Formula 1

Giorgio Piola: Formula 1's Artist in Residence

Giorgio Piola: Formula 1's Artist in Residence
There are only 20 Formula 1 drivers at a Grand Prix, maybe a couple of hundred engineers, ten team bosses, but there is only one Giorgio Piola. The Italian artist - journalist has been the go-to guy for Formula 1 technical drawings since the early 70s and no one has ever come close in terms of quality or volume of output.

Piola has a natural gift for drawing, a skill he would practice even during lessons at school. He was a quiet child but always top of the class in art. His siblings shared the same talent but not Giorgio’s obsession, which turned to cars when he was 12.

It was sibling rivalry that set him on the path that would become his life’s work, as he and one of his brothers sent a drawing each to a magazine and it was Giorgio’s that got published. Then came the life changing call from Italy’s leading motoring writer, Gianni Cancellieri who sent Piola to produce technical drawings and a report from the 1969 Monaco Grand Prix. “And that is how I started,” recalls Piola. “I won the bet with my brother and in the end, it gave me my dream profession, a profession I invented, doing drawings of racing cars directly from the race track. When I started, my hero was a guy called Bruno Nestola. I admired him a lot.”

With the passing of time, the pen and paper have made way for a camera, but the task remains the same. Image courtesy Motorsport Images

Like the little boy who runs away to the circus, Piola’s trip to Monaco was the turning point, after which he never looked back. He gave up his studies and slowly built a career and a reputation in F1. It helped that he was multilingual and his drawings were so new and exciting that the Formula 1 team’s technical directors were as interested in him as he was in them, and over the years Giorgio developed a close friendship with some of the great F1 designers.

As a general rule, there was less of an obsession with secrecy than there is today and Piola would often be invited and even welcomed into a team garage to admire some clever update introduced on a car. In fact he often broke the news of what a new F1 car would look like long before his peers. “It was very easy back then,” reckons Piola.

"For the Tyrrell six-wheeler, at first I did a simple drawing of a car with four small wheels in the front to show the principle. Now it’s more difficult, because the rules are so strict that a designer cannot really produce something completely different, so I have to do the shape exactly right.”
Giorgio Piola,
Formula 1 Technical Artist

There was always mutual respect between Piola and the great designers, such as Gordon Murray, Harvey Postlethwaite, Maurice Philippe, Gordon Coppuck and with Williams’ Patrick Head there was also a game to play. “Arriving at a race, Patrick would tell me there were six new things on the car and I had to find them.” Everyone can see when Piola is on the prowl in the pit lane, armed with his camera to spot new developments to draw. These days, the teams are much more secretive, so Piola has to apply his detection skills and a bit of psychology too, playing a game of ‘cat and mouse’. “Very often, if I think there is something new on a car but I am not sure what it is, I can judge from the mechanics’ reactions, because they will stand in front of the part of the car they do not want me to see.”

With the passing of time, the technology of producing the drawings has changed. While most people’s idea of what constitutes a good hotel room would be a comfortable bed and a good shower, Piola’s first requirement was for a large table, on which he would generally work all night to complete a drawing, that could take up to 40 hours to complete. Today, computers have made life easier but not necessarily better. “These days, you have to do everything quickly,” laments Piola. “The quality is not as good and the finished product does not jump off the page like before.”

Giorgio Piola at an exhibition of his works, stopping by a technical drawing of the Ferrari 312 T. Image courtesy Motorsport Images

Given that racing cars used to be designed by one man on a drawing board, it’s not surprising that back in the day, Piola was asked to design cars rather than draw existing ones. In one case, his “payment” was to be allowed to race a Formula Ford of his own design. “I did eight races and was always in the middle of the pack, so not the slowest. But I realised it wasn’t my thing and I knew my limits.”

Ferrari F1-90, often regarded as one of the most beautiful cars of all time. Image courtesy Motorsport Images

Ronnie Peterson driving the Tyrrell P34B at the Argentine Grand Prix in 1977. Image courtesy Hoch-Zwei

It has to be said that you don’t do over 800 GPs - 2020 season finale in Abu Dhabi being the 836th time Piola has walked through the paddock gates – without picking up a few idiosyncrasies along the way. Because, apart from his skills with a pen, both real and virtual, Piola is also known as the man in the media centre with the irritating habit of whistling Perry Como’s big hit, “Magic Moments” as well as occasionally mimicking the sound of a “trim-phone.” Ah well, no one’s perfect, even if in Giorgio Piola’s case, his Formula 1 drawings are. There’s a reason for that; the fire still burns. “There’s nothing I like more than seeing the launch of a new car,” he enthuses. “I still love my work and to see a new car for the first time is still something very special.”

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