Motorsport is a ruthless business, and many young drivers go through crippling disappointments in their early years that many adults would struggle to deal with. Gianluca Petecof is one of those young drivers. After doing so much right, but seeing his Formula One dream come to a premature end. The Brazilian teenager left his home country at 13 to race karts, then single-seaters around Europe on the road to F1.
Gianluca received backing from global oil giant Shell and then iconic car manufacturer Ferrari to aid his path up the motorsport ladder. A vice-champion title in Italian F4 and a title-winning season in Formula Regional where he beat out Arthur Leclerc made it look like everything was falling into place.
Despite all the plaudits, wins, and the championship, the funding ran out, and Gianluca's dream faded. However, while you might think such unfairness could breed contempt or bitterness, there wasn't even the very slightest sense of this when we sat down together. Today, just 18 months from abandoning that F1 dream, Gianluca has bounced back from the brink and races in Stock Car Brasil. He is teammates with none other than Ferrari's Brazilian legend Rubens Barrichello and has a wiser head on his shoulders than a lot of people twice his age. Gianluca found a quiet spot at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo to talk us through his Racing Life.
First off, for those people unfamiliar with Gianluca Petecof, who is Gianluca Petecof?
Oh, that's a great question and sometimes one of the hardest to answer because it's easier to have a perception of somebody from outside than from ourselves. But, yeah... Racing driver; I think that's what I'm most known for. I'm 19 from Brazil, born and raised in Sao Paulo.
I moved to Europe for racing a few years ago... had, you know, great experiences; I've been part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, been a part of the PREMA team for many years, and now, I'm back in Brazil doing stock car racing, which is also a new challenge for me.
Apart from that... Basketball and American Football... I'm a massive fan! I think I'd consider myself a bigger fan of sports than racing itself. Like I love racing, but [I'm] probably a bigger fan of the sport itself in basketball and American Football.
FORTLOC – May I ask why it wasn't American Football or basketball that you persevered?
I got into racing; I don't really have a massive reason, but through the years, the passion was always there, but a lot more towards racing and being at the track and driving fast cars around rather than being a car fanatic or following F1.
I want to talk about those younger years. I know you're still young, but you already have quite a story, despite your age. How did you realize racing in Europe wouldn't work out for you?
Of course, you have to go through some tough moments, and it's always a massive dream. If you don't start climbing the ladder with the ultimate goal of reaching Formula One, then you might as well not start it at all. But it's also important to have an open mind and to understand that racing is not only F1.
There are many other categories that have fantastic drivers, fantastic manufacturers, and a fantastic level of racing in general... There's a whole world out there that sometimes people ignore.
But it was easy for me to be open-minded growing up. When I realized that I could have opportunities somewhere else and FIA [Formula single-seater] racing was going to become difficult financially, and it takes a toll on you as well, I switched my mind really quick. I focused on other opportunities.
You were younger than many of your peers when they stopped aiming for their Formula One target; was it solely financial?
In my case, yes. At that point, I think if I hadn't reached the success I had in junior formula categories, it would have been different. I would have been the first to say, 'You know, let's just try something else because it's not working out.'
But up until the point, I won the [FIA Formula Regional European] Championship, reached the super license points... I think it was fair enough to try to continue with that path because of the level that we reached. Then a couple of things happened. I lost my sponsor, and then we also have to be realistic. We fought for a while to try and get back on track [but] it was not possible at the time for a number of reasons.
I don't like to make myself a victim. I think it was just simply something that didn't work out. But if we had a massive backing behind [us], then, of course, we would have carried on and probably made a step to a successful team in F3. And, I'd say, fought for a title – why not? We see people that were racing against me back in the day having those opportunities.
Rewinding a little bit. The karting to single-seater route is so common for many racers, but what's not so common is the age at which you traveled across the Pacific to a much more affluent continent. How is that as a teenager? How much of a culture shock was it, and how young were you when you first went to Europe?
I started racing in Europe when I was 13, in karting. I did a year doing a couple of races. Then, at 14, I did my first full season of karting in Europe – my only full season of karting in Europe in 2017. I spent a lot of time alone, but it was really in 2018, after I turned 15, that I made the move to Ferrari, and then I started living there full time.
It was tough. Really tough. And especially... Brazil has an emotional link to family and the culture, but for me, the good thing is that I've always been detached. In a way, it was never hard for me to spend time away from home, so that helped me a lot.
But, of course, it was tough—the daily chores and everything I had to deal with. And the responsibilities of being alone. We had to balance that together with the racing commitments, and it's not easy.
A lot of drivers that come from other countries outside of Europe and eventually have to spend a lot of time alone or stay [for] a long time away from family, friends, whatever... Maybe it starts to influence your performance a little bit. For me, it was always okay. It was more about getting used to it rather than a difficulty. So just like adapting to anything in life.
You mentioned Ferrari, which I want to speak about. Few racers could say they've raced on an F1 weekend, and even fewer can say they had a connection to an illustrious name like Ferrari. I've heard about drivers paying to be part of their Academy and other drivers getting financial backing from them. How did that connection come about, and is there a discrepancy in the equality for the Academy drivers?
There are a few formats. You have connections to the sponsors, but for me, personally, we didn't. Inside the Academy, we didn't discuss the details of everybody's contract, so a lot of things I don't know. In my case, I had been a Shell driver for a few years. I had Shell as a sponsor through some of my karting years from 2015 to my Formula Regional year.
They said, 'Look, we don't usually pick up drivers in karting, but what you can do is do a full season of karting in Europe with the Tonykart team, who have a technical partnership with Ferrari Driver Academy, and we'll keep an eye on you. And if we think you have potential, we'll test you out and maybe invite you to be a driver for our program.'
So, that's exactly what happens. I did the entire season. I was in sixth place in the world championship that year, in 2017, in the OK category, which is the top level. And I received the invite to a training camp where they would be testing out a couple of other karting drivers and some drivers that had already raced in F4 that year.
You need to be able to stand on your own two feet financially. Ferrari will give you support on many, many levels. It definitely helped me mature a lot [with] the help that I received from everybody there – it was massive. But you also need to have your sponsors to make sure that you stay on track. It's your responsibility... they cannot back all of the drivers in the program; you need to be able to move with what you have. And that's, of course, when it became a little difficult for me to carry on in the program.
But, in terms of support, in terms of all the help they give you, it's always a thousand percent for everybody. It's the same thing.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned from the F1 ladder?
There are many in terms of racing and also in my personal life. Definitely one of the biggest... I wouldn't say lessons... but one of the biggest helps is maturity. You need to deal with responsibility. You need to deal with pressure. You need to deal with expectations, not only from your family or people close to you but also from teams.
In my case, I had the honor to represent Ferrari for many years, so [there was pressure] coming from them, too. And even though it's a big pressure, it's also nice to know that people believe in you. So much that they expect you to do well, they expect you to win, to fight for championships. So that feeling of pressure... it's not a bad thing necessarily, because if they didn't believe in you – if they thought that you couldn't reach success – they wouldn't expect you to be at the top. So that's a big thing.
Then, working in many different scenarios, many different situations with adaption, driving a few different cars, always driving at the highest level. Also, I think it's an experience that I'll bring with me as luggage throughout my entire career, be it in Formula or Touring Cars in Brazil, in Europe, or wherever I am.
I think just life experience; being away from home, traveling all the time, and experiencing all these things – I'm talking a bit more away from the track here. Being around many different people from many different cultures, you grow a lot, and you become a lot wiser just because you can absorb so much stuff from many different people and environments.
Let's talk about the present and future because you're back in your home country and racing in Stock Car Brasil today. The name suggests what it is, but how can you explain it to non-Brazilian race fans who might never have watched it?
Well, Stock Car right now is the highest level of racing here in Brazil. I would compare it to DTM in Germany. So, it's the main category [with] the top drivers. It's no coincidence that we have ex-Formula One drivers like Rubens [Barrichello] and Felipe [Massa]. Tony [Kanaan], an Indy 500 winner – one of the biggest legends of US racing. And many others—drivers that have been in the category for many, many years.
So, the level is extremely high. You have drivers coming out of Stock Car going to Europe to be factory drivers there for Ferrari, Mercedes, and many other manufacturers, and winning races. So, that proves the level here.
And the cars. They are not exactly GT3s. They are built here with carbon fiber chassis. All the engines are prepared by the same company. Also, there's massive competition between the teams since there are manufacturers involved. So, Toyota, of course, and Chevrolet are here, but especially in between the teams – I don't know, it's like a different kind of competition. Everything is a lot more... it's really friendly, but at the same time, the competition gets fierce because it gets personal.
I feel that in Europe, it's not the same. People are polite in many ways, and the competition would be different. But, here, everything's personal, and it's really interesting. There's lots of banter going around, so it's a great environment, and I have felt great inside it since day one. So, I hope people start to follow it a bit more outside of Brazil.
You've spent so much time in single-seaters up until this point. What's it like having the ability to have more contact in your racing? Do you feel like it lets you be more aggressive?
Absolutely. 100%. It's like, 'Why do I need two mirrors? I can only have one, and that's fine!' It is crazy. The starts are always a mess because you have 35 drivers going down to T1. In Formula cars, you're always careful because you know that you can be aggressive, but at the same time, should you crash your front wing, you have to box, and it's probably a race done right there.
But here? It's always a lot of contact; a lot of bumping door to door. And also, you're not worried about what the other guy's going to think if you hit him a little bit. So, I've always tried to be clean, but at the same time, you know that you can do a bit more than back in the Formula days, and that's nice.
I confess that, in the beginning, I was not great at it because I was way too careful. And then I started to see these guys are just crazy. It's wild out here, so I needed to step up my game a little bit. So then I started bumping a bit more, driving with a bit less regard, and it started working out. So racing is crazy. Really fun.
FORTLOC - Do you prefer it?
I mean, racing-wise? Yes, of course. If you put a Formula car on track to do a couple of laps and head for qualifying, it's nice because you have so much downforce and grip and can exploit it more. But racing in Stock Car is really fun with its strategy and pit stops. So, I'd say it's like a balance.
F1 fans will be familiar with Interlagos, your home circuit, but where else do you visit?
Well, I think most countries have their main circuits. Like England has a lot; Silverstone, maybe Donnington, but then you have the little tracks which are not as well known but are still extremely exciting and interesting. Like Caldwell Park or Oulton Park. I remember I drove a lot in Pembrey in Formula 4, doing a few tests. It's a tiny circuit in Wales, and it's awesome.
So it's the same in Brazil. We have Interlagos, of course, which is the biggest and the most well-known. It is the main track here in Brazil. Kind of like a temple. And aside from here, we have Goiânia, where the second round of the year was. The good thing about Goiânia is that we have both the normal circuit and... it's not exactly an oval because you have two strong braking zones and proper corners. But, it's like a rectangular shape, so racing is interesting there. A lot of drafting, a lot of close racing. It's like a sub-one-minute lap.
We did a round at an airport in Rio this year, which was also the first for the category – racing in airports. They had street races before, but never an airport. It was nice. The track was so wide; it was like 30 meters wide. The racing was crazy. It was also where we reached our best result of the year. [When] you went out the first time, you could not find the track because it was so wide and they didn't have many barriers or anything! It was really open, so it was interesting.
And then a few other smaller tracks, which are the same as smaller tracks in other countries, but each of them have little characteristics that make it interesting.
You're also racing with Rubens Barrichello, one of the most experienced F1 drivers. Were you a fan of his as a kid? And, if so, is it surreal to be around him so often in your life now?
I was definitely a massive fan. I remember Massa a little more in Ferrari because when Rubens left in 2005, I was only three years old. But, I mean, all through my childhood, watching him and Felipe in Formula One were always great memories. I had a little bit of contact with him because he was always present at karting races because Dudu and Fefo, his kids, are also good friends of mine. So I've met him plenty of times.
But to be teammates with him, sharing the garage – not to mention Tony, as well, within the same team... And watching him closely; how he works, it's sometimes... I haven't looked back enough to see everything that he did. For a long, long time, he was the record holder for most races in Formula One.
So, you watch a race today and look at anybody there... You know, [Carlos] Sainz, or [Daniel] Ricciardo, or even Lewis [Hamilton]. And you're like, 'My teammate has more F1 experience than all of these guys!' That's crazy!
So you can't be mad when he turns up, and he's quicker than you. Or he says some things technically that are better than your feedback. We can only watch and learn, and I think it's one of the best opportunities I've had in my career to work with people like this. [I can] absorb so much.
FORTLOC - Do you remember his Brawn GP year? Back in 2009?
Absolutely! That year... I turned seven at the end of the year, so I was six years old. And I remember that it was my favorite livery of all time. I loved the fluorescent yellow!
You strike me as a very mature person for your age. Do you agree with that statement, and if you do, why do you think that is?
I like to think so. But, of course, as I said, it's always easier to have this perspective from outside than it is for myself. But I've always had a characteristic that, especially if I'm at a table or somewhere surrounded by older people – more experienced people – I always prefer to listen instead of talking.
I wouldn't say that I'm an introvert; I enjoy listening more than I enjoy talking. So, I think I was able to... throughout the years, I was able to spend a lot of time with older people... wiser people. So, I try to absorb as much as I can instead of maybe trying to speak or talk a lot and not absorb things. So, that helped a lot with maturity.
Also, moving to Europe alone at such a young age helped me. Being able to deal with a lot of responsibility from the beginning, but it just came naturally, you know? I don't try to impress with my maturity. I don't try to make it seem like I'm more mature than I am. It just kind of goes in its own way.
Many people want to be racing drivers, and one of the changes I've seen in my time watching sports, and all aspects of life, is mental health being more normalized to speak about. With your comments in this interview, I feel that you are ideal to talk about how vital your headspace is as a young driver. Any thoughts?
I think mental health is the pillar for everything else – not only in racing, not only in sports – but in life. And it's really hard to read and listen about people that have had difficulties with [mental health] not being able to come back from it.
Unfortunately, in racing, speaking from experience, you go through a lot of pressure, responsibility, and expectations from many people. So you have to learn how to deal with that, and it's not easy.
Sometimes, you're not even going to have all the time in the world to learn how to deal with it. I'm not going to say I never had hard days... tough days... Sometimes I would come back to the hotel or home after a tough day or weekend and think, 'why did I choose this?' But, I think the feeling is even better when you're able to come back and reach the top again.
If I could give out any advice or a word of comfort, you need to ask for help. You need to be open because people will always be there for you. It can be your family. It can be your team if you're racing. It can be a close friend or even somebody that you're not that close to but will listen to you and give you some support.
I've gone through many moments in my career where I was a bit shy in asking for help or thought I didn't need it. I was like, 'Nah, I'd rather do this on my own,' than ask for help from anyone. But it's never the [right] way.
I had a really tough year in 2019 in F4 when I was in my second year. I didn't win the championship and learned a hard lesson that year. I was kind of blocking out... really blocking out noise or words of advice from other people because I thought I had it under control. But I didn't.
When I was able to finally open myself up and accept these words and accept help and accept whatever people around me were trying to teach me, then the following year, I was able to make the big step and improve a lot and eventually win the championship.
Yeah, it's a tough subject. It's really sensitive, but it can never be talked about enough.
You're focusing on your career right now, but I can imagine you in 20 years, if not sooner, being the perfect person to run a team or be a driver coach. Would that be something you'd be interested in doing?
It would definitely be interesting. I am working with an F4 project here in Brazil. The team that I race with in Stock Car has an F4 team as well. So, I'm helping out a driver over there, and it's good to see these guys going through the same thing that I went through a couple of years back.
I think I have to focus on my career for now, but maybe when I retire, I could consider being involved. And, you know, guiding a few of the young ones, or even the team, takes a lot of hard work. It's a different kind of hard work than driving a car. You have to pay attention to different things, but who knows? Maybe I'll give it a try and maybe have some success on the other side.