Three Italians from three different teams lead the Italian Formula 4 points going into the final three rounds. Formula Scout profiles the local talents at the top of the world’s most competitive entry-level series
It’s been seven years since the last time an Italian was champion in their home country’s entry-level single-seater series, when Alessio Rovera claimed the Formula Abarth title. When Formula 4 was introduced a year later, and as the very first FIA F4 series on the planet, it attracted a massively international entry list that included names like current Racing Point Formula 1 driver Lance Stroll and Ferrari junior Robert Shwartzman.
Canadian Stroll won the 2014 title, and he was succeeded by Estonian Ralf Aron, Argentinian Marcos Siebert, New Zealander Marcus Armstrong, Brazilian Enzo Fittipaldi and Norwegian Dennis Hauger. The closest an Italian has been to the title in the last six years was Leonardo Lorandi, who finished 21 points shy of Fittipaldi in 2018, and the best-placed Italian last year was Lorenzo Ferrari down in 17th place.
Those fortunes have improved for 2020, partly down to six of the 22 full-season entrants being Italian. Of the three at the top of the standings, one is a total single-seater rookie and the others had racked up at least 14 car racing starts prior to the start of this season.
It’s the least experienced one who’s at the very front, by a margin that could afford him to skip the next round.
Gabriele Mini (who is perhaps not quite short enough to live up to his name) took pole and won on his single-seater debut in the Misano season opener, and has added two more wins at the Red Bull Ring and Mugello since. He’s been the standout so far in Prema’s expanded five-car all-rookie line-up, and the 2019 European Karting Championship runner-up and protege of Nicolas Todt is already evidently the best qualifier in the field. Had the most recent Mugello round been dry, he likely would have added to his pole tally of five from the first nine races of the season.
“It has been a pretty positive weekend. In testing, we found the right balance on the dry and we were pretty quick,” Mini said after Mugello.
“With the rain, we still had to get in full shape but we managed that in qualifying. We weren’t perfect, but we were looking better than the days before. After that in race one, we weren’t as fast as we wanted so in race two I was pretty aggressive, fighting for the lead. I gave everything I had and eventually ended up second. In race three I quickly gained one position to the front. I tried to manage the tyres as much as I could and when I knew that Gabriel [Bortoleto, Prema team-mate] had a penalty, I just focused on not making mistakes.”
Mini’s racecraft has been strong for a rookie, with an expertly-timed lunge gaining him the lead in an on-the-limit second race at Mugello, but his massive points haul is primarily because he is a far stronger qualifier than his main title rivals.
The qualifying deficiency is most evident in Van Amersfoort Racing’s Francesco Pizzi, who slipped down to third in the points at Mugello after qualifying no higher than 15th but charging up to ninth and fifth place finishes.
“Sometimes I miss this consistency, that doesn’t help in qualifying because I don’t really put my sectors together. so we’re working on putting everything in a single lap,” Pizzi told Formula Scout, who also mentioned he needed to improve his focus during qualifying sessions where there are usually around 30 cars on track and frequent traffic and interruptions.
“Usually my races are better than my qualifyings. Most of the races I gain places. I can improve still on that, and working with the team to get myself with a smoother driving style, because at the start I was really aggressive with the steering wheel, and now we tend to get it smoother; it was really a little bit on the karting style.”
That more aggressive style works better on a greener track with less grip, hence Pizzi is often quickest to adapt in free practice, but it’s all about being smooth when trying to get the best out of F4’s Pirelli tyres on a warmer and grippier track. Surprisingly, the problem went the other way for Pizzi in karting as his qualifying was stronger than his races.
Pizzi’s only two Italian series front-row starts came on his debut, and it wasn’t until the fourth round of his title-winning F4 United Arab Emirates campaign at the start of this year that he took pole there. The Middle Eastern series was where the shifter karts graduate made his first appearances in cars, and Pizzi “didn’t even expect to be that fast” prior to winning the first four races of his career – an historic achievement – and was actually what convinced VAR to sign the protege of Porsche factory driver and former Minardi F1 driver Gianmarina Bruni.
“It was surprising for me to have such a good debut,” added Pizzi. “I think nobody really knew me before that, it was kind of a step up of my career because know I will start [to gain the attention of] teams like VAR.”
Given he was rarely starting from the front in the UAE, Pizzi gained a lot of racecraft experience that has proved crucial to him maintaining a title challenge in Italy – not only in judging wheel-to-wheel battles but in tyre management over a race distance when lots of overtaking means you’re not putting in consistent laptimes to maintain tyre life.
Unlike Mini or Cram Motorsport’s Andrea Rosso, he’s also had the benefit of learning from more experienced team-mates in Red Bull juniors Jak Crawford and Jonny Edgar – who he came from 16th on the grid to pass for fifth place in the third Mugello race before they collided behind him.
The driver who Pizzi was aiming to pass for fourth at the end of that race was Rosso, who stepped up to Italian F4 last year with the returning Antonelli Motorsport team after a trophy-filled karting career in his home country. Budget limitations meant that only lasted four rounds, and he picked up one points finish on his debut weekend.
He was then nominated to be Italy’s driver for the inaugural Motorsport Games F4 Cup, which used a radically different halo-shod hybrid car that had never been raced before. In the two free practice sessions at Vallelunga it was Rosso who was on top, and he shook off a few setbacks over the weekend to claim the gold medal with two on-track race wins.
In 2020 he has proven that is not a fluke with a move to Cram Motorsport, a team that had only got one podium in five seasons in F4 prior to Rosso’s arrival. It is a team of title-winning pedigree though, having signed off the FAbarth era with eight wins and a double title win, run Jerome d’Ambrosio to the 2007 International Formula Master title and Felipe Massa to the 2000 Formula Renault Eurocup.
While Mini has more poles and Pizzi has more fastest laps, Rosso has blended the need to be quick in both qualifying and races to match Mini on three victories (the only two drivers to have won more than once). His experience has only extended to two of the tracks they’ve raced on so far, both venues which he’s now a winner at, and if he continues to be Mini’s closest rival in the points through the next two rounds at Monza and Imola, then he would arguably be the on-track favourite for the Vallelunga season finale.
Rosso’s already racked up three non-scores though, while Mini has finished no lower than seventh and Pizzi would have been a scorer in every race was it not for an early retirement in Mugello race two.
Regardless of who wins, it will be a fascinating battle and one that is surely a strong sign for Italy’s motorsport future.