Those unfamiliar with the murky world of sub-F1 single-seater racing may not have recognsied the name of the driver in the second Lotus entry for FP1 in Malaysia. 24-year-old Italian Davide Valsecchi was replacing Heikki Kovalainen in the Green Machine for the morning running at Sepang, his maiden appearance at a grand prix weekend. So just who is he?

Valsecchi joins Lotus as a reserve driver this year whilst also linking-up with Tony Fernandes’ new Team Air Asia, who will debut in F1 support series GP2 for 2011. With 55 starts to his name he is the most experienced driver set to contest the championship this year.

He debuted in the series in the 2008 campaign, driving for Italian minnows Durango. A heavy practice shunt in Turkey saw him miss three rounds, but he returned to end the season with a flourish. Points in Belgium were followed by a maiden race win at the season-closing Italian sprint race, and sparked talk that he’s join one of GP2’s big hitters for 2009.

However he was to remain with Durango, a team who would be out of racing and in the courts 12 months later following allegations of financial irregularities. Aside from a podium in Turkey results were sparse.

There’s an F1 link to the next chapter of the Valsecchi story, as Nelson Piquet Jr’s sacking from the Renault team saw Romain Grosjean depart GP2 front runners Addax to replace the Brazilian. Valsecchi was selected as the man to relplace Grosjean at the Spanish outfit, alongside Vitaly Petrov. Much was expected, but whilst the Russian was winning races Valsecchi achieved little, a seventh place finish in Portugal proving to be the highlight of a barren four-round spell with the team.

However his career hit new heights in the off-season GP2 Asia campaign, for which he joined British outfit iSport. Three wins and three runner-up finishes gave him a comfortable title, and set him up well for the main series.

But again the promise came to little, as Valsecchi struggled to match the likes of Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez for both pace and results. He was in fact well beaten by rookie team-mate Oliver Turvey over the course of the year, and  only made the top step of the podium once, at the season-closing Abu Dhabi sprint race. He subsequently ran for Hispania at the post-season young driver test, and was briefly linked with a drive at the Spanish squad.

Prior to GP2 Valsecchi contested two seasons of Formula Renault 3.5 (2006 and 2007) and ran in Formula Three and Formula Renault 2.0 before that. He also contested two rounds of the Auto GP series in 2010, competing against the likes of ex-grand prix racers Grosjean and Giorgio Panatno at the Monza event.

For 2011 he is unlikely to be at the sharp end of the GP2 grid, given Air Asia’s rookie status, but could use his experience to spring the odd surprise in the partially reversed-grid sprint races. More runs in the Lotus are likely, though his place there is ultimately more down to money than outright speed. Italy hasn’t had an F1 world champion since 1953 and, whilst he’s certainly no joke, Valsecchi isn’t likely to be the man to end that drought.