In a year where perennial GP2 Series powerhouse DAMS abandoned the model of going for experienced drivers and instead picked up young stars Pierre Gasly and Alex Lynn of the Red Bull Junior Team, and Stoffel Vandoorne, last year’s vice-champion, will stay at ART Grand Prix where he nearly became the first rookie champion of the series in a half-decade the last time out, it made sense for Raffaele Marciello, the top prospect of the Ferrari Driver Academy, to stay for a second season at Spanish squad Racing Engineering, a team that has won two GP2 Series Drivers’ Championships in ten seasons, the team for which Marciello won the feature race at Spa-Francorchamps and qualified in the top ten for all eleven feature races – the only driver in the field to do so. Hell, it was already confirmed by Sky Sports on the day Marciello was announced as Sauber’s test driver!
And that’s just what went down when the 20-year-old Marciello was announced as the newest driver at the Italian Trident Racing team – wait…what!?
Marciello’s moving to a different team? You mean to tell me that Sky Sports jumped the gun on announcing Marciello’s GP2 team a month early just because it was assumed he wouldn’t go anywhere else – and a NewsCorp-owned bureau ended up making a huge journalistic goof in the process?!? Why I never.
I don’t want to get sidetracked in calling out Sky Sports for pulling an Andrew Benson. Because any way you look at it, the acquisition of perhaps the best Italian Formula 1 prospect to come along in a decade, by the top Italian team in GP2, is more intriguing a story. Intriguing, but not palatable to all. Friday’s announcement invited some early skepticism from the man who called the action in GP2 for five years.
Full disclosure: Mr. Buxton has been closer to the GP2 Series than I, a fairly new follower of the series who has never traveled to a country that hosts a race in the series, ever have been, and probably ever will be. He sees things in some of the series’ most undervalued drivers that many racing fans can’t or choose not to see. But I’m a fan of Marciello, as is Buxton. That’s why the skepticism is there. DAMS is the current GP2 juggernaut, and now they’re basically going to be Red Bull’s third team. (R3D Bull?) ART is a great organization that produced all three of GP2’s rookie champions, and currently employs GP2’s best F1 prospect according to the PaddockScout Top 50 rankings. And we don’t even know yet if undervalued Mark Webber protege Mitch Evans is coming back for a third season, or if reigning European Formula 3 Champion Esteban Ocon will hang his hat in GP2 instead of Formula Renault 3.5 or even the DTM.
The only teams that could compete with those two on a regular basis, based on historical trends, would be the iSport/Russian Time squad that is likely (though not confirmed) to retain at least one of its 2014 drivers in Evans and/or Artem Markelov, and Racing Engineering, whom Marciello just departed. Going to Trident Racing would, on the surface, seem like a politically-motivated move that serves nothing but to align an Italian driver with an Italian team for the sake of some feel-good nationalistic pride, while compromising any hope of that driver contending for a crucial championship.
On the surface. But there are more angles to this than many would think.
For instance, it was many eons ago, November of 2013 in fact, that Marciello first drove a GP2 car for Trident Racing, fresh off his European Formula 3 Championship victory, and set the fastest time of the first day, then the third-fastest time in the second day before moving to his eventual 2014 destination, Racing Engineering, for the third and final day of the test. In two of the four sessions over those two days, Marciello’s Trident topped the time sheets.
It was mostly assumed that was just the product of Marciello being a very special driver, or running some sort of extreme one-lap setup, or having an illegal engine with soaked tyres and a nitrous oxide injection kit – because it certainly couldn’t have been because he was driving for Trident. At the time, Trident wasn’t seen as a very good team – after all, just months prior to this, Trident had to replace Kevin Ceccon with a string of uninspiring, low-level prospects for the second half of the season due to financial constraints. None more uninspiring than Angolan driver Ricardo Teixiera, who was Ceccon’s immediate replacement that came in the same weekend that Hilmer Motorsports released the reigning Formula Renault 3.5 Series champion Robin Frijns in a series of transactions that made the entire GP2 Series look rather awful.
Trident followed that very popular move up just months later by bringing in Johnny Cecotto, Jr. to drive the full 2014 season, alongside Sergio Canamasas, who came to the team at the second round in place of underprepared rookie Axcil Jeffries. A team that had never finished better than eighth in the GP2 Series championship, that willingly hired one of the least impressive and least popular competitors in the series the year before, now had the two least popular drivers throughout the 2013 season. It was supposed to be a disaster. In 2013, Cecotto gained extreme notoriety not for his bloodline, or taking feature race pole at Monaco for an underwhelming Arden team. It was because of this moment with Sam Bird. And starting this pileup that got him banned for a race. Canamasas wasn’t too far behind for getting into a dumb shunt with Jolyon Palmer at Silverstone. Just imagine what would happen if the two of them got together in one spectacular moment of brain fade – wait, that happened at Barcelona that year? Bloody hell.
From Barcelona onward, the worst was expected of the volatile combination that was the petrol-bathed powderkeg of Trident, Cecotto, and Canamasas. What happened instead that weekend is that Cecotto won from 16th on the grid in the feature race, the signature victory in the Venezuelan driver’s best season of GP2 in five tries. To give you an idea of how monumental a task that is, the Formula One Spanish Grand Prix has been won from no lower than 5th on the grid in the twenty-four times it has been held at the Circuit de Catalunya. Feature race pole position at Spielberg followed by another victory in the sprint race, a double podium finish at Spa-Francorchamps, and his first top-five result in the championship was Cecotto’s reward. In one season he nearly scored more points (140) than in the last two seasons with Addax and Arden (145 from 2012-13), and doubled his career win total.
Both Trident drivers shined at Monaco – each ecording back-to-back top five finishes, punctuated by Canamasas’ second-place finish in the sprint race. Eventually, it unraveled spectacularly for Canamasas almost as badly as, if not worse than how Cecotto’s driving infractions snowballed in 2013. First the crash with Nathanael Berthon in Hungary. Then the moment where he tried his best Valtteri Bottas impersonation and Sega Saturned (I think that was the right console, was it?) the Variante Ascari at Monza and triggered a massive pileup. By the end of the weekend, Canamasas had gone full-on “griefer in a Forza online race” mode. Oh look, there’s our main subject getting taken out of the race. That would lead to a Twitter war and a scathing call from Buxton himself to ban Canamasas from the series.
But even as badly as Canamasas went in Hungary and in Italy, Trident had already engineered his most productive season of GP2 Series competition ever just in that one weekend in Monaco. Cecotto was a top-five driver who finally looked like a proper second-generation talent, maybe not a future F1 driver, but someone who could excel in the DTM (his father’s old stomping grounds), the IndyCar Series (where he’d be a thousand-fold improvement over likely IndyCar rookie candidate Rodolfo Gonzalez), or in endurance racing.
At the end of it all, Maurizio Salvadori’s Trident squad turned the most problematic driver in GP2 the year before, and last year, gave him the tools, the setups, and the confidence needed to be a consistently fast and productive driver. Even after Canamasas soured, Cecotto’s sustained turnaround carried Trident to their best-ever result of 6th in the Teams’ Championship. And even in 2013, in the year that Teixiera replaced Ceccon – that was after Ceccon rattled off a string of four consecutive points finishes, including a podium in the feature race at Monaco, to score twenty-three more points in eleven starts than the zero points he accumulated in eight starts for Scuderia Coloni two years prior. Trident’s only full-season driver, Berthon, was slightly more consistent at the ominous black hole from whence no driver’s potential can emerge intact, Venezuela GP Lazarus – but aligned with Trident, he had a race win in Hungary.
With all due respect to the four of those drivers, none have been on the caliber of Raffaele Marciello. None of them are top prospects of the young driver programme of the most powerful team in Grand Prix racing. None of them are the best candidate to break their home countries’ ten-year winless drought and three years without a single representative on the F1 grid. Marciello is the finest driver to come to Trident in many, many years. Pastor Maldonado may be a Grand Prix winner, Gianmaria Bruni is the undisputed single best GT driver in the world, Mike Conway has been one hell of a road course mercenary in IndyCar – but none of them came in with the CV that Marciello possesses. The Italian tabloids are already linking him not to an F1 debut in 2016 with Haas or Sauber, but with the Scuderia themselves. Take that with a grain of salt because it is the home town tabloid, but that’s awfully telling of a driver’s upper-level potential.
Marciello had his moments of poor fortune – six retirements, none of which were his doing, and countless other compromised races due to strokes of awful luck. In Hungary, he was publicly reprimanded by the Ferrari Driver Academy’s Twitter account for his “unacceptable driver’s mistakes” that led to two penalties in the feature race. It was crass at the time, but the post-script was Marciello responding – not by folding like fine origami under the criticism, but with hard-fought points in the sprint race the next day – then a stellar first victory a month later in Spa-Francorchamps, the top Ferrari prospect having outduelled McLaren’s top young driver Vandoorne in a thrilling feature race. Even with that inconsistent streak, Marciello was nowhere near as bad off as Johnny Cecotto’s 2013 or Sergio Canamasas’ 2014 in terms of “unacceptable mistakes”, and was lightning quick every weekend – the only other rookie that could match Vandoorne’s pace on a consistent basis.
If Trident can work a miracle and turn a dangerous and troublesome driver into a matured fringe contender for the championship, and squeeze surprisingly productive spurts out of otherwise low-level talent over the last two seasons, just imagine what they could do with a driver with a genuine championship pedigree that has already shown the raw pace and potential for Formula One greatness – who is only missing a little more experience and maturity. Unless Marciello absolutely implodes next year due to poor chemistry, this is not a case of a driver being taken out of championship contention due to petty politics. In Trident, Marciello and the FDA may have found the best fit for the Swiss-Italian superstar to take the fight to Vandoorne, Lynn, Gasly, and whoever else emerges at the top of the GP2 grid.
If you’re a betting person, you may want to put that wager down on Marciello now, before the odds start to get closer to even money after pre-season testing when everyone else realizes how shrewd this move is.