Antonio Pizzonia

Antonio Pizzonia - obviously not a name as oft quoted as, say, Michael Schumacher, or even Jarno Trulli, but stick around, and you just might hear a bit more of it. See, Antonio is officially labelled F1's Next Big Thing, caught in the wake of Jensonmania, and swept along on a tide of F1's constant desire to find the next young superstar. We saw it with Jos Verstappen, we saw it with Jan Magnussen, we saw it with Button - now we're seeing it with Juan Pablo Montoya

Antonio Pizzonia

Pizzonia himself is leading the British F3 championship, that hotbed of talent that has produced more F1 drivers over time than any other series

He is leading the series, yes - but more important, he is starring in it. Even the races he hasn't won, we've witnessed the fighting drives beloved of the Frank Williams and Ron Dennises of this world. ...And speed - speed of the lightning variety, in bucketloads.

Take the Silverstone round back in May.

Pizzonia was once again in the hunt for pole, but had his times scrubbed from the first, quicker session. However, starting from fifth, Pizzonia showed not a trace of reserve from the flag, storming round the outside of title rival Tomas Scheckter at the daunting Copse corner. He dispatched next placed man Nicolas Kiesa by the end of that lap and was up to second.

The jump from fifth to second in less than a lap was executed with such controlled aggression that team owners in the big league who previously had just sat up and noticed, now started reaching for the phone.

Later that week, Pizzonia ran in a Benetton-Playlife Formula 1 car at a multi-team test in Spain.

"The test was really good, and I got around 120 laps on both days, which is very good," he bubbled. Pizzonia had been third fastest on the second day. This is, of course, impressive in itself, but consider a couple of other circumstances here... firstly; Antonio had missed the morning when the track was faster. Secondly; the two drivers faster than him that day, Mika Salo and Jarno Trulli, had Bridgestone development rubber which the tyre maker was preparing for full competition against Michelin next year. Antonio used only the ordinary tyres.

"On the second day I was quickest in the afternoon," he admits. "And I had an engine blow in the morning, so I lost the best time for the track. The afternoon was much hotter, so nobody improved their times," he went on.

"It was a new track for everybody..." says Antonio, finally. A chance then to show his abilities on a relatively level playing field? Another point to consider: Pizzonia had run a mere 20 laps of a 15s-a-lap track in an F1 car in his life. Young drivers often take the length of a test to adjust to the power, the braking, the new limits demanded of them. Antonio was apparently at home in the Benetton.

Of course, there's a world of difference between testing and racing, as Antonio will doubtless find out, if he ever gets the chance. But right now, the fact he is trading times with the Trullis and Salos of this world after a little over an F1 race distance's experience ought not to go unnoticed among the F1 elite.

It was always going to be tough following up that performance, and the next F1 test, followed after a couple of days by the international F3 street race at Pau looked to be a difficult schedule. Antonio was slowest at the test at Monza, but only ran 30 laps or so - with a Canada set-up not suited to the track - after the second Benetton was totalled in the morning. Even so, as we've seen, people only look at the numbers - and F1 can be a demanding mistress. "Formula 1 is the dream of every driver," he admits. But will he be able to experience her wiles any more - or on a more permanent basis?

"I hope so! I don't know yet. I'm only testing at the moment, and I hope I'll be able to test some more before the end of the year. I don't know what the situation with drivers at Benetton is, so..." He leaves the answer hanging.

In fact, Antonio was back in the Benetton at the very next test at Magny Cours. Benetton have not signed a full time test driver since Hidetoshi Matsusada failed to work out earlier in the year - and seem to be in no hurry. But Pizzonia has tested - albeit not exclusively - with the team at every session since Valencia. It is fair to say that the team must be impressed with him. "It's too early I think," he says, fending off suggestions of a race seat next year. "It's a great opportunity that Benetton has given to me, and I just try to do my best and help the team." Mutual backscratching, then.

But before the British series could be resumed, there was the blue riband Pau race to deal with. Pizzonia retired, but qualified fourth - second in his group - and was running with the leading group of four cars before the mechanical gremlins took a dislike to his Dallara.

"Of course I wanted to win the race," he says with a disarming frankness. "...But I came here just to have my first experience of this kind of track, because I've never been to a street circuit before. It's quite different. Unfortunately, I did not finish the race, and I had only 30 minutes to learn the circuit on the Friday, when the track was really wet, and it was raining a lot. And that was in qualifying!"

The pattern that was seen at Valencia appeared to be reasserting itself. Antonio was on the pace despite unfamiliar and adverse circumstances.

"After five or six laps, I had to pump the brake pedal on the straight. Of course, if you have to do that, you lose a lot of time," he says.

"It was unfortunate because I was very close to third place - first, second, third and fourth were all very close. But I lost a second with the brake problem after that. It didn't get worse, so I decided to keep going, but with four laps to go, the gearbox broke."

Those in the know in F3 admit that it is virtually impossible to win Pau first time out. The winner, Jonathon Cochet, had raced there at least five times before. Moreover, the tyres specified for the event were unknown to the British series contingent before they turned up on the Friday before the race. Whichever way, Pizzonia was going to have to let his speed to the talking, and did a solid enough job.

Meanwhile, back in the British F3 championship, it was business as usual - which meant the Brazilian was likely to do no less to try and impress than he would in Spain, Italy and France. Despite the distractions of international F3 street races and F1 tests, he won, in what Autosport described as "a staggering victory - the most dominant in the series this season, perhaps even of the past few years."

Jody Scheckter - whose son Tomas is Pizzonia's chief rival for the F3 title this year - said simply 'Pizzonia won... driving like a Formula 1 driver.'

'He was a Formula 1 driver, so he knows what he's talking about,' laughs Antonio, on hearing Scheckter's words. 'Yeah, I'm pleased with that!'

But winning the F3 championship may not be enough. Pizzonia's predecessor at Manor Motorsport, Marc Hynes, had dominated at times, and yet found himself driveless come the 2000 season.

"Not just win the championship..." he muses. "For me it's more important to learn a lot than win the championship. Jenson Button finished third in the championship, and Marc Hynes who won did not have a drive until Monaco, and he's doing F3000 now..."

"It's not so important to win the championship, but there's a lot of things you need to do. You need to drive well, you need to learn... but if you win the championship as a rookie... that can be quite important, because everyone will be looking at that. Most people win the championship in their second or third year.

"I'm very pleased so far." he concludes. Rightly so.

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