He was an F4 champion at the first attempt in 2020 but endured a tough 2021 in Formula Regional. Now Francesco Pizzi is stepping up again to F3, and explains why to Roger Gascoigne
While former Formula 4 rivals Jak Crawford, Jonny Edgar and Gabriele Mini are heralded as potential Formula 1 stars, the career of Francesco Pizzi – the final member of the quartet that fought over titles in Italy and Germany in 2020 – appeared to have stalled after a trying first season in Formula Regional Europe.
Now, the 17-year-old from Frascati near Rome is climbing another step up the ladder towards F1 by entering FIA Formula 3 with Charouz Racing System, and believes the transition can help him regain career momentum.
“We didn’t expect to go to F3,” he admits to Formula Scout. “I can’t lie, it was my dream at the start of last season. I hoped that I could get some races even during last season.”
After testing with four teams post-season he had opportunities to stay in FREC to challenge for the championship, “but then towards the end of last year Charouz made an offer to us for F3 and at the end we decided that this was the best for us, for me, for my growth.”
Pizzi is under no illusions about the challenge of stepping up, particularly having not taken part in the post-season test in Valencia last October: “We know it’s gonna be really hard because only 70 drivers in all the world get onto the F1 ladder and they are, for sure, not there just to play. We’re all there to win.”
He hesitates to set himself a specific goal for 2022 having not driven a F3 car for so long. “Our goal for the moment is to arrive competitive in Bahrain, but I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure. For me, it’s just learning as much as possible in the first half of the season and then once we see where we are and can start fighting for good positions, at that point we can start setting some goals.
“We know F3 is going to be really tough but for some of my characteristics, some of my attributes we thought it was the best move.”
The extensive test sessions before most rounds in FREC allow drivers time to work methodically to perfect set ups. In FIA F3, track time is severely limited, but this is something that Pizzi feels could work to his advantage despite his lack of experience.
“I’m really good at getting up to the pace in first sessions and with the limited sessions you have.” He believes his “mix of instinctive and analytical driver could help me in debuts on tracks.”
Pizzi does already have some experience of the FIA F3 car, having been “gifted” a last-minute drive with MP Motorsport in the post-season Jerez test in 2020 as a 16th birthday present. He admits that he struggled physically at the time with the transition from F4. “I wasn’t ready physically at all because coming from F4 I was just doing what was enough for F4.”
His new team, Charouz, comes into the 2022 season on the back of its most successful year in FIA F3 after finishing fifth of the 10 teams in the championship and claiming its maiden victory courtesy of Logan Sargeant.
Pizzi had the chance to start working with team personnel over Christmas and the New Year (“for a driver there is no break,” he jokes) and the rapport is already strong. “The engineers are really experienced, work hard and really listen to the drivers. Their approach is always of an ‘us’ and never of an ‘I’.
“They [Charouz] have a really simple structure but it’s really well organised as they’re not one of these huge teams that do every category. Their personnel are fully focused on F2 and F3. And especially in F3 last year, they kept developing the cars [throughout the season].
“They are improving and getting closer to the top every season and I think we’re on a good way.”
Pizzi exploded onto the junior single-seater racing scene by taking eight wins and the UAE Formula 4 title in early 2020.
Unlike many of his rivals, his karting results had been unspectacular. After finishing third in the Italian championship in the OKJ category, he endured “two really tough seasons in karting” in 2018 and 2019.
“It was a bit of a surprise in my F4 season because other people that didn’t win as much in their first F4 season did way better than me in karting.”
He enjoyed a season-long battle with one of those karting superstars, compatriot Gabriele Mini, in Italian F4 in 2020. “We’ve been racing together for so long, although he won way more than me in karting.”
Mini and he “are really good friends and we had a really fair battle” he says of their rivalry. “He got the edge on me because of my inconsistency. We are two completely different drivers. In qualifying he is nearly perfect every time he goes out while I’m a bit more messy in qualifying. I’m a bit more of a race driver.”
Ultimately, Pizzi was forced to settle for the runner-up position in the championship, taking three wins in the process for Van Amersfoort Racing with the season’s highlight undoubtedly being his two victories at Monza.
Alongside his primary campaign at home, he took in a nine-race part-season in ADAC Formula 4, finishing 11th in the standings.
The Pizzi camp had initially hesitated about going with VAR for his European F4 campaigns. “After the first two rounds [of UAE F4] I got a call from VAR. We weren’t sure whether to go to VAR because we had never tested with them. We knew they were one of the best, but we didn’t want to take the first year straight away with a really good team.
“Frits [van Amersfoort] actually called Gianmaria Bruni, who was my manager then, and asked him ‘why don’t you want to race with us? I want him to race with us!’”
For Pizzi, the opportunity to compare himself to two Red Bull juniors, Crawford and Edgar, convinced him to go with VAR.
“Of course, they were not rookies like me. My qualifying pace was a bit all over the place still, but you could see that anytime we were on track one time one is faster, one time the other is faster. We became really good friends. We had a good year together. At the end, maybe they got the edge on me, but I gave them a tough time, I’m sure.”
At the first test in Oschersleben “they saw this really little kid, not speaking that much English, coming into the workshop. I started, I think, six or seven-tenths off Jonny and Jak. I was spinning quite often because I wasn’t used to the car and at the end of the day, I think I was fastest in the test.”
Concluding that a second year in F4 “wasn’t really worth it,” he considered jumping straight from F4 to FIA F3 but ultimately took the decision to graduate to FREC with VAR.
But “the Regional season wasn’t brilliant for various reasons”. Having set the pace in initial testing, VAR was not the only team to struggle to get to grips with the switch from Alfa Romeo to Renault powerplants.
“When we put the Renault in nearly everything changed, the ride heights and many things and as well all the references I had gained the year before.” Teamed with two other rookies, “it was hard to develop because I think the drivers were really focused on driving not developing the car.”
Having seemingly turned a corner at Zandvoort, Pizzi tested positive for COVID-19 in the gap before the next round at Spa, resulting in missed testing and a loss of confidence.
Nevertheless, he is philosophical about the character-building season in FREC: “I think now I’ve grown a lot mentally and as well technically [compared] to last year because we’ve been looking into so much more details than we would do if we were actually fast.”
Looking back, success in F4 maybe came too easily, leading, he feels, to complacency. The year in FREC caused him to be more self-critical and to analyse his performance in more detail.
Talking to Pizzi, his strong analytical approach to his racing is evident. He speaks openly and enthusiastically, scarcely pausing for breath as he explains how his racing style has developed.
He feels that adapting his style helped his tyre management, a vital skill for the upper echelons of the sport. “I used to be a really aggressive driver, but in these two years with VAR I fully changed my driving to be quite smooth, which helped me a lot with tyres,” he says.
Pizzi’s obvious passion for motor-racing, and particularly his knowledge and love of the sport’s history is refreshing. “My passion comes especially from the ’60s and ’70s. For me these were the best years for Formula 1.”
In the interests of time, Formula Scout declines his offer to name all the F1 world champions since 1950, although a couple of years picked at random left no doubt that he could recite them easily if asked.
His favourite drivers are not ones that you would expect for a driver born in 2004. “My favourite drivers from history are Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren,” he says. “Jim Clark for his driving style and his achievements. Bruce McLaren more than for the driving, he did something which for me is great, he both drove and then he founded his own team.”
And if he could drive any car from the sport’s history? “I would drive the 1968 McLaren, the papaya orange one that won the team’s first race in Spa, although I wouldn’t drive it fast because it’s really risky!
“My dream has always been to manage a team as well – I always played Motorsport Manager when I was young – and knowing that McLaren did that makes him one of my all-time favourites. He did my dream which now is really hard to do in F1 because of how the world has changed.”
After completing school, where he is studying economics and social sciences, he plans to study engineering in Milan. “You cannot be a driver until you are 80, so you need to have some sort of education,” he reasons.
Once Pizzi has achieved his ambitions as a driver, he surely has a longer-term career as a team owner in front of him. But for now, his focus is firmly on FIA F3 and giving his competitors, including his former VAR team-mates, a “tough time” again.