This feels very much like last chance saloon for Italy’s Antonio Giovinazzi.
A few weeks ago, he would have probably imagined that if Charles Leclerc moved to Ferrari, it would be him alongside Marcus Ericsson at Sauber next season. However, Kimi Raikkonen dropped the bombshell that he would be joining the Swiss team on a two-year deal.
Has he earned the opportunity to be given a shot in Formula One? The answer would seem to be yes.
The first signs of the Italian’s promise came in the FIA F3 championship in 2014. That season, he raced some quality competitors like Esteban Ocon and Max Verstappen. Those two have done rather well since...
Giovinazzi finished with 2 wins in his rookie season and improved massively as the championship went on to finish 6th in the standings. He remained in the series in ‘15 and ended up grabbing 2nd in the championship after collecting 6 wins. He finished runner-up to another exciting talent, Felix Rosenqvist.
He moved to GP2 in 2016 and this is where the Italian really started to make a name for himself in his one and only year in the category. Alongside Pierre Gasly (who was in his second season in the series) at Prema, the two of them fought for the championship.
The young Italian pulled off a rare feat in Azerbaijan. He achieved a magnificent two victories in the feature and sprint races at Baku, which included a wonderful last lap move on his French team-mate in the sprint one to pinch the win.
Despite winning five races compared to Gasly’s four, he narrowly missed out on the championship by a mere eight points. Nonetheless, the Italian showed his immense talent and ability in his sole season in F1’s feeder series.
Giovinazzi became Ferrari’s third driver for the 2017 season and got an unexpected opportunity to race in the first two events of last year following Wehrlein’s injury at the Race of Champions.
In the Sauber vs Ericsson, he finished +0.183 and +0.071 behind the Swede in the qualifying sessions at Australia and China. For his first two qualifying performances against a driver who was beginning his fourth year in the sport, that was impressive. He did blot his copybook by crashing in both qualifying and the race in Shanghai.
Yet, Charles Leclerc, a likely World Champion in the future, struggled in his first few races and spun on multiple occasions across qualifying and/or races at Bahrain and China. We also saw Max Verstappen crash at a number of events early in 2018. It shows that many young and very talented drivers can do it in the early stages of their careers in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Credit must go to Giovinazzi for the excellent work he has done on the simulator last year and this current season. On weekends where Ferrari have had problems on a Friday, he’s done a lot of hours on the sim to help Vettel and Raikkonen improve the set-up of the car for Saturday’s and Sunday’s.
Vettel paid tribute to him and Kvyat earlier this year after a tricky Friday in France: '’It was good to have the support from the factory. They were obviously looking into it, trying to get everything out for qualifying, and for the setup mainly. I think we were relying on the help from the simulator. Antonio Giovinazzi and, yesterday, Daniil Kvyat was here and helping us, so those two, thanks to them as well.’’
It goes without saying that the 24-year-old doesn’t only want to be a sim driver as he told Autosport last month: "I'm not a simulator driver - I want to be in the car. It's my target for next year.
I want to have my opportunity and see if I'm ready. I want to show I'm here because I'm a good driver and not [just] a simulator driver.
Of course to not be on the track is really hard, but I wait one year, I'm waiting now. But like I say, I want just my opportunity and show I'm here because I'm a good driver.
For sure the target is to be on the grid. I hope I can be on the grid next year."
Giovinazzi’s last free practice appearance was in Hungary back in July and he outpaced Marcus Ericsson by 0.4s to show that he certainly still has got the pace, despite a lack of track time in the last couple of years.
Even more impressive was his performance in the post-Hungary test at the wheel of the Ferrari. He posted a 1:15.648 on hypersofts and that was an unofficial track record at the time. Raikkonen was in the car on day two and went 0.001s slower than the Italian. Yes, you can say they had different track conditions and weather, but that time set by Antonio was superb.
Marcus Ericsson has had five seasons in F1, but this should be his last. He’s got comfortable beaten by Leclerc throughout 2018 and failed to get the most out of the tidy Sauber package since they improved it from Baku onwards. He’s got beaten in four out of his five seasons against a team-mate in qualifying and this simply isn’t good enough.
Giovinazzi’s shown much more potential than the Swede throughout his junior career and his great work on the simulator at Ferrari will surely have not gone unnoticed. If Sauber wants two drivers who will be close and regularly in the points given the right car, they’ll put the Italian in the second seat in 2019.
A Raikkonen – Giovinazzi pairing would be a very strong line-up for a team looking to move up the grid.
Will they do it? Time will tell.