Will Gray

Gray Matter: Liuzzi, serious entertainer

Will Gray

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Vitantonio Liuzzi is exactly the kind of man Formula One needs on its grid - but can he find the focus to stay there this time around?

The likeable Italian has been a paddock regular for some time - and he's always had a unique and popular presence.

I remember him strutting in with his manager back when he was searching for a drive, joking around when he'd got his foot in the door and spending hours swooning Red Bull's Formula Una girls as soon as he'd grabbed his place on the grand prix grid.

The only problem was, while he was a glowing ball of entertainment in the paddock, that aura never quite translated itself on to the track.

His F1 career began in a Red Bull seat shared with Christian Klien, and although he scored a point on his debut in San Marino - after the BARs were disqualified - he spun and was knocked out in the other two races.

Given an extra race to prove himself, he only finished ninth when team-mate David Coulthard claimed fourth and Klien returned, consigning Liuzzi to a role as test driver for the rest of the season.

After effectively being demoted to Red Bull's new B-team, Toro Rosso, he showed glimpses of natural talent - although it was hard to rate him alongside Scott Speed, a driver that many somewhat cruelly argued would make anyone look good.

Alongside Speed again in 2007 he mixed pace with mistakes early in the year but lasted the season as Speed made even more mistakes and was replaced by Sebastian Vettel.

Interestingly, against Vettel - who was a rookie but did have seven Friday practice sessions and one race with BMW Sauber under his belt - Liuzzi took the best averages, but Vettel was the one who shone, claiming the team's first top-10 grid spot with eighth in Japan and their best-ever finish with fourth in China.

Those performances, and the politics steering Sebastien Bourdais towards the second seat at Toro Rosso, meant there was no room for Liuzzi, and he slid into Force India as test driver instead.

In fact, though, you wouldn't bet against him rather enjoying his time on the sidelines. A very laid-back kind of guy, he brings with him a unique style, with a lively and fun personality, a passion for - if not always success with - the ladies and an, erm, unique dress sense - and he could not be blamed if he enjoyed lapping up the hospitality while not having a great deal of work to do.

But that, he has said on the eve of his return, is far from the truth. This weekend he is determined to focus and make the most of the potential he has in the Force India car at a track that should suit it very well.

Focus. Now, that's good news. Because you can't help feeling that so far Liuzzi's career has been the F1 equivalent of tennis star Andre Agassi's before he gained legend status.

Agassi grew up a showman and entertainer who displayed flashes of talent, sometimes enough to win some of the bigger tournaments but quite often falling down when the temptation to entertain took his mind off his game. It was not until he realised he had to develop a serious focus that he started to win big - and even with that focus he still knew how to entertain the crowds.

Valentino Rossi has also managed that in the world of MotoGP - and Liuzzi could learn something from both men. If he can gain the focus without losing the fun then, with Rossi now declaring himself out of the F1 picture, perhaps it is Liuzzi who can fill the long-vacant boots of F1's talented entertainer.

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