response was mightily impressive. He almost scraped an uncompetitive car into Q2 in Melbourne, nearly embarrassing the vastly more experienced Marcus Ericsson in the process. He also raced solidly, finishing a very commendable 12th. Rightly, Giovinazzi was once again praised for his efforts.
That attitude changed at Shanghai. Two crashes at the same corner in qualifying and in the race, the latter which could partly be attributed to a unseen puddle, were enough to convince certain members of the F1 paddock he was undeserving of a seat.
He made free practice appearances with Haas through the rest of 2017, which team boss Guenther Steiner described as “not positive” for Haas. Ferrari then asked the team if he could have one its seats for the next year. The answer was a swift no.
His reputation started to grow again in 2018 when he focused on simulator work, not least when Sebastian Vettel paid tribute to the Italian for his efforts during the Canadian GP weekend ? a race won from pole by four-time champion Vettel but only after Giovinazzi worked hard between Friday and Saturday to rectify problems with Ferrari’s set-up.
While Giovinazzi was playing a vital role in what would become Ferrari’s botched title bid (not through the Italian’s fault), he was sat on the sidelines, not learning anything on the track in racing situations. Haas’s Kevin Magnussen found himself in a similar situation in 2015 after being dropped by McLaren at a time when he needed to learn in battle. It showed on his return with Renault a year later that time away from the racetrack can more often than not be detrimental to a young driver.
Giovinazzi raced just the once in 2018 ? at the Le Mans 24 Hours in an additional AF Corse-ran Ferrari alongside GT great Toni Vilander and IMSA star Pipo Derani. He also made occasional appearances in F1 free practice with Sauber, ahead of getting a call-up to the team (rebranded Alfa Romeo Racing) for 2019 alongside Kimi Raikkonen.
But his maiden full season has not gone according to plan at all. Besides the two drivers saddled with the woefully uncompetitive Williams,?Giovinazzi is the only driver yet to score points. Alfa started out of the blocks well in Raikkonen?s hands, and looked rapid in pre-season testing, but for Giovinazzi it has been a major struggle.
He is 4-1 down in qualifying, excluding the anomalous Chinese and Azerbaijan Grand Prixs as Giovinazzi did not set a time in the former and Raikkonen was excluded in the latter. He has finished ahead of Raikkonen just once this season ? at Canada ? and has spent a considerable amount of time behind his team-mate in the races. Only former European F3 rivals Max Verstappen and George Russell have led their team-mates for longer.
It makes for pretty grim reading on paper. What those stats do not take into consideration is some of the bad luck he has had ? while he has had decent fortune with race reliability ? some qualifying sessions have been undermined due to gearbox or engine troubles. He also started receiving penalties for exceeding his power unit allocation just four races into the season.
But Giovinazzi has showcased improvement from his erratic driving of past years. He is yet to retire from a race in 2019 and has occasionally shown glimpses of the feisty racer that impressed so many in his sole GP2 season. It is, therefore, a shame that he is losing these chances to showcase his prowess in combat.
The Alfa ? which follows a similar concept to the Ferrari ? is also proving difficult to develop throughout the season. The team’s eye-catching testing form has possibly led it down a blind alley in development, and when the equipment is becoming less effective against its opposition, it makes it more difficult for inexperienced drivers to impress.
Giovinazzi could find himself painfully ousted from F1 barely before he’s had a proper chance to show what he can do. Worryingly, his biggest threat comes from a driver whose name is one of the most synonymous with F1 in history.
The Ferrari Driver Academy plays host to two of the hottest Formula 2 rookies in Ilott and Mick Schumacher. Both have already tested for Alfa this year and will be looking to snap at Giovinazzi?s heels where possible. The question is, obviously in a hypothetical sense, would either do better than what is being achieved right now?
That goes before even mentioning the serious talent Ferrari has waiting in Formula 3.
Both Schumacher and Ilott have showcased vast talent and potential, but are still immensely raw and neither have quite made the impression that Giovinazzi made in his sole campaign as yet.
There?s also so much more to being an F1 driver than driving the car, and Giovinazzi?s work away from the track speaks for itself already ? especially with Raikkonen’s fondness for testing.
It simply hasn?t quite happened yet for Giovinazzi. Raikkonen showed in 2018 that he very much still has it, even after 298 grand prix and counting,? and his rookie team-mate is now starting to show that he can keep up with and occasionally get the better of the 2007 world championship winner.
All he requires is to string a weekend together, and maybe score a couple of points in a car that is rarely looking like challenging for them, just as Leclerc did while in a similar position last year. That might result in Giovinazzi showing the sort of form that he showed in Baku on this day three years ago, and ensuring he still has an F1 seat come 2020.