With IndyCar pilot Justin Wilson, a former F1 driver himself, suffering an back injury and needing time on the sidelines, we take a look at his replacement Giorgio Pantano, the Italian former GP2 champion who is quick, but also slightly unlucky.
If the phrase “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” was to relate to anyone in motor sport, you would struggle to look any further than Giorgio Pantano. Many die hard fans would remember his almost non-descript season at Jordan in 2004, but the drivers he both inspired and banged wheels with are now amongst the best in the world.
Not that his pre-F1 record doesn’t mix success and failure in equal measure. Karting champion in Italy and Europe, but beaten to the World title twice, once by Jenson Button; winner of his first F3 race and German F3 champion at his first attempt in 2000; pace-setter in F3000 straight out of the blocks in 2001, losing out narrowly on the title on two occasions (firstly to Sebastian Bourdais, then to Bjorn Wirdhiem). This sort of pace doesn’t just demonstrate that Pantano was a fast driver to beat, but for most of the series he entered he was the driver to beat.
F1 beckoned after the German F3 title win. Benetton, led by the wily Flavio Braitore, granted him a test in 2000, but even though he was quick, there was no testing role for him. Flav did try to sign him to his already impressive stable of drivers, but Pantano’s existing management rebuffed any such talk. McLaren called in 2001, thanks to Mercedes backing, but nothing materialised. The same happened with Williams a year later. The future looked oddly bleak for such a highly-rated driver that also brought a sponsorship purse, especially if the perennial backmarker Minardi wouldn’t give him a drive after testing with them. If the front-running teams wouldn’t touch him and backmarkers wouldn’t take his cash, where we he go from there?
Luckily some teams had been taking notice. Jaguar wanted Pantano, but at the 11th hour were tempted away by another rookie Christian Klien (or, more notably, the $10m Red Bull were backing him with). Eddie Jordan hired the Italian for the 2004 season instead and partnered him with Nick Heidfeld, spotting a bargain of not just a talented driver but one with money to boot. Giorgio Pantano was finally in Formula One.
The season was a struggle, not just for the Italian, but for Jordan team as a whole. Poor performances, albeit with a race win, in 2003 led to less money to develop a decent car for 2004. Coupled with feeling that Heidfeld was the preferred driver for the team, Pantano could only muster a couple of 13th place finished before behind the scene issues with funding led to Timo Glock taking his seat for the Canadian round. The German’s solid if unspectacular debut finish of 11th was elevated to 7th after the disqualifications of both Williams and Toyotas, heaping more pressure on Pantano when he returned at Indianapolis, which manifested itself in a first corner shunt. The paranoia of being out of favour, as well as the financial issues that began to affect his family, led to his decision to stop after Monza, with Glock replacing him permanently. All the hard work to get into F1 had been for nothing more than an anonymous exit.
Many drivers fall out of F1 and are never build themselves up to have another crack at the whip. F3000 had been replaced with GP2, a newer feeder series to F1 that mimicked its technology. It was the perfect environment for a driver of Pantano’s calibre to showcase his talents once more, and in 2008 he became the series fourth winner. And with winning the title, it seemed a sure thing that returning to F1 was on the cards, as the previous winners (including Nico Rosberg, who had a Pantano poster on his wall growing up) had all made the step up. But his redemption was not to go to plan.
The phone never rang for his return to Formula One. Even though he had IndyCar links, a drive across the Atlantic never went further than a few tests. At the time Pantano should have been having the pick of seats for the following year drivers he had beaten fair and square, such as Sebastian Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi and Romain Grosjean were sitting in F1 cars by the end of 2009. With former GP2 champions not allowed back into the series, Pantano resorted to racing in Superleague for AC Milan, a far cry from the bright lights of F1. For 2010, he dropped even further off the radar by joining the Auto GP series in Italy.
For the man Fernando Alonso once called “invincible” the F1 dream has gone. When the time comes for the Italian to look back on his career, holding the records for most wins in F1 feeder series will be bittersweet memories. The series was constructed to be a platform for drivers to build on and enter F1, so being the most successful driver at that level is the equivalent of being a silver medallist at consecutive Olympic Games. One thing is for sure: if a young kart driver was to show even a glimpse of the speed the Italian did at that level the financial and managerial support he would receive would have him in F1 in half the time.
It’s always a waste when a driver doesn’t fulfil their full potential, but with Giorgio Pantano he was always at the cusp of becoming something more without ever truly reaching it. And that is the true tragedy of the Italian’s tale.