Former Grand Prix driver Vitantonio Liuzzi is today celebrating his 31st birthday!
Born in the south of Italy, ‘Tonio’ (as everyone calls him) started karting at the age of ten. Two years on, he won the national cadet class title and graduated to the junior class championship in 1994. A year later, and he was the runner-up in the World Championship.
His rise through the karting ranks continued, and in 1999 he won the European senior title and the Ayrton Senna Memorial Trophy at Suzuka.
By 2000, he was starting to dovetail his karting with some open-wheel racing, and it was in 2001 that he finally won the World Championship karting crown he so coveted. He also finished second in the German Formula Renault championship, and in 2002 he graduated into the German Formula 3 championship with the BSR Opel team.
Having joined Red Bull’s driving academy, he was propelled straight into Formula 3000 in 2003 with Red Bull Motorsport – such was his reputation that he was given a test outing by Williams before the year was out.
After finishing fourth overall in the standings and as the series’ best rookie driver, Liuzzi moved into the crack Arden International squad – run by Christian Horner – and he swept to the F3000 championship in the most dominant fashion in its history, winning seven of the seasons ten races.
The bidding war began for his services. Sauber was keen to sign him – it ultimately went for Jacques Villeneuve – and so Liuzzi joined the new Red Bull Racing team (with Horner newly-appointed as Team Principal) as the third driver.
The deal was meant to see Liuzzi seat-swap with the incumbent Christian Klien over the course of the season. He made his race debut at Imola, and promptly beat team-mate David Coulthard to score a championship point.
After one more outing at the Spanish Grand Prix, Klien was back in the cockpit for the remainder of the season – the Austrian managed to impress more behind the wheel, leaving Liuzzi biding his time with only his Friday practice outings to show for his efforts.
Red Bull Racing opted to retain its Coulthard/Klien partnership into 2006, and so a frustrated Liuzzi was sent to Red Bull’s newly-acquired ‘B’ team, Scuderia Toro Rosso – itself a reborn Minardi.
Paired with F1 rookie Scott Speed, Liuzzi had few opportunities to show his talent in the restricted V10-powered car, claiming a paltry point at Indianapolis. He pairing remained the same heading into 2007, and while Liuzzi seemed to have Speed’s measure, neither was exactly eye-catching.
At that year’s rain-hit European Grand Prix, both driver crashed out with clumsy synchronised spins at Turn 1, and the writing was on the wall for both. Speed got the chop after trying to punch team principal Franz Tost, and there were many who felt that Liuzzi wouldn’t last much longer.
A young German called Sebastian Vettel was brought into the squad, and suddenly Liuzzi came alive in the face of this young and very hungry driver. His performances improved quickly, and he peaked with a sixth-placed finish at the Chinese Grand Prix. But Vettel finished fourth, the team’s best result in its history…
But his future with the team was over before the season was out, as the team had announced some time before that Sébastien Bourdais would be replacing him in 2008. With few drives available, Tonio joined Force India as its test driver.
He returned to the team’s race seat in late 2009 when Giancarlo Fisichella’s switch to Ferrari created an opening at the Silverstone team. While he failed to finish in the points in each of his five outings with the team, he’d done enough to be kept on alongside Adrian Sutil for the 2010 season on a two-year deal.
His 2010 season was his most competitive. He scored points in both of the opening races, and backed that up with further points results in Monaco, Canada, Belgium and Korea, where he equalled his career-best sixth place. Despite earning 21 points and finishing 15th in the Drivers’ Championship, he was dropped from the team’s line-up in place of Paul di Resta, and took an undisclosed settlement from the team for it breaking his contract.
After remaining in the F1 wilderness during the off-season, Tonio was given a lifeline just before the start of the 2011 season when he was signed on to the Hispania Racing Team. In a very uncompetitive and underfinanced operation, Liuzzi was often consigned to the back row of the grid, and took the team’s best finish with 13th in Canada.
No longer a part of HRT’s race driver line-up – despite still be a paid member of the team – Liuzzi competes in the Italian Superstars championship for the CAAL Mercedes squad, where he has immediately been a frontrunner, winning on debut at Monza and following this up with another win at the Hungaroring. At the time of publication, he leads the Drivers’ Championship standings.
[Images via LAT, Sutton Images, The Cahier Archive]
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