At the beginning of the year, Antonio Giovinazzi greeted Formula One with an appearance in the paddock replacing the injured Pascal Wehrlein for the Australian and Chinese Grands Prix. Surprise, surprise. Giovinazzi showed his worth by managing to qualify in a Q2 position in his debut, P16 to be specific. “But Lewis Hamilton qualified fourth on his debut, what made Antonio Giovinazzi’s 16th place qualifying special?” you might ask. Well, he done so in a Sauber. He outqualified Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen, two competent F1 drivers.
However, he is still a substitution driver and he is just a test driver for now, leaving his potential talents waiting to be fulfilled. He was dropped after Wehrlein had recovered from his injuries sustained during the 2017 Race of Champions.
That event brought me an inspiration: why don’t I write about other unfulfilled talented drivers? And so, this introduction section has been going for three whole paragraphs, no need to make it longer.
1. Jean Alesi
Jean Alesi was, and probably still is, one of the most popular and well-known Formula One drivers. His debut went on by a storm of a drive in a fairly mediocre Ford Cosworth powered Tyrrell at the 1989 French Grand Prix, making an appearance as a substitution for Michele Alboreto. At one point of the race, he ran as high as second place before finishing a very respectable fourth. An impressed Ken Tyrrell would promptly sign the young Frenchman an eighteen-month contract on Tyrrell.
While Alesi was seen as a talent of the future, his start as a Formula One driver was somewhat fortuitous. Prior to the 1989 French Grand Prix, Ken Tyrrell had signed a deal to run Camel cigarette sponsorship on his previously unsponsored cars. However this caused problems for Michele Alboreto who was personally sponsored by rival cigarette brand Marlboro. The sponsorship clash forced Tyrrell to release Alboreto and find another driver and Alesi was signed as his replacement (ironically, Alboreto lost his Marlboro sponsorship soon after and would end up driving for the Larrousse team who just happened to carry Camel sponsorship on their cars).
The following season, Alesi continued to impress. At the US Grand Prix, he had a race long battle with a McLaren. And not just any McLaren, that McLaren driven by Ayrton Senna. He had the talent to fight with the Brazilian but he didn’t have the car and he eventually surrendered the lead to Senna and coming home in 2nd.
Luck was never on his side throughout his career. His days at Ferrari and Benetton were spent during both teams’ downfall era. Even after his signing to backmarker Prost, he still continued to impress by scoring points in the undoubtedly slowest car of the field in 2001 before his retirement.
2. Ivan Capelli
Having driven for backmarker AGS part time in the 1980s, Ivan Capelli signed with British constructor March in the 1988 season. His car, the March 881 was designed by Adrian Newey. Yes, the Adrian Newey, the same chap who designed things like the Red Bull RB7, the Williams FW18, and the McLaren MP4/13. The Newey designed 881 was mated to a Judd V8 thus making the 881 a rather underpowered car in the 1988 grid.
Capelli’s best finish was second place at the Portuguese Grand Prix where he finished behind Prost. Ever respectful, Capelli even referred to the then dual World Champion as “The great Mr Prost” in post race interviews. Even better was ahead for the Italian when he became the first non-turbo driver since 1983 to lead a World Championship Grand Prix.
However, a turnaround in form happened in the 1990 French Grand Prix. Capelli led Gugelmin in a Leyton House 1–2 throughout much of the race. Gugelmin finally retired, and Capelli was overtaken near the end by the Ferrari of Prost with only 3 laps remaining. He would went on to finish a strong second. Revisions to the car had made it more competitive (ironically Newey left the team shortly before the race to join Williams), but it was the billiard table-smooth track which allowed the result. Despite some promising showings at Silverstone and Hockenheim, the remainder of the year was unfulfilled.
A promising 1992 was in Capelli’s hands as he signed with Scuderia Ferrari to partner Jean Alesi. However, their car, the F92A was a disappointment. Losing motivation and struggling to adapt with the new atmosphere in the new team, Capelli was sacked before the end of the season.
3. Martin Brundle
Yes, this is the same Martin Brundle that you see every Grand Prix doing the Grid Walk on Sky Sports’ coverage. Of course, if you aren’t familiar, you’d think that Brundle is an F1 legend whose wardrobe is filled with victory trophies. Not quite. In fact, he holds the record of most Grands Prix entered without leading a single lap with 165 Grands Prix entered.
In 1983, when he was still a Formula Three driver, he had an all-season long title battle with a young Brazilian. That young Brazilian. Eventually, though Brundle couldn’t make the title stick. But that’s all okay, since he got a drive in F1 the following year.
1984 marked the start of his Formula One career with Tyrrell. Throughout the season, he put up some amazing and aggressive drives, the highlight being a fifth position finish in the Detroit Grand Prix. In the Dallas Grand Prix, however, Brundle almost lost his left leg in a practice crash, leaving him to miss the rest of the season.
After three further years competing for underfunded teams, Brundle made the venture to sports car racing. The highlight of his excursion was a victory at the 1988 Daytona 24 Hours.
Brundle get a 1992 switch to Benetton, with whom he would finally claim a recognised podium finish and consistent points finishes with some gritty drives.
In 1992 he had a productive season, with a strong finish to the year. He came close to a win at Canada, where having overtaken Schumacher and closing on leader Gerhard Berger, the transmission failed. He never outqualified teammate Michael Schumacher, but made up places with excellent starts (sixth to third at Silverstone), outraced the German at Imola, Montreal, Magny-Cours and Silverstone, and scored a notable second place at Monza.
1993 saw him dropped from Benetton to make way for Italian Riccardo Patrese, and after a fruitless 1993 with French team Ligier, he went out to drive for McLaren.
His move to McLaren, though, was a disaster as he became a victim of the ill-fated switch to Peugeot engines with Brundle often retiring from a points scoring position due to engine failure.
4. Luca Badoer
I have seen people making a similar list to this one, however, I decided to be a little different. Badoer seemed to be the most underrated talent in Formula One.
As of 2011, Badoer holds the record for most laps completed without scoring a single World Championship point to his name with 2364 laps completed. Under the 2010 points system, however, Badoer would’ve scored 26 points.
In 1992, Luca Badoer emerged as the champion of the Formula 3000 championship, winning four races en route to his title.
His debut season with Scuderia Italia was mired by the woeful Lola designed chassis, which, despite the use of Ferrari power units, was the slowest car in the championship in terms of qualifying pace. The round at Imola saw Badoer race as high as sixth, but finish seventh. This remained Badoer’s best result in Formula One. Keep in mind, though, he did this in the slowest car of the field.
Italian front runner Benetton offered both Alboreto and Badoer tests in their cars to see who would partner Michael Schumacher for 1994 but Benetton chose JJ Lehto and Alboreto went to Minardi to line up alongside Pierluigi Martini while Badoer became Minardi’s test driver.
He would later replace Alboreto in Minardi and would later take an all season best finish 8th in Canada and Hungary. Again, done so in one of the slowest cars on the grid.
His career would prove to be much slower the next year as he was dropped from Minardi and signed to drive for Forti Corse in 1996. During the season, he was only able to qualify for six of the ten races the team entered. In the 1996 Argentine Grand Prix Badoer was involved in a heavy collision with Diniz, whose Ligier struck him from behind and flipped his Forti upside down. He emerged from the collision unhurt but Argentine safety marshals were heavily criticised for failing to assist Badoer in a timely manner because they feared a fire would break out. At Imola, Badoer had a newer car and outqualified Montermini by more than a second. He finished 10th and the last of the runners. In Monaco, Badoer remained at the back and collided with Jacques Villeneuve at Mirabeau forcing both drivers to retire. He did not qualify in Spain but started 20th in Canada. In France, Badoer started ahead of Eddie Irvine after the Ferrari was relegated to the back. Forti Corse folded after that year’s British Grand Prix.
1999 saw Badoer return to F1 after a fruitless 1997 and 1998 in the FIA GT Championship. The most notable highlight of his 1999 campaign came at that year’s European Grand Prix where he avoided chaos throughout the race and would see him in 4th position with less than 15 laps to go. This was the closest he has ever been to scoring a world championship point. However, luck was not on his side. Gearbox failure took him out thirteen laps from the end; teammate Marc Gené was promoted to sixth as a result.