I was lucky enough to be given a behind the scenes look at the Ferrari Driver Academy in the heart of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. In the fourth of a series of posts about my trip, I arrived at Silverstone for the Formula 1 and GP2 race weekend, and joined team Racing Engineering…
My week with the Ferrari Driver Academy was drawing to a close. I had spent a few days following young hopeful Raffaele Marciello or Lello, as he prepared for his race in the GP2 Series at Silverstone. I had experienced physical training, a mental workout in the Mind Room, and a nausea-inducing few laps in the state-of-the-art simulator. More importantly, I had watched as a talented young man take all of these things in his stride, while juggling the everyday pressures of growing up, dealing with fame, and had seen his all-out desire to win.
The Academy is headed by Luca Baldisserri, a Ferrari strategist and ex race engineer to Michael Schumacher, who has five drivers to manage, all of whom race at different levels and disciplines. At an evening meal the night before my Academy adventure started, we chatted about the programme and Luca’s paternal instinct was clear to see – he was protective over his young drivers, and rightfully proud of the Academy’s success.
The race weekend was finally upon us – arriving at Silverstone early on the Friday morning I joined thousands of dedicated Formula 1 fans, flooding into the venue to watch the practice sessions ahead of the main race on Sunday. The GP2 Series is dubbed the Formula 1 support race, and while it sits in the shade of its bigger brother, is no less hard fought. Thirteen teams with two drivers make up the starting grid, and points are gained over two races – the main race on Saturday, and a shorter sprint race on Sunday – with short practice and qualifying sessions beforehand. The cars are all standardised, and are built around a ferocious V8 engine with the great sound that so many Formula 1 fans are now missing.
Lello had remained remarkably cool, and in the few days leading up to the race weekend seemed focussed, driven, and unnerved by the big stage he was about to step on to. Having won the Formula 3 European Championship the year before, the Academy had high hopes for Lello’s debut season in GP2, as he joined Spanish team Racing Engineering. The GP2 Series has always been seen as a path to Formula 1, and many of the big names in F1 have worked their way through the ranks and graduated from GP2, with Nico Rosberg winning the debut series in 2005 and Lewis Hamilton winning the following year.
I sat with the Racing Engineering team in their motorhome as Lello and teammate Stefano Coletti prepared for the day’s practice and qualifying sessions. They were both relaxed, seemingly unfazed by the pressure on them, and were in good spirits, joking and laughing. I asked Lello about tactics, and he shrugged them off, saying that he just wanted to race flat out.
The practice session was perfect for Racing Engineering, as Lello put in the fastest lap time, with Coletti finishing in second. I stood at the garage door as their cars roared out onto the track, feeling the power of the V8 engines as they pulled away.
The afternoon’s qualifying was just as good for Lello, as he secured his first pole position of the season, and everything was looking great for Saturday’s race. Catching up with him after, Lello was clearly elated with the day’s events, as he sat in the motorhome, flicking through Twitter and Facebook, seeing the online reaction to his driving. We chatted about rivalries, about Twitter wars and the friendliness of other drivers. Racing incidents happen, of course, and some continue online. Did it bother him that people comment on his driving? “No, I just ignore it” he answers, shrugging again.
As I took my place trackside for Saturday’s race, it was great to see so many Formula 1 fans also interested in GP2. Lello got off to a fantastic start, and led the field around Silverstone for the first ten laps, before pitting for a tyre change. Blasting back out on track, he looked to be in control of the race, but four laps later, a mechanical fault saw him slow down and have to retire at the halfway stage. It was a terrible stroke of bad luck after proving to be so fast in qualifying.
Sunday’s sprint race was no better – starting at the back of the grid, Lello made a good start along the first straight, but was shunted and dumped unceremoniously into the gravel at the first turn. His race weekend over, it had been a bitter end to a promising couple of days. Teammate Coletti picked up second place, and back at the motorhome, it was a bittersweet atmosphere for Racing Engineering. Poor Lello looked dejected as we sat talking about the weekend’s events, staring longingly at Coletti’s now empty bottle of podium winner’s champagne.
As always, Lello’s Ferrari Driver Academy engineer Francesco Pon was on hand to offer some words of encouragement as the team packed up the cars, ready to leave Silverstone that evening. Lello’s determination to win was undented however, and his persistence and raw talent would see him take his much deserved first GP2 win a month later in Belgium.
Lello was looking through videos of previous races, and I asked him whether he’d ever had any big crashes. He shows me footage from 2010, when he raced in the Formula Arbarth series in Imola, Italy – a horrific crash, where his single seater touches the wheel of the car in front, launches into the air spins and rolls over and over, before landing upside down. He was lucky to walk away from a crash like that. “How did you feel when you raced there the following year?”, I ask, expecting that anyone would be nervous after a big crash. Looking up from his phone, he gives a final nonplussed shrug, “I win”. It’s the perfect response from such a likeable champion-to-be.