Feb.17 (Reuters) Jarno Trulli’s abrupt departure from Formula One on Friday scarcely triggered shock-waves in international news, but the Italian’s exit was still a significant moment for the glamour sport and the home of Ferrari.
Trulli had not scored a point since 2009 and the quality of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines coming out of his vineyards have quickly become as famous as any of his achievements behind the wheel.
However, until Caterham decided to replace the 37-year-old with Russian Vitaly Petrov, he had been the only Italian with a race seat for the season due to start on March 18 in Australia.
Compatriot Vitantonio Liuzzi had already lost his place at struggling HRT to Indian Narain Karthikeyan, another man who, like Petrov who carries considerable financial clout in a sport that has always been fueled as much by money as by petrol.
Trulli’s exit means there will be no Italian driver competing in a season-opener for the first time since 1970 and harks back to the dark days of 1969 when motorsport-mad Italy had no representative in any of the cars.
Toro Rosso, the Italian-based team owned by Red Bull, do however have an Italian passport holder in Australian Daniel Ricciardo — who may become Italian in the eyes of the fans just as Mario Andretti and Jean Alesi did.
These things go around in cycles, with France making a renaissance this year with three race drivers after none last season.
Ferrari, of course, have always been there – competing in every championship since 1950 and becoming the most successful team of all time with 16 constructors’ titles and 15 drivers’ crowns.
For the majority of the ‘tifosi’, thronging to the annual gathering at the Monza temple of Italian motorsport, Ferrari are what really matters and how their ‘ugly’ 2012 car turns out is of far more importance than the lack of home-bred drivers.
Even in the days when Benetton were champions, the Treviso “T-shirt sellers” were only Italy’s second team.
Trulli had a considerable fan club, particularly in Japan, and was a Monaco race winner with Renault in 2004. But nothing fills an Italian fan with pride like a red Ferrari taking the chequered flag ahead of all the rest.
The team’s penultimate Italian race driver was Luca Badoer – a 2009 stand-in dubbed ‘Look How Bad You Are’ by a British media revelling in Jenson Button’s emergence as a world-beater – and he never scored a point.
Giancarlo Fisichella took over from Badoer for a short stint at Ferrari having been the last Italian race winner with Renault in 2006, where he was comfortably eclipsed by Spanish team mate and current Ferrari favourite Fernando Alonso.
Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari had a resistance to hiring Italians, whether it was because of the unbearable pressure they would experience from the fans or because he did not want to have to explain to an Italian mother how her son had died in one of his cars.
The “Scuderia” has always been able to take the best drivers, such as Alonso or Michael Schumacher, and for decades Italians have only had a look in when someone has been injured – and not always then.
When Schumacher broke his leg in 1999, Badoer was the reserve but Ferrari opted instead for Finland’s Mika Salo.
Since Enzo’s death in 1988, only five Italians have raced for Ferrari and all would figure among the ranks of F1 journeymen – Gianni Morbidelli (one race in 1991), Ivan Capelli (14 starts in 1992), Nicola Larini (four races over 1992 and 1994), Badoer and Fisichella.
It was not always thus, Giuseppe Farina was the very first Formula One world champion in 1950, in an Alfa Romeo, while Alberto Ascari won the titles in 1952 and 1953 for Ferrari. Italian cars won seven of the first nine championships.
There has not been an Italian champion since Ascari and it could be a long wait for another.
There are two members of the Ferrari driver academy in Formula One, but neither are Italian – Mexican Sergio Perez at Sauber and Frenchman Jules Bianchi as Force India test driver.
Of the seven champions of the GP2 support series, Italian Giorgio Pantano (in 2008) is the only not to have progressed on to Formula One afterwards.
That was partly because he had been in F1 previously, an unhappy stint with Jordan in 2004, and also because he could no longer be considered a rising talent.
Italy may have to make do with Ricciardo, who could one day find himself driving for champions Red Bull, as the next Italian passport holder to do anything of note on the Formula One track.