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Formula 1 rookie Antonio Giovinazzi has been tipped to cause Kimi Raikkonen “trouble” at Sauber this season, as Ferrari’s ‘other’ protege prepares for his first full grand prix season.
The emergence of Charles Leclerc in 2018 and his subsequent promotion after just one year in F1 has established the Monegasque as Ferrari’s next big thing.
While 2019 is a major year for Leclerc, it also marks the end of a near-two-year wait for fellow Ferrari starlet Giovinazzi to move his F1 career on from two heavy crashes.
Giovinazzi would not be partnering 2007 world champion Raikkonen at Sauber without his Ferrari link, but the Italian has not had the same career momentum or hype as Leclerc.
Former team owner Gian Carlo Minardi has said, on his official website, that Raikkonen “will have to watch over his shoulders, because I am sure Giovinazzi will be able to cause him trouble” at Sauber.
The momentum Giovinazzi builds in 2018 will be key to making Minardi’s prediction come true.
Form vs Sauber’s 2018 drivers
Free-practice outings have been Giovinazzi’s most public F1 auditions, and last year was encouraging.
After being six-tenths slower than Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, on average, across seven FP1 outings with Haas in 2017, Giovinazzi’s 2018 record at Sauber was much stronger.
He outpaced Marcus Ericsson in all three sessions he was paired with the experienced Swede by an average of just under three-tenths of a second.
To put that into context, Leclerc held an average 0.13s FP1 pace advantage over his regular team-mate through the season, though that rises to 0.2s if Leclerc’s troubled first three race weekends are omitted.
Leclerc’s smaller advantage comes from a much bigger sample set, and FP1 programmes make direct comparisons difficult, but it does serve to show that despite having many critics, Ericsson was not an easy target.
Giovinazzi was a second slower than Leclerc in Germany, but his running was slightly truncated when the engine cover flew off as he exited the pitlane.
Fairer comparisons were possible later in the year, as Giovinazzi ‘won’ the first fight in Russia by three tenths, but Leclerc was quicker by the same margin in Brazil.
Navigating an unconventional route
Unlike Leclerc, Giovinazzi was never a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, although he was assessed for it prior to starting his car-racing career.
He was also monitored by Ferrari during his 2015 European Formula 3 campaign before landing an official role with the F1 team in ’17.
His career path, largely reliant on auxiliary funding from Sean Gelael’s father prior to his Ferrari chance, has been nowhere near as straightforward as Leclerc’s.
Giovinazzi made an impressive F1 race debut in Australia in 2017 as a Saturday-morning replacement for Sauber’s injured regular driver Pascal Wehrlein, but suffered heavy crashes in qualifying and the race deputising again in China.
That, plus shunting later in the year on FP1 duty for another Ferrari customer, Haas, left Giovinazzi with a reputation of a fast but erratic driver.
Apart from a Le Mans 24 Hours outing as part of Ferrari’s GTE programme, he has not raced since the 2017 Chinese GP.
What that has allowed him to do is rack up around 4,000 miles of on-track testing with Ferrari, Sauber and Haas, in a bid to rebuild his reputation.
He has also engrossed himself in Ferrari’s simulator programme and become a vital weapon for the team over grand prix weekends, adding tens of thousands more miles in the simulator and earning specific praise from Sebastian Vettel.
Quiet but tangible progression
That Giovinazzi has plenty of ability is not news given he finished second to 2019 Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly as a GP2 rookie in ’16 when both were driving for Prema.
He won five races to Gasly’s four, although Gasly had more feature-race victories (all four compared to three for Giovinazzi) and also had the qualifying edge with five poles to two.
Despite leading into the final round, Giovinazzi was unable to convert his impressive rookie season into the title – something Leclerc did a year later with the same team – but he was clearly a match for a driver Red Bull is now entrusting to go up against Max Verstappen.
Gasly has since raced in Super Formula and proven his mettle in F1 with Toro Rosso, whereas it is harder to judge Giovinazzi’s improvement since their GP2 title battle.
However, through his Ferrari role and the door it has opened at Sauber, Giovinazzi has undeniably enjoyed a gradual rounding into a more complete driver.
That makes Giovinazzi more than just deserving of a full F1 chance.
As Minardi expects Raikkonen will discover, it also makes him a formidable person to have on the other side of the garage.