Rising star Raffaele Marciello gives Italy hope in Formula One
Teenager could end tifosi's wait for a homegrown Ferrari driver
It's been seven years since an Italian driver won a race in Formula One, and the nation of Ferrari has not had a world champion since the golden days of inaugural F1 winner Giuseppe Farina and back-to-back champ Alberto Ascari in the 1950s.
Last season, for the first time, there was not a single Italian driver in the field, and that continued this season. For a country that boasts perhaps the most passionate motor-sport fans in the Prancing Horse's Tifosi, it must be galling, the dry spell having long become a drought.
Hope might be on the horizon in the shape of Raffaele Marciello, an 18-year-old star of Ferrari's Young Driver Academy who won the FIA Formula 3 European Championship this year.
Marciello, who races for d88.com Prema Powerteam and starts from third place on the grid, will look to take Formula 3's most coveted prize at the Macau Grand Prix today as he signs off from the formula to take the next step towards the dream seat in the red F1 car.
Born in Switzerland but to Italian parents, Marciello grew up in Lugano - "I'm a bit Swiss, but I'm more Italian for sure," says the softly spoken teen at the paddock in Macau. Tall for a single-seat driver, he first raced in karts aged just four, and hasn't looked back.
After impressing in karting, he was third in Formula Abarth in 2010, third in Italian Formula 3 the following year, then last year finished second in the European Formula 3 Championship and third in the Formula 3 Euro Series.
The steadily upward progression culminated this year, going one better in the European F3 Championship and taking the title for Prema Powerteam after holding off highly rated Swede Felix Rosenqvist, last year's Macau runner-up.
As a measure of his consistency, Marciello had 13 wins and 19 podium places from 30 races. A Macau title, emulating Ferrari hero Michael Schumacher, would be more than a nice cherry on top, Marciello describing the championship as "75 per cent of the season and Macau … the remaining 25 per cent".
"Our target was winning the championship and we won it; it was a really long championship but we did it and for sure it's [already] the best season of my life," adds "Lello".
"Last year [in Macau, finishing eighth] I was fast, but a little unlucky in qualification - but for sure this year I am more confident after winning the championship. Last year I think was already good in technique, but this year I think I can push even harder without taking too many risks.
"Here it's difficult to be too confident [however] - one mistake can end it. It's really close, you have to go to the limit, even [Antonio Felix] da Costa who won last year might not be confident of doing it again. It's really difficult to do well.
"Macau is really important - if I don't win it's not a big drama, but for sure it's the most important trophy in F3 and I want to show my potential, prove winning the championship was not just luck and win here in Macau."
Victory would certainly further burnish an already impressive CV as the powers at Maranello consider where best to place him next year with an eye on one day filling that Italy-shaped gap on the F1 grid.
Some claim that the love for Ferrari in Italy actually harms Italian drivers, with the Tifosi caring only for the marque and not the driver. It's a criticism the team has moved to address in recent years, with principal Stefano Domenicali admitting last month: "We feel this responsibility [to deliver an Italian F1 driver], so we created the academy for youngsters. With Antonio Fuoco and Raffaele Marciello, in whom we are investing, this year we have won two championships.
"Will they drive a Ferrari one day? I hope so. But we need to find the right categories to get there."
Marciello has been testing in various single-seat categories in the tiers above F3, seriously impressing over Abu Dhabi's F1 track in a GP2 car earlier this month. The next step may be a joint season, in Renault World Series or GP2, together with DTM. "In terms of professional qualities of the teams, [DTM is] the closest to Formula 1," Ferrari Academy manager Luca Baldisserri told Autosport magazine.
"And for a young driver, having the possibility to have some rhythm with a professional team is important."
"A programme in DTM would be a shame for a driver like Lello on its own, but not if it's coupled with another championship."
Marciello can’t speak highly enough of the academy, and its attention to this kind of detail, as the team tries to emulate the success of Red Bull and McLaren in developing young talent.
“It’s really good, they help me with whatever I need - if I need more mental [development] they do more mental work, if I need more on the physical side I do more gym, so it’s really good for the driver, I can improve in every sector,” says Marciello, who spends most of his week at the team’s sprawling complex, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and dreaming of one day emulating them.
“We don’t really talk about cars, we talk about other stuff,” he says. Robert Kubica, the former Sauber and Renault driver whose F1 career looks over after a horrific crash in a rallying event, is the man Marciello looks up to the most, having formed a friendship with the Pole, 10 years his senior, through karting.
“Every driver’s dream is to make it to F1. You need luck, some money, some championships, but I’m not thinking about it right now, we’ll see after.”
Having recently tried Ferrari’s F1 car for the first time – “amazing” - he insists his nationality does not add to the pressure as he tries to get into it on a regular basis.
“No, it doesn’t matter if you’re Italian, American - you just need to win. No matter my nationality, to make it to F1 would be the ultimate dream.
“For every driver I think Ferrari is the best - and for an Italian even more so.”
Video: Macau Grand Prix 2013