Gianmarco Raimondo, a Canadian from St. Catharines whose name sounds more Italian than many Italians, and who’s driving for an Italian racing team in an Italian racing series, thinks a driver for an Italian team will win the Formula One world championship on Sunday.
Gee, what a surprise.
“I think Fernando Alonso will win the world championship driving for Ferrari,” said Raimondo in a telephone interview this week.
Raimondo is a 19-year-old racer for the Lucidi Motors team in Formula 3 Italia who has F1 aspirations. We talked about his first year in a European racing series, as well as the culture shock of a Canadian kid from Niagara leaving home for the first time and landing in a foreign country.
But first, we talked about Formula One and Alonso.
“I know he has a reputation for being arrogant, but he showed the last half of the season what he’s made of (four victories and three podiums in the last eight races).
“I’ve never been a big (Mark) Webber fan and (Sebastien) Vettel has changed from being a nice young guy to being a very difficult person to deal with, and I just don’t think he deserves the title.”
Raimondo admits that his personal situation — all-Italian, all the time — as well as the fact that the big prize for the top three drivers in the F3-Italia series is a Ferrari F1 test, might have had some influence on his thinking.
“Yeah, a little,” he chuckled.
There’s no F1 test for the F3 Italia rookie this season but Raimondo has his sights set on winning the championship in 2011 and climbing into a Ferrari then.
“I think I could have done better,” he said about his first overseas season in which he finished 16th overall in the series and third in the rookie standings.
“I made some rookie mistakes but I learned a lot. I was able to run with the top guys in the last two races at Monza and that was one of my goals: to be able to race among the leaders.”
Raimondo had his best finish of the 16-race season at Monza three weeks ago — a sixth in the first of a weekend double-header. He slipped to eighth in the second race but two top 10s in the ultra-competitive Italian series was a cause for celebration.
And to race at the legendary and historic Autodromo Nazionale di Monza was a huge thrill for the veteran of two seasons in the now-defunct Formula BMW-Americas series.
“It was amazing to be there at that track,” he said. “I went there with the idea of treating it like a normal circuit. It was only afterward that it hit me that not everyone gets to drive a formula racing car at Monza, and I just did.”
Although the 19-year-old had big expectations when he went to Europe last February — in fact, he’d told me then that he was aiming to win the championship — the realization of what he’d gotten himself into hit him pretty quickly.
“I really didn’t know what I was up against,” he said. “When I started practising, I saw right away that I was a step behind many of the other drivers. I saw their experience coming out pretty quickly. I knew they were better and I decided I would spend this season learning what they already knew.”
Raimondo observed that racing in Europe is decidedly different than in North America, in that some pretty blatant blocking is tolerated and there is more of a commitment to win than he’d been exposed to on this side of the pond.
“They (the other drivers) want to be first in everything,” he said. “They not only want to be first on the track but they want to be first in the gym, the first to analyze the data, the first to complete their notes.”
Raimondo explained that when drivers practise in Europe, there’s much more to it than simply driving around the race course. They write down an assessment of every circuit they make and every corner they turn. They want to understand where and why they’re fast, or slow, and to learn from it.
“It’s pretty much a complete self-analysis,” he said, “and I’ve learned from this; I know I have that level of commitment now.”
His final two races at Monza illustrated how he’d improved and grown over the course of the season.
“I had a huge headache when the first race was over,” he said. “I was very comfortable (when the race started) and I was able to attack, not just defend my position. I was studying the line of the driver in front of me, figuring out when I would try to pass, planning my moves and using the draft. It was motivating for me but also mentally exhausting.”
Raimondo — finances depending (as is the case with just about every other young Canadian driver looking to climb motor racing’s ladder, from Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe aiming to get into Indy cars in 2011, to Guelph’s Robert Wickens searching for a budget to continue his quest for an F1 ride) — will return to Lucidi Motors in 2011 for that crack at the F3 Italia title.
“My parents are organizing a fund-raiser for me in the New Year (email email@example.com for info, if you’re interested), but right now I’m 95 per cent certain of coming back here,” he said.
And it’s also because he likes the place.
“It was difficult at first,” he said. “It’s my first time away from home and everything was different — a new country, a new language, new customs. It was hard mentally and emotionally.”
But Raimondo says he’s immersed himself in the Italian culture. He lives in San Benedetto, which is not far from Rome, and watches Italian TV and reads Italian newspapers.
“My phone, my Facebook page — everything is in Italian,” he said. “I have a good feeling with the language now; I can understand just about everything people say to me and I can pretty much get people to understand what I’m saying.”
While there are girls — and a nightlife — in Italy, Raimondo is serious about his racing career and team owner Gabriele Lucidi keeps him on a pretty short leash.
“I have a strict schedule,” he said. “I have the racing, I have to train, and I have a curfew. If I have any free time, I help out at his bar. I sweep the floors and take out the garbage. It gives me something to do.”
And for a guy with ambitions to be a future racing champion, it also helps to keep him humble.
Norris McDonald writes an
auto racing blog at wheels.ca.