Giorgio Pantano is a very happy man. It might seem a statement of the obvious to say that someone who has achieved a lifetime ambition would be pleased with himself, but compared even to the other drivers who have found a seat in the big game this year (Christian Klien and Gianmaria Bruni) he seemed almost goofily ecstatic. Pantano (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable; PAN tano) looked to be in a blissful state of disbelief all weekend in the Melbourne paddock, a permanent smile creasing his face as he looked at anyone who walked near him, and a had a hello for anyone who returned his glance. Considering his past, he's earnt the right to be pleased.
After three years in Formula 3000 many people thought Pantano's Formula One career had sailed by him; no one succeeds in the junior category in their first year, but if a driver hasn't won it in his second, then the men who count tend to look elsewhere. The talent was always there - winning the German Formula Three title isn't something that comes lightly - but the problems (both financial and vehicular) continued, and his career started to look like it was sliding away from him.
Until December, that is. Jordan were negotiating with Jos Verstappen for their second seat, but Pantano's manager kept calling the team, just in case. And when the former deal fell through it was a simple matter to put everything in place to push the Italian into a pair of yellow overalls. Did he ever think he'd never make that final step up? "Yes, for sure!" Pantano laughs as he recalls his time on tenterhooks, so far from the fierce white Australian sun he was basking in on the Thursday before his Formula One race debut.
"It was quite hard to come here, but finally we could find the solution. We found it with Eddie [Jordan] to be in his team, to find an agreement and do this. I was so happy about the confirmation to have the seat! I wasn't so excited or drinking champagne - I was just happy, because I wanted to be sure I could be in Formula One."
And now, after years in the wilderness, he is.
"For sure it feels quite exciting for the moment," he smiles behind his sunglasses, looking around the area where he was sitting, behind the pit that has his name over the door to the pitlane. "I'll feel quite nervous until the race starts, but for sure it was a dream for many years, and now it's come. I've had just five days before coming here, and I think I'm not really ready; we need some more time on the car.
"Probably the feeling with the car is nearly there, but we can try and do our best now, especially this weekend, because we've done not a lot of testing, and we can see that. For sure I think for me Jordan is a good team to be with for my first year, and I think this is a team where I can learn quite quickly, and where I can come quite quickly on a high level."
DC: What would you say your expectations are?
Pantano: I think just be in the race, be there at the end.
DC: And for the whole season?
Pantano: Pfft, we can see the first race and then start to make some decisions, we can think about the others after.
DC: Every driver has as their first job to beat their teammate - that's a pretty tough call for you.
Pantano: Yeah, because I have quite a good teammate with good experience, good feedback also I think, and to beat him would be quite good for me - I can for sure see this situation.
DC: Nick Heidfeld's quite a quick driver with a lot of experience - how do you think you're going to stack up against him?
Pantano: You know I just need time in the car, I need to get a feeling for it, because Formula One is not easy; it is something very different from the other cars because there is so much to learn, not just to understanding the other drivers or feel the power and the braking. There are many things you need to understand.
DC: We talked about your expectations, like everyone has done a million times, but you are very new to this; how do you actually know what can be achieved? Do you talk to Nick and he says this is what we're going to do?
Pantano: I don't spend a lot of time with him; I think in the future we will do that, and we can start also today to do something like that. I think it's not a problem to talk with Nick. At the moment it's difficult for me to say how something is going better, how something is not good, because I don't have really a good feeling with the car; I need really more time in the car.
DC: How do you think the teammate thing will go here in comparison to Formula 3000? There are a lot of sharks here.
Pantano: Yeah, it's a bit different! For sure we need to work out this situation, but we can manage it; no doubt about it.
DC: Last year in the 3000 paddock you would be kicking a soccer ball around or riding your scooter up and down - there won't be anymore of that stuff.
Pantano: Yeah I know, but I think I can have the same feeling with the mechanics as in 3000, I don't think that's any different to here; you maybe can't kick a football or play around with a scooter, but the feeling with the mechanics can be the same for sure.
DC: You were in Formula 3000 for three years and were fast but had a bit of bad luck, but you've finally made it here whereas Wirdheim's testing, Bourdais is in CART - is it kind of odd to see that?
Pantano: I don't compare myself with other drivers, I just... we are here now, and I have to think about here now - I don't compare myself with other drivers. I'm different; I'm not these other drivers.
DC: You came in with some sponsors of course, as most drivers do now - who are your sponsors just out of interest?
Pantano: There are a few sponsors, but if I'm honest I don't know who they are! I know the name, but I only know just a little bit what they do.
DC: So how does that work out - is it something your manager arranged?
Pantano: I think he just found the money for me to come in this situation, but it doesn't make me feel bad about this, to come here with money; Formula One is going like this at the moment (smiles). For sure Eddie would like to have me on the team, and I feel happy about that.
DC: Do you think Jordan might be the best fit for you considering where you are in your career?
Pantano: For sure - it is one of the teams that can win a race, and if we have to compare with others Jordan has won races, even last year! When the people are saying the car is not good they say not good things about Jordan, but they won a race. I think this year they are coming back, for sure they are coming back, and I am feeling very good about that; they want to come back for sure.
DC: The Formula One drivers now are incredibly fit: how much of a difference is there for that between 3000 and here?
Pantano: At the moment I am doing the same exercise, because for Formula 3000 it was probably too much for what I do, and I know here the hard thing to do is the neck and the more you can work at the gym the more you need to drive the car, because there you can really help your neck.
DC: So really the best fitness plan is to drive the car?
Pantano: Yes, for the neck, but for the rest no.
DC: For how fit you need to be in Formula One, are you at 100% yet?
Pantano: Probably not; maybe in Bahrain I will be 100%. Probably more than 100%!
DC: How do you find the difference between a 3000 car, which you know so well, and a Formula One car?
Pantano: It's another way, another situation for sure. It's entirely another car, and you cannot compare; there is not another similar car to Formula One. The most difference you can find on the braking and the power, especially on how quick you go through the corner compared to the other cars. That makes the difference. But the braking tested me quite a lot.
DC: How hard is it to come to grips with that? You have to come so deep into a corner in these cars, and that must take some time to get used to.
Pantano: Yes, for sure! I don't know how long, but I think I am nearly there to understand all this.
DC: You've signed the contracts, driven the car, you're wearing the shirt, but do you think it's sunk in yet that you are actually a Grand Prix driver now? Do you feel like a Grand Prix driver yet?
Pantano: Not yet if I'm being honest; not yet. Probably on the race on Sunday I will feel that; it is still just incredible to be here. I'm quite excited about that now! It's quite surprising to be there on the race on Sunday, when usually I watch it on the television! But now it's me who has to show my abilities with the car; it's just me. I think the team have to make me have the best feeling to go the best way and have the best situation. And we will try to finish the race and to do the best we can.