Morbidelli originally signed a testing contract with Ferrari at the age of 21 and made his Formula 1 debut shortly after his 22nd birthday. His father manufactured racing motorcycles which Spanish rider Angel Nieto used to good effect in the early 1970s. Gianni graduated from karts into Formula 3 at the start of the 1987 season and eventually clinched the Italian title two years later. He then continued through Formula 3000, making his debut as stand-in for Emanuele Pirro at Interlagos in 1990 at the wheel of a Scuderia Italia Dallara. Later that year he replaced Paolo Barilla in the Minardi lineup for the Japanese and Australian Grands Prix, remaining with the team into 1991 when they had Ferrari engines. He subbed for the departed Alain Prost in a works Ferrari at the 1991 Australian Grand Prix, then returned to Minardi in 1991 which was now Lamborghini powered. Dumped by the team through lack of sponsorship, he was picked up by Jackie Oliver's Footwork squad in 1994 and spent two seasons with the team before replacing Nicola Larini midseason in 1997 in the Sauber-Petronas squad.