In Defense of Luca Badoer
by R.J. O'Connell
From the satirical motoring blog Sniff Petrol, came a spoof article about a new series for the most rubbish drivers in Formula 1, headlined by the polarizing Venezuelan, Pastor Maldonado of the Lotus F1 Team. But this article isn’t about Maldonado, a former Grand Prix winner and GP2 Series champion in his own right, now struggling just to score a championship point in his fourth season. There’s a line in this article that lists three “benchmarks” of complete and utter futility in the highest level of auto racing, three of the worst drivers in recent F1 history, at least in the mind of Mr. Richard Porter, the Top Gear writer who has run the blog for nearly fifteen years. See if you can identify which one of them doesn’t belong, based on their career descriptions.
Driver #1 was a 31-year-old rookie driving for a first-year team. He never outqualified his veteran teammate, often ending up more than a second adrift of his lead driver’s times. He spun in nearly every practice session he participated in, and after four miserably slow and incident-filled races capped off by punting Christjian Albers’ Midland into a rollover at Imola, he became the first driver in the modern era to be revoked of his FIA Super License for failing to drive at an acceptable standard, and the only one since.
Driver #2 was a 42-year-old Israeli businessman, a gentleman racer in the truest sense, to put it as nicely as possible. He was a backmarker in all three of his Euroseries F3000 starts, and in 2005 he used his business connections to buy a weekend test driver appearance with Minardi at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was 13 seconds off the pace of his nearest teammate, he radioed in complaining to the team about the car having too much grip, and after spinning into a gravel trap after just a handful of slow, miserable laps, he had to be craned off track while he was still strapped into his Minardi PS05 because he didn’t know how to detach the steering wheel on his car.
And then we get to driver #3. Driver #3 is one of seven drivers since 1985 to have won the top-level Formula series on the ladder to F1 – either International F3000 or GP2 Series – in his rookie year, at age 21, finishing ahead of three other rookies in that season’s championship, who would combine for 25 Formula 1 victories in their careers. His baseline qualifying success rate against all of his F1 teammates was well over 50% despite often driving for some of the least-capable and under-funded teams in the sport. And as a test driver for Scuderia Ferrari, he was the primary tester of the cars that won the team eight Constructors’ Championships in a span of ten years, and had a longer tenure at the Scuderia than did Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, and the seven-time world champion driver who was the face of the team for a decade, Michael Schumacher.
Drivers #1 and #2 were Yuji Ide and Channoch Nissany, respectively. But just who was Driver #3? None other than Luca Badoer.
And if you are reading this, and have no knowledge of F1 history prior to the year 2010, you’d probably be asking yourself – “What in the hell is this last driver doing in the same group as the first two guys with all the talent that he seemed to have and all that he’d accomplished during his brief career?”
Thank you. Because this is the point I’m here to demonstrate. And it’s not just Jeremy Clarkson’s joke writers that have slagged Badoer in recent years. ESPN F1’s article on the Ten Worst F1 Careers included Badoer on the list, as the first entry after Ide, Nissany, and the notorious ex-Footwork and ex-Simtek driver Taki Inoue. Inoue, who is best remembered for being the guy who was run over by a Tatra medical car after retiring from the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix, and whose current contributions to the sport include inebriated punditry on Twitter, and managing low-rated Japanese F1 prospects in Auto GP, never so much as scored a podium in the junior categories, let alone won a championship in single-seaters or even scored a single Formula 1 World Championship point.
This article on Bleacher Report is the first result when you search for “Worst F1 Drivers” on Google. It’s another Top 10 list, this one ranked in order, and Badoer comes in 8th, ahead of 10th placed Alex Yoong, the former Minardi driver who was outqualified by his teammates 18 times in 18 entries including 3 DNQs, and ahead of 9th placed Marco Apicella, whose entire F1 career lasted the length of the Monza front straight to the entry of the Variante del Rettifilo before being taken out in a crash in his only F1 race for Jordan in 1993. Taki Inoue was 7th on the list. Again, Badoer sat just one spot “better” than the guy who got run over by the freaking medical car.
One of the top fill-in queries for “Luca Badoer” on Google is “Luca Badoer Jokes”, where you will find a collection of tweets from the now-dormant Twitter account of Brawn GP including: “Luca Badoer Update: Is skipping Valencia and going straight to Spa to get a week long head start,” and “After recalculating the times, he’s actually qualified in 34th position.” The humor in that last joke being that only 20 cars ran in Formula 1 that year.
And all of this stems from what I consider to be the most heartbreaking comeback in F1 history, staged five years ago, and ending at the venue of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. 38-year-old Badoer, who had been Ferrari’s lead test driver since the 1998 season, had been named to replace the injured Felipe Massa, who was nearly killed in a freak accident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. If you were watching at the time, you will probably remember the gruesome statistics of Luca Badoer, Ferrari driver, in 2009 – but just as a refresher for those who don’t, here’s his form guide: 2 starts, 2 times qualifying 20th and last, 2 classified results of 17th in Valencia, and then 14th at Spa-Francorchamps – both times as the last classified finisher. Though he qualified within 107% in both attempts, at Valencia he was two seconds adrift of 19th placed qualifier, Romain Grosjean, thrown into the deep end himself at Renault. Four pit-lane speeding penalties in Valencia free practice, a crawling-speed collision with the back of Adrian Sutil’s Force India in parc ferme, and the acquisition of the unfortunate nickname “Look How Bad You Are”. And while Badoer struggled in his Ferrari F60, his former champion teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished 3rd in Valencia to give the team a needed boost after the Massa incident in Budapest, and then the following race, won his fourth Belgian Grand Prix ahead of second placed Giancarlo Fisichella, who would succeed Badoer at Ferrari for the remaining five races of 2009. It was a thrilling race, one of the better Belgian Grands Prix of recent memory – yet one I couldn’t really enjoy under the circumstances.
As a fan of his, who never really got a chance to see him race in the ’90s, but did play as him in several F1 video games as a kid simply because of the fact that he had long hair and a cool-sounding name, and then someone who learned later on about his career struggles as the longest-tenured driver without a point scored in F1, and the work he was doing with Ferrari, going to Fiorano and putting thousands of miles on the cars that Schumacher, Irvine, Barrichello, Massa, and Raikkonen would use to win races and championships before they hit the tracks like Spa, or Monza, or Silverstone – this hurt me. It hurt me to the point that it made the rest of 2009 almost unenjoyable. A year that saw Brawn GP rise from virtually nothing but the remnants of Honda to dominate F1, and their drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello get the second chances of a lifetime, especially Button who would be crowned the 2009 World Champion. Mark Webber finally won a race for Red Bull after eight years of fighting and scratching for his big chance, while his new Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel was showing even more of the uncanny ability that would guide him to four consecutive World Championships in the years to come. And to see the vicious criticism from fans and journalists, some of whom took an almost sadistic pleasure in watching Badoer fail at Ferrari, made his two race spell even worse to endure.
I could say as an analogy, to imagine if quarterback Tom Brady, in his first start with the New England Patriots, threw six interceptions, fumbled three times, and never started another game again. Instead of doing what he actually did and led the Patriots to three NFL Championships and becoming a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But Brady was still a young rookie then, and Badoer, then in his late-30s and now 43 years old, was a driver whose dedication to Formula 1 went unrewarded from his rookie year in 1993 to his final year as an honorary test driver in 2010. There’s no real good stick-and-ball sport analogy from the past to compare this to that can allow that crowd to relate.
Maybe I can try video games instead: Duke Nukem Forever. The mega-hyped shooter that was famously lost in development hell for over a decade, then released to mediocre reception from the gaming press just a couple of years ago. But even then it still doesn’t fit, because I can’t recall anyone else being as thrilled to see Badoer finally, ten years after he should have been Michael Schumacher’s injury substitute at Ferrari, get his reward in the form of an F1 racing drive for the most historic team in the sport’s history, as I was. Except Schumacher himself.
Those who don’t know Badoer but for those two miserable races for Ferrari five years ago, or for holding the dubious distinction of being the most experienced Formula 1 pilot without a point to their name, more than likely do not know that the native son of Montebelluna, Italy was truly a talented driver whose potential was absolutely crippled by bad breaks, and limited opportunities to succeed in sub-par equipment.
Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I do not, at all, believe Badoer was F1 World Championship material, and he wouldn’t have been even if he did race for top teams like Ferrari earlier in his career. He was not as gifted a driver as Schumacher or Ayrton Senna or Mika Hakkinen – not by a long shot. Certainly, he did not have quite the raw pace of a young prodigy as the five active world champions in the series – Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Raikkonen, and Button. At times, he could become less of an aggressive defender in the vein of Jarno Trulli or Mark Webber, but more of a rolling chicane along the lines of Philippe Alliot or Andrea de Cesaris. Most infamously, in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. And that’s not the point of my article.
But his ability in a Formula 1 car, even in the 2009 season, wasn’t on the same level as that of Yuji Ide, or Channoch Nissany, or Taki Inoue, or any other hapless pay-driver who ever converted miserable campaigns in F3000 into drives with low-budgeted teams simply because they had a bag of cash from a wealthy benefactor.
The promising beginnings – Italian F3 and International F3000
The saga begins with Luca Badoer, the F1 prospect. And a damn good one After several wins and championships in go-karts from 1985 to 1988, where he shined in the 100cc category and won Italy’s national championship in 1988, came three years of Italian Formula Three, wherein he won four races over 23 career starts from 1989 to 1991. He won more races than Alex Zanardi, and outperformed another young talent that was born in 1971 – Jacques Villeneuve, in the 1990 and 1991 seasons. When you consider what both Zanardi and Villeneuve accomplished years down the road – Zanardi won two CART championships, Villeneuve won the last unified IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 titles in 1995 and won the Formula One World Championship two years later, it is very impressive that Badoer was able to outperform both men in this stage of their racing careers. Though Badoer is not, nor will he ever be, as great an all-around sportsman and hero as the two-time Paralympic gold medalist, Zanardi.
Then came the rookie year in F3000. In 1992 with Crypton Engineering, he took five pole positions, won four races, and wrapped up the championships with a race in hand. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, surely this had to have been a crappy class of drivers if Mister ‘Look How Bad You Are’ could win it in his rookie year!” …well, he also finished ahead of three other F3000 rookies that year: the aforementioned Rubens Barrichello, and also David Coulthard, and Olivier Panis. The three of them combined to win 25 Grands Prix in their lengthy careers, it could have been more if Panis’ career was not ruined by injuries. Barrichello and Coulthard are, and will likely be, remembered as two of the best drivers of their generation, certainly two of the very best who never won a World Championship. You can also add the three 24 Hours of Le Mans victories and four Sebring 12 Hours victories of Allan McNish, and the six Bathurst 1000 victories and five top-level Australian saloon car titles of cameo entrant Mark Skaife to bolster the future credentials of the 1992 F3000 field. In its 20 years of existence, the 1992 class makes a case to be one of the best it ever had – and Badoer triumphed over them all in his first try.
And Badoer’s victories in F3000 weren’t lucky flukes, they were dominant, measured performances of driving superiority. He won at low-downforce tracks like Enna Pergusa and Hockenheim, he won at high-downforce tracks like Nogaro and the Nurburgring. He was pretty much uncontested in every step of his three-race winning streak at Enna, Hockenheim, and Nurburg. It could easily have been four if Badoer had not crashed at Eau Rouge and suffered a back injury whilst chasing down late-season title contender Andrea Montermini at Spa-Francorchamps. But from there, he bounced back and led wire-to-wire again when he won the title at Nogaro in France. In fact, three of his wins were Hat Tricks – with a win, pole, and fastest lap.
And to counter the possible argument of the advantage of his Reynard/Cosworth engine and chassis combo in an era where F3000 was not a spec series like GP2 is now, he comprehensively outperformed his veteran teammate Michael Bartels in the exact same team and equipment all season (70% head-to-head qualifying success rate, 75% head-to-head classified race results, and 46 points to Bartels’ 25). And Bartels had already made his F1 debut the year before for Lotus.
From YouTube, here’s a 45 minute season review of the 1992 F3000 Season, highlighting all of Badoer’s highs such as the three-race winning streak, and then lows like the Spa crash and his questionable argey-bargey at Magny-Cours with Montermini:
The cumulative winning percentage of Badoer’s pre-F1 career in single seaters was 22.8 percent. It’s a higher number than half of the current F1 field’s winning percentages before they got there, including Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, another GP2 rookie champion and the current F1 championship leader, who won 21.7 percent of his races. And also Marussia F1 Team’s ace Jules Bianchi, the top prospect of the Ferrari Driver Academy, likely to be promoted to the team if Alonso or Raikkonen leave in the near future (18.8%). It’s higher than all three rookies of the 2014 Formula 1 roster, including McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen (20.3%) and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat (19.7%).
Amongst Badoer’s contemporaries, his winning percentage in junior formulae was higher than those of Barrichello (21.7%), Coulthard (20.8%), and Panis (18.3%). It was even higher than that of Jean Alesi (15.8%), the 1989 Formula 3000 champion, considered by more than a small handful of Formula 1 fans to be one of the greatest pure talents the sport had ever seen, talent that would go unrewarded through most of his F1 career – 201 entries, yet only one win, but a popular win in the ’95 Canadian Grand Prix. Higher than his fellow Italian and longtime driver, Jarno Trulli (21.1%), who only needed two full campaigns in Formula 3 to get to Formula 1 – an underrated “fast riser” in his own time. And it was even higher than that of 1996 World Champion Damon Hill (4.2%), who never won in four seasons in International F3000 from 1988 to 1991, though more for a lack of budget and good opportunities than a lack of talent, as demonstrated with his victories at Williams, and his giant-killing drives at Arrows and Jordan.
And while the sample sizes in junior-level drivers are much larger in 2014 than in 1992 – for instance, Red Bull’s newest junior talent Max Verstappen will enter 33 races just in European Formula 3 this year, compared to Badoer’s 35 races in four seasons of F3 and F3000 – Badoer’s 22.8% winning percentage in single-seaters before Formula 1 would be higher than that of the following F1 prospects leading up to the GP2 Series event in Belgium and the upcoming round of Formula Renault 3.5 series in Hungary: Carlos Sainz Jr. (17%) and Pierre Gasly (10.6%) of the Red Bull Junior Team, Rafaelle Marciello of the Ferrari Driver Academy (19.7%), Stoffel Vandoorne of the McLaren Young Driver Programme (21%), Mercedes-Benz junior driver Roberto Merhi (14.4%), Sauber test driver Sergey Sirotkin (9.8%), Williams test driver Felipe Nasr (12.2%), GP2 Series championship leader Jolyon Palmer (8.2%), Force India test driver Daniel Juncadella (16%), Marussia test driver Alexander Rossi (20%), former Red Bull junior driver Antonio Felix da Costa (19.9%), and Caterham test driver Robin Frijns (20.5%). Yes, the same Robin Frijns who won three titles in three different and progressively more difficult championships from 2010 to 2012.
Sadly, Badoer’s failure to replicate the Formula 1 success of future GP2 rookie champions Rosberg, Hamilton, and Nico Hulkenberg was also typical of what happened with fellow Formula 3000 rookie champions Stefano Modena (1987), Christian Fittipaldi (1991), and he of zero F1 starts, Jorg Muller (1996) in the 20 seasons of the International F3000 era.
A solid performer under difficult circumstances
At age 22, Badoer’s F1 career kicked off with the BMS Scuderia Italia team, who at the time had just signed a deal to use customer Ferrari engines, and had a new chassis supplier in Lola Cars, replacing their former chassis makers Dallara – hence why the team was referred to by the name of their chassis builders, and not as “Scuderia Italia”, in the official record books. He would be paired with the late Michele Alboreto, once a championship contender with Ferrari, and now in the decline of his career but still a capable driver in his own right. With a fresh design, powerful motors and a veteran teammate to guide him along the way, Badoer seemed destined to do well for what appeared to be at least a lower-midfield team. And then, the cold reality set in that the Lola T93/30 was an awful car. The only car in 1993 without the active suspension technology pioneered by Williams two years ago. A chassis that was slow and geriatric, with a year-old engine that wasn’t very reliable to begin with – but it was a Ferrari V12, so at least it sounded nice when puttering around the track, averaging around five or six seconds off the pace of the leaders. They were even slower at the start of the year, so much so that the FIA had to hastily amend the rules to dictate that only the fastest 25 of 26 entries could start the race until the Lola caught up to the rest of the field. It was a forerunner of the 107% rule instituted in 1996, but only enforced for half of the 1993 season.
When the team is so far off the pace as Scuderia Italia was, Badoer’s ability must be judged in a vaccum, with the only reliable benchmark being Alboreto, in the same chassis. And when their reliability was so poor on race days, the truest measure of their respective speed would be in qualifying. Badoer outqualified Alboreto 8-6 (57.14%) in 14 Grands Prix that year. When the “fastest 25” rule was in place for rounds 2-9, he outqualified Alboreto 6-2, and a 5-2 record when it came down to Badoer and Alboreto for the final spot on the grid – he was actually quicker under the additional pressure, when the car was worse off. And it was with Scuderia Italia, ironically, where Badoer would record a career-best finish of 7th, in just his third career start at Imola. Just one measly lap behind 5th placed Philippe Alliot and 6th placed Fabrizio Barbazza, and one spot out of the points in 1993. He would have netted 6 points just for that finish if they were paying out points the way they do in 2010, and 7 points would have been his season total if a 10th place in Monza also counted as a points finish, but it still put them ahead of Tyrrell in that season’s Constructors’ Championship on countback, even though the team withdrew with two races to go. Alboreto’s best finish for Scuderia Italia, by comparison, was 11th.
In fairness, Rubens Barrichello’s rookie season at Jordan was far superior by the standard of intra-team metrics – an incredible 15-1 qualifying record and brilliant drives at Donington Park and Suzuka punctuate what was a fine beginning to a great career for the young Brazilian. But it was the only rookie campaign that was better than Badoer’s. Michael Andretti was a comprehensive bust at McLaren, and Alex Zanardi was having a hard time keeping up with Johnny Herbert at Lotus before his near-fatal accident at Spa.
When he began his second season in 1995 with Minardi, he would only enjoy a 7-10 (41.18%) success rating in qualifying versus teammates Pierluigi Martini and Pedro Lamy, but would also put the car as high as 12th on the grid in Hungary, and 13th in Argentina. It was also the only time in Badoer’s first F1 career where he’d fall below 50% in head-to-head qualifying. 11 points would have been paid to him that year under the current scoring table, which by itself is more than what Lotus has so far in the 2014 season.
Badoer was released from Minardi after the ’95 season, and joined the upstart Forti Corse team – a familiar face from the Formula 3000 days – for 1996. Once again, like at Scuderia Italia, the car was horrendously slow for most of the season, and once again, the team would go bankrupt before the season finale at Suzuka, just as things were starting to improve. He and teammate Andrea Montermini, his old title rival from F3000, were paired up at the team where Montermini contested the last four races of the 1992 F3000 season – and Badoer made him look completely average. Both Badoer and Montermini racked up a large amount of DNQs in the Forti FG01B and FG03 – ten between them, from 20 total entries – but in those qualifying sessions, Badoer outqualified Montermini 8-2 (80%). Badoer’s highest mark over the course of a season from ’93 to ’99. It’s the exact same record that Kamui Kobayashi of the Caterham F1 Team has posted in ten qualifying sessions through this point in the 2014 season. When you exclude the San Marino round where Badoer had the new FG03 and Montermini was still stuck in the older FG01B, and then the British Grand Prix where the Forti team barely had enough money to show up for the race weekend and turned only a handful of laps in practice before closing up shop (ala Arrows in mid-2002), Badoer was 7-1 in qualifying against Montermini (87.50%).
And then in Badoer’s last full season in 1999, after two years away from F1 racing and back with Minardi on loan from his testing contract with Ferrari, Badoer posted a 9-6 qualifying mark (60%) against rookie teammate Marc Gene in 15 entries – he missed Brazil with a wrist injury and was replaced by Stephane Sarrazin. Marc Gene, the same man who, ten years later, would be snubbed in favor of Badoer when Massa was injured.
|Luca Badoer – Qualifying vs Teammates
Another category where Badoer excelled was crashing, or a lack thereof. His Terminal Crash Frequency (or, his percentage of retirements as the result of crashes, accidents, or spinning off course) was only 16% for his entire career, in spite of his tendency to be a rolling road block at times. His lowest TCF% in a season is 8.33% in 1993, where he crashed out just once in 12 starts. His highest was a whopping 33.33% TCF in 1996, though that translates to two crashes out of just six race starts that year.
As a benchmark, the miserable 2012 season of Romain Grosjean saw him compile a 32% TCF in 19 races. Last year, Force India driver Paul di Resta had the highest TCF% of 29%. The record for a driver who completed a majority of the races is held jointly by Ukyo Katayama in 1995, and Pedro Diniz in 1999 – 50% TCF in 16 races each. While TCF% does not consider who’s at fault in incidents involving more than one driver, it must be said: The rollover at Argentina in ’96 wasn’t his fault. Getting punted off at Monza in ’99 by Toranosuke Takagi wasn’t his fault. Getting spun in the opening laps by Romain Grosjean at Valencia in 2009 wasn’t his fault either. During that 1993 rookie year, Badoer was only involved in one race-ending accident (Hungary). Meanwhile, up the order at McLaren, fellow rookie Michael Andretti – arriving with way more pomp and celebration – crashed his way out of almost half of his 13 miserable F1 starts, and was fired with three races remaining.
|Luca Badoer – Terminal Crash Frequency %
And herein lies what I can say is the only bright spot of Badoer in 2009, but one that cannot be brushed over once it is presented: Do you recall Luca Badoer triggering a multi-car pileup, aggressively impeding another driver, ruining someone else’s race with a stupid accident caused by acute brain fade, or carelessly spinning off into the kitty litter or sticking it in the tyre barriers in those two races?
In his youth, in the prime of his racing career, Luca Badoer was able to get more pace out of his under-equipped machinery than his teammates could, a majority of the time, while keeping things fairly tidy for a young driver. In a way, Badoer in the ’90s reminds me of Nico Hulkenberg. And I know, it sounds like a stretch to some of you readers, to compare the popular pick for “Worst Ferrari Driver Ever” to a driver who many, including NBC Sports analyst David Hobbs, feel should already be at Ferrari right now, but doesn’t the career pattern of Badoer and Hulkenberg sound awfully similar? If I lay it out this way:
Both men came straight out of Formula 3 to win the top-level junior Formula category as rookies the next year. Both men were paired with the most experienced drivers on the grid as Formula 1 rookies, and were on par with their elder teammates for the duration of the season. Then after missing a year to take on testing roles with a new team, they were promoted to racing drivers with that same team, performed more-or-less on par with their incumbent teammates, and then, the following year, they moved to a struggling team, but both men completely outperformed their teammates over the course of the season.
Badoer just never had that one, big, career-making break in the ’90s that could have propelled him higher up the grid into becoming a permanent fixture on the Formula 1 circus. And this, I feel, is the main reason – not a lack of talent as so many were quick to suggest back in 2009 – but a lack of career-making breaks to compliment the sub-par machinery he found himself constantly saddled into – even in GT racing in 1997 – why Luca Badoer is the driver with the most starts and not a single championship point in his career.
The ones that got away
Scuderia Italia as a team were awful in 1993, to put it briefly. But even still, Badoer and Alboreto were given an opportunity to test for Benetton late in 1993 as the team sought a replacement for the retiring Riccardo Patrese. Benetton were not impressed with either drivers’ results, and they went with ex-Sauber driver J.J. Lehto in 1994. Lehto would be replaced by rookie Jos Verstappen mid-season, who in turn would be replaced by Johnny Herbert when he was released from Lotus. But Benetton’s decision to pass on Badoer and Alboreto was unfair to both former Scuderia Italia drivers for two reasons: One, they had never driven an F1 car with an active suspension system such as the one on the B193 they tested, which put them at an inherent disadvantage. Part of why Lotus were so keen to have Alex Zanardi, who would have been Benetton’s first pick to replace Patrese, drive for them in 1993 was entirely because of his experience testing Benetton’s active suspension system during his time with the Italian team. And two, active suspension technology, as well as anti-lock brakes, traction control, and launch control, would be banned beginning in 1994 anyway. So wouldn’t Badoer’s lack of active suspension experience have been an advantage in a year of sweeping change in Formula 1? We will never know, then, how a 23-year-old Luca Badoer would have fared as the Italian wingman to Michael Schumacher, entering the prime of his career, at the Italian team Benetton, in the height of their success as a constructor.
And when Minardi absorbed the remnants of Scuderia Italia for 1994, the team chose Alboreto to partner Pierluigi Martini for the upcoming season, despite the fact that in terms of pure performance, the rookie Badoer outperformed the veteran Alboreto in every category, so Badoer didn’t even get a chance to race that year. Only when Alboreto retired after 1994 did a spot open up for Badoer at Minardi. So we’ll never know how a 23-year old Luca Badoer would have fared with Minardi, driving the M194 which bagged 5 points and 10th in the Constructors’ Championship with the aging duo of Alboreto and Martini at the wheel. That year out of racing may have very well contributed to Badoer developing a habit of being a notorious blocker over the next two seasons.
That 1995 season also went downhill before the first Grand Prix of the season, from the moment Mugen-Honda balked on an engine lease deal with Minardi to go join up with Tom Walkinshaw and the Ligier team at the persuasion of their other new headmaster, former Benetton boss Flavio Briatore – the same man who passed on Badoer and Alboreto when picking Michael Schumacher’s 1994 teammate. So we’ll never know how a 24-year-old Luca Badoer would have fared if his Minardi M195 was powered by the latest factory Mugen-Honda V10 engines, and not the outdated and unreliable Ford-Zetec V8s that he and Martini and Lamy were forced to use instead. For all we know, it could have been the start of a successful partnership that elevated the team into the midfield permanently, and the Minardi name might still be in F1 today.
And then in 1996, Forti Corse had all of a handful of races with the vastly-improved FG03 chassis before their bankruptcy, so we’ll never know how a 25-year-old Luca Badoer would have done in the last six races of 1996 with a team that now finally had the equipment to run on par with at least the Minardis, and the Arrows of the woefully slow Ricardo Rosset.
Then, in 1999, perhaps the biggest injustice committed at Badoer’s expense up to that point. Michael Schumacher would miss six races with a broken foot sustained in the British Grand Prix. Badoer was already the test driver for Ferrari, having been there since late 1997. Jean Todt was not keen to take Badoer back from his loan to Minardi, for some reason, and went with Mika Salo – a free agent at the time, having been dropped by Arrows and seen time at BAR replacing an injured Ricardo Zonta for two races.
At that point in their careers, the baseline qualifying form for both drivers would indicate that Salo (63%) would have been the statistically superior choice to Badoer (56%). He had also outscored his F1 teammates 15-3 from his late 1994 debut to mid-1999 after his BAR stint ended. Salo had been hard done by Arrows after being dropped by them before the 1999 season, and his 7th in San Marino would be the best result BAR would claim for the entire, pathetic 1999 season. But Salo’s baseline qualifying successes also came courtesy of two years of drubbing Ukyo Katayama 24-8, and Pedro Diniz 11-5 in 1998 – he failed to outqualify Jacques Villeneuve in his 3 starts at BAR, and broke virtually even with a slight 9-8 edge over Jos Verstappen at Tyrrell ’97. Badoer, arguably, had to race with much tougher teammates in Alboreto, Martini, Lamy, and Gene than Salo did with Katayama – who had been ailing since the ’94-’95 offseason with cancer, and Diniz – a pay-driver who honestly lucked his way into his drives with Ligier and Arrows thanks to his family’s money, points scoring finishes with mid-field teams be damned (also, scroll back up to that part where they both hold the record for crashing out of the most races in a season).
And then there’s the one key, non-statistical reason why Salo over Badoer might not have been the right choice: Badoer was simply more familiar with the car through thousands of testing kilometres than Salo was. To Salo’s credit, he managed to bring home 10 points via a 2nd place at Hockenheim that could have been a win had he not been asked to let de facto lead driver Eddie Irvine through to win the race, and a 3rd place at Monza, where every Ferrari driver must perform in front of the Tifosi in attendance. However, Salo’s six-race tenure also included three mediocre non-scoring finishes and a DNF at the Nurburgring. But we’ll never know how well a 28-year-old Luca Badoer would have fared as the Italian substitute driver at Ferrari, nor what impact it could have had on his racing career after the 1999 season.
And it wasn’t just me from 2014, who argued that Badoer should have been the guy. Here’s a quote from the first man Ferrari wanted to replace the injured Schumacher:
“Ferrari’s choices are not my business, but, in my opinion, any comparison between Mika Salo and Luca Badoer would have gone Badoer’s way. I just cannot understand why Salo has been chosen. For me, Badoer would win 1000-1.”
That was Jean Alesi, who himself turned down an offer to return to Ferrari.
And on track, there were even more missed opportunities in Luca Badoer’s first F1 career.
1993 at Imola was a best career finish, but he was just one place out of the points as mentioned earlier.
Two big chances for points in 1995 came and went for naught: In Argentina, he was involved in a first-lap crash which forced a race restart that he triggered when he spun Mika Salo (then with Tyrrell) into Alesi’s Ferrari. His teammate Martini was also involved, but Martini made it to the lone spare car first to take the restart. A then-best 13th grid spot went to waste. This was listed as a DNS instead of a retirement via a crash, so although it probably should be, by the book, it is not a Terminal Crash. Either way, no points scored.
In Australia, at the Adelaide circuit’s final event, he started 15th, two spots ahead of Pedro Lamy in the sister Minardi. But once again, Badoer was classified as a “DNS” due to electrical gremlins during the formation laps. And in one of the most underrated wars of attrition in F1 history, Lamy finished 6th, picking up one point. The only point Minardi would score all season. A point that would secure Lamy’s Minardi future into 1996, while Badoer was left to watch from the paddock as his future with the team vanished into thin air.
Once again in Australia in 1999, but this time at Albert Park, Badoer seemed in prime position for points in another battle of attrition. From 21st on the grid he moved up to 11th. And he was running ahead of the Arrows of Toranosuke Takagi and Pedro de la Rosa, when the gearbox failed. De la Rosa would score points on his F1 debut, Badoer would rue yet another missed chance for that elusive first point.
And then it all came to a head at the Nurburgring in 1999, where once again a war of attrition broke out in mixed wet and dry conditions, and potential winners were dropping like flies. Dark horse title contender Heinz-Harald Frentzen‘s Jordan broke down, effectively ending his championship aspirations. Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari pitcrew famously gacked his first pit stop. Mika Hakkinen made the mistake of putting on wet tyres as the track dried out. The likes of David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, and Giancarlo Fisichella inherited the lead at certain points only to throw it all away. Badoer survived the chaos as the track dried out and found himself sitting in a comfortable fourth position – which would pay out three championship points. The only cars ahead of him were the eventual podium finishers Johnny Herbert, Jarno Trulli, and Rubens Barrichello. Then, with 13 laps remaining and those three points well secured, the worst thing that could have ever happened, did happen.
Like Damon Hill coughing away the lead in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix because of one lousy fifty pence washer, this is one of those Grand Prix moments where I watch the race, and even when I know what happens, I’m still hoping the outcome changes any time I watch it. It’s tough to watch Badoer crying with his head buried on the nose of his stricken M01. A broken gearbox and 13 laps keeping him from 3 points, enough to vault Minardi over Arrows and well over BAR. Hell, at the rate it was going, keeping him from a maiden podium for Minardi if one of the front-runners’ cars blew up. The hindsight from 2009 only makes it worse.
And just like Adelaide in ’95, Badoer’s teammate scored the only point for Minardi all year. But do give Marc Gene credit to hold off a frustrated Eddie Irvine for that 6th place finish – he only finished 3 seconds back of 5th placed Mika Hakkinen as well.
Badoer’s first career ended after the 1999 season. There was one more potential chance to race, at Sauber, in 2001, if a young, inexperienced, but lightning-fast Finn that Peter Sauber wanted to partner Nick Heidfeld was denied his FIA Super License. But eventually, that young man got his license, the Sauber F1 Team enjoyed their best season to date, and as the old cliche dictates, “the rest is history.”
Italy’s lost generation – Badoer was truly among them
As Badoer settled into his permanent role of Ferrari tester in the new millenium, honing and fine-tuning some of the most sublime Ferrari Formula 1 cars like the F2002 and F2004, a new generation of Italian drivers came to the forefront. 2004 was the rookie years of Giorgio Pantano at Jordan, and Gianmaria Bruni at Minardi. Also that year, Vitantonio Liuzzi was going to beat a thin field and become the last Formula 3000 champion en route to his F1 debut in 2005, and becoming the first Toro Rosso lead driver the following year. Luca Filippi would win the Euroseries F3000 title in 2005, and Davide Rigon would win that title two years later. And then just two years ago, Davide Valsecchi became the second Italian driver to win the GP2 Series championship.
To put it bluntly, none of them made an impact in Formula 1.
Liuzzi’s career lasted the longest of this group, but despite his successes in karting and F3000, and the support of motorsport writers such as Joe Saward, he never finished better than 6th in 80 career starts. His last F1 gig was with HRT, as the veteran benchmark to an up-and-comer named Daniel Ricciardo. He can now be seen in the Autobacs Super GT Series, driving for Aguri Suzuki‘s ARTA team.
Pantano came into F1 as a legend in go-karting and a winning record in F3000, and to this day, Will Buxton, GP2 lead announcer and NBC Sports pit reporter, will not hold back in professing just how talented he is. But over 14 races in 2004, he got his (rear end) handed to him by Heidfeld at Jordan virtually every weekend, and was ultimately dropped for test driver Timo Glock – who did have more sponsorship, but frankly, also had more potential. He eventually won the GP2 Series title, albeit at age 29, and in what was effectively his seventh attempt…thus, nobody came calling in 2009. Not in the F1 paddock, anyway. Today, Pantano, 35 years old, is driving a McLaren MP4-12C in the Blancpain Sprint Series.
Bruni was actually a much better qualifier at Minardi than Zsolt Baumgartner over the course of the 2004 season, but Baumgartner picked up the team’s only point, at Indianapolis in 2004. Bruni’s pace advantage was not enough to convince Paul Stoddart to keep him on board for 2005, and thus he was dropped back down to GP2 for two more seasons before his single-seater career ended in 2006. Three class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans later, Bruni has re-invented himself as one of endurance racing’s elite talents, yet fans of his will probably ask what would have happened if Bruni was given maybe one more year at Minardi.
And that’s just the guys who got into F1. Filippi, another “Will Buxton guy”, should never have been tenured in GP2 as long as he was. He came close to a drive with Super Aguri back in 2008, he was quicker than incumbent drivers Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson in winter testing. They ultimately stuck with their trusted hands, but Super Aguri went bust after a handful of races anyway. Today, Filippi, now 29, is still seeking his first full-time IndyCar Series drive after three years of trying. Valsecchi was another long-tenured GP2 champion, but he seemed to be the logical choice to replace an injured Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus at the end of last year. Instead, they brought back Heikki Kovalainen. Valsecchi, who was (rightfully) angered by that decision, only entered one race this year in the International GT Open, and was a premature withdrawal. Rigon, now a sports car driver at AF Corse alongside Bruni, never had a chance for promotion despite being a Ferrari test driver due to his age and the fact that the role was now effectively useless by the time he got there.
Tony DiZinno mentioned some of those lost talents in an article on Italy’s decline in the Formula 1 landscape that was recently published to Motorsports Talk, NBC Sports’ racing blog.
But it just doesn’t seem fair to omit Badoer from a list of talented Italian drivers who were never given the right opportunity to fulfill their potential. Perhaps DiZinno, like so many F1 pundits, must have concluded that the failures of 2009 erased all of the promise of his career in the 1990s and the great overall body of work he had compiled at Ferrari in his tenure with the team. Which would be ridiculous and shameful if true.
Revisiting that 2009 stint at Ferrari: Badoer wasn’t Ferrari’s first choice, just as he wasn’t back in 1999. They originally wanted to persuade Michael Schumacher out of retirement to fill in for his good friend Massa, but Schumacher had sustained a neck injury earlier in the year whilst competing in a superbike race in Germany, and was declared unfit to drive by the doctors. When that announcement was made, the popular choice then became Ferrari’s other tester, Marc Gene – five years younger, with more recent F1 experience (his last start was in 2004), and having competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Peugeot that same year. Spanish motorsport minister Carlos Gracia (not a typo, that’s his actual surname) was incensed with the decision not to pick Gene as the team’s substitute driver.
And eventually, Gracia was justified. As were all the people who’d rather have seen Schumacher, or Gene, or Pantano, or Ferrari-bound for 2010 Alonso, or as then-BBC announcer Martin Brundle was hinting at, a 20-year-old Jules Bianchi who was dominating Formula 3 at the time. Badoer had missed seasons before in his first career, and other test drivers like Alexander Wurz had gone a few years in between Formula 1 starts – but Badoer could not shake off ten years of total race rust in just two weeks of testing. His only sanctioned race appearances since the end of the 1999 season were at Felipe Massa’s all-star charity karting events in Brazil. What was Jan Lammers, who had the largest gulf between F1 starts lasting from 1982 to 1992, doing in that span of ten years? Starting 7 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning in the race 1988, and winning twice more in the Daytona 24 Hours. Which was infinitely more than what Badoer was doing from 2000 to mid-2009 in his role. Reliability testing for thousands and thousands of miles around Fiorano is much different than driving in anger, at ten-tenths pace, for 300 kilometers every other weekend, or racing around the clock at Le Mans.
Badoer got the ride of a lifetime, ten years too late, and now so many fans who only know Badoer as the punchline of a joke feel that his 2009 failures justify his non-appointment to the drive of a lifetime in 1999 when he was still a properly active racing driver. And that isn’t even close to a fair judgment.
And even when drivers since then have come in as mid-season substitiutions to front-running teams and fallen short, Badoer’s plight recieves no consideration. Just in the last three years, Bruno Senna, Jerome D’Ambrosio, and Heikki Kovalainen have all spelled at the current Lotus team due to financial constraints, suspensions, or injury. A combined 11 starts for the trio produced a total of 2 points, all belonging to Senna, and not one of them were consistently able to match their teammates’ pace.
But the most damning example was seen in Badoer’s immediate replacement, Giancarlo Fisichella. Fisichella won the drive based on the fact that at Spa, he had just taken Force India’s first pole position, first championship points, first podium, and what is still their best finish of 2nd place. I don’t hate the latter driver at all, however, this is one of my favorite statistics of the 2009 season: It took Fisichella five races at Ferrari to score the exact same number of points that Badoer did in two races for Ferrari. They also had the exact same qualifying and race results record against Raikkonen. For those keeping score at home: That’s zeroes across the board for Fisichella in all three categories. Ferrari missed out on 3rd in the 2009 Constructors’ Championship by one point that neither Badoer nor Fisichella could claim. The difference between the two drivers’ failures to succeed in their roles is only by a simple matter of degree.
The common thread is that they all failed to produce at the level of the drivers they replaced, even though they were given cars that were leagues above what they had been driving at backmarker teams, they had far less time away from sanctioned racing, and, in the case of Senna and D’Ambrosio, were already familiar with the car through testing and simulator work.
But history is kinder to their failures to deliver the needed results than they were to Badoer five years ago.
Just as history was kinder to Jean Alesi after his own failed single-seater comeback, his pathetic run in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, at the wheel of a Lotus-powered Indycar that would have been slower around the Brickyard than an old 1960’s Lotus Elan convertible…with two flat tyres and no engine.
History was kinder to the failures of Pantano, Liuzzi, and Bruni in F1 because they have influential advocates covering the sport now that saw their potential years ago, and history will be kinder if Frijns, Da Costa, or any of the current top F1 prospects fail to make an impact or even start a race in Formula 1 because in 2014, more people are following the lower categories and their favorite drivers in them, perhaps more avidly than F1 itself.
History was kinder to Ivan Capelli’s failures at Ferrari over 20 years ago, when he became the last Italian to drive full-time for the Scuderia and then was cut loose with two races to go for Nicola Larini.
And history is probably kinder to Taki Inoue nowadays because he’s self-depreciative enough to poke fun at his disastrous career at any given opportunity, whereas Badoer will probably, if asked about it, say he had no regrets other than that he drove just two races – but deep down, I’d guess that he still feels a great deal of hurt at becoming the laughing-stock of the international racing world for two weekends in the summer of 2009.
And I wouldn’t blame him.
He lashed out at the media criticism of his performance after his replacement, which struck a nerve with said writers and commentators – but honestly, as outrageous and overly apologetic as this next sentence will seem…can you really blame him? As Ted Kravitz of BBC tried his best to get race engineer Rob Smedley to say that Badoer’s drive in Valencia was a miserable failure, and as Brundle tried his best to politely tell the TV audience that they’d picked the wrong guy at Ferrari, and as fans on internet forums and tabloid writers piled on and piled on without mercy, the only support Badoer seemed to be getting was from people like Smedley, who boldly defended his driver after a difficult first race, and from team boss Stefano Domenicali, who still gave him another race at Belgium when other team bosses would have been much less forgiving, and from Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, the two drivers at Ferrari’s main rivals at McLaren Mercedes, and perhaps the most glowing endorsement of the lot, from Michael Schumacher himself in an interview the day after the Badoer appointment was announced:
“I have to say that Luca is a great friend of mine. Over all these years he has always prepared himself in the best possible way to be ready to race; this is his work: being ready for the tests and in case something happens. He’s not someone just sitting there and waiting for something to happen. He’s always ready and has obviously worked very hard after Felipe’s accident. […] I think that he is the right choice, the best choice Ferrari could make. It’s true that he hasn’t raced for a while, but a driver never looses his competitive spirit. I wish him well for this difficult task.”
And Michael Schumacher, above all, would know his abilities better than anyone else. Those abilities on the test track were instrumental in Schumacher securing five straight World Championships from 2000 to 2004, and 64 of his Grand Prix victories from 1998 to 2006, after all.
If only more people in the Formula 1 community were as optimistic of his chances to succeed.
If only that optimism was rewarded with success.
Regardless of what is said about Luca Badoer’s F1 career this weekend, if anything, on social media, or in magazine columns or feature articles on a website, you should know that there was genuine potential in him to become a solid driver in the sport for at least ten or fifteen seasons. Not a multiple World Champion, but perhaps, like his countrymen Fisichella and Trulli, or his first teammate Alboreto, a race winner, and a flag bearer for his country. Perhaps, like his F3000 peers Barrichello and Coulthard, a solid, capable, number two driver to a championship-winning teammate that could still win multiple races for a great team like Ferrari or McLaren.
It would have been more fitting company than the sort of drivers he’s ranked with now, the Yuji Ides and the Chanoch Nissanys and the Taki Inoues of the sport. But all because of two bad weekends in the summer of 2009, it is where he probably will continue to be placed, so long as this often cruel and unforgiving racing series we call Formula 1 exists.