Formula 1 is forever linked to Italy.
Italy’s contributions to F1 are rivaled by a few others. Prior to the inaugural World Championship in 1950, the European country’s superior racers and machinery set the tone for what the sport has become today.
These four drivers helped forge this legacy. Enjoy our “Mount Rushmore” of the greatest Italian F1 drivers!
Riccardo Patrese enjoyed a lengthy stint on the grid, becoming an elder statesman of the sport through evolving times from 1978 through 1993.
At Arrows in his early days, he showed great promise. It took a move to Brabham for victory. And what a win it was: The Monaco GP in 1982. Another win followed a year later. He would finish his career with six.
Now, six race wins from 256 starts may seem lackluster, but Patrese’s 16-year Grand Prix career is a testament to his consistency. He won that memorable race at Monaco before spending the eighties driving unreliable machinery.
A break came in 1988 when he joined Williams. Unfortunately for Patrese, he was partnered by a very determined Nigel Mansell in 1991. The following year’s car was leaps and bounds ahead, but it was the Englishman who made the best of it. Mansell won nine races and the world title. Meanwhile, Patrese took a single victory.
Patrese switched to Benetton in 1993 only to be overshadowed by a young German future World Champion named Michael Schumacher. Patrese retired that year, but his record of 256 starts stood for more than a decade.
He is the only driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and the F1 crown. If this was a countdown of the top American drivers in the sport, Mario Andretti would be No. 1. The Italian-American driver comes in on this list at No. 3.
Andretti’s heritage makes his spot on this Top 5 essential. Born in Italy (Montona, Istria, now Motovun, Croatia. Istria was then part of the Kingdom of Italy, but Yugoslavia annexed it at the end of World War II), Andretti moved to America as a teen, later becoming a U.S citizen.
It was in his native Italy that he first fell in love with racing.
Andretti became a full-time F1 driver in the mid-seventies and claimed the World Championship for Lotus in 1978. Italian fans will point this out when it is said that their last title came in 1953 (more on that later). To boot, Andretti’s final Grands Prix came at Ferrari during the 1982 season, substituting for the injured Didier Pironi. Andretti won his first Grand Prix for Ferrari in South Africa in 1971 and started a total of 12 races for the team.
Trivia question: Who won the very first F1 World Championship in 1950?
Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina holds a special place in F1 history. In 1950, the Alfa Romeo driver won the very first race and a few months later went on to clinch the inaugural title.
Giuseppe could have won more had he not found himself sharing a team with the Argentine five-time champion, Juan-Manuel Fangio.
Splitting time with the racing legend prompted Giuseppe to join Ferrari. There he was again faced with a younger, faster teammate, who also hailed from Italy. His name: Alberto Ascari. Nonetheless, Farina continued to perform, finishing as runner-up in 1952 to Ascari and third behind Ascari and Fangio, respectively, in 1953.
The first F1 world champion was a tough racer. He lacked the profile of Fangio and Ascari but competed with them on the track for years. His career was topped off with a notable victory at the Nurburgring at age 47 in 1953. Tragically, Farina lost his life in a road accident traveling to the 1966 French Grand Prix.
Decades after his death, the Milan-born racer remains his country’s only multiple World Champion. Alberto Ascari is the most successful Italian driver with 13 race victories. Furthermore, he holds the distinction of being the only Italian to win the title for Ferrari.
Mario Andretti’s idol and inspiration for becoming an F1 driver himself starred in two fantastic years for the Scuderia – 1952 and 1953. In 1952, Ascari posted six successive wins in an eight-race season. The following year, he totaled five victories to become F1’s first double champion. The first driver to defend the world championship, along with Fangio, is the defining star of the first era of F1. His amazing run of nine wins in a row, which spanned 1952 and 1953, included a victory in every race he finished in 1952.
His father, Antonio, was a star of the 1920s Grand Prix scene, making the Ascaris the first racing dynasty as well.
Ascari left Ferrari after a disagreement over money. He joined the Lancia team while also making appearances for Maserati. This briefly curtailed his winning ways. He would have surely won more had he not been killed in testing in 1955. Ascari crashed into the harbor at the Monaco GP that year while leading the race but incredibly was pulled from the water with no more than a broken nose. His luck ran out less than a week later when he lost his life in a sportscar testing accident at Monza. His name lives on there today as F1 drivers negotiate the Ascari chicane at the circuit.
With 20-plus years of experience in the media capital of the world, New York City, Bobby Ciafardini is an award-winning journalist that has done it all. He has covered everything from the Super Bowl to the World Series to the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup, as well as the highest levels of motorsport. His favorite moment: Speeding along in a two-seater open-wheel race car with the legendary Mario Andretti.