F1 » Giancarlo Fisichella
Giancarlo Fisichella came to F1 with much potential - as one of a new breed of young guns to enter the top level - and many people had him marked him down as a future world champion. Despite opportunities, however, he never really realised his full potential.
The young Giancarlo had a reputation as a man to watch courtesy of his impressive karting career. A world champion in the best breeding ground of all, he finally decided to graduate to cars in 1992, entering the hotly contested Italian Formula Three series.
He soon became just the third driver to win a race in the Italian series in his maiden season, going on to finish eighth overall at the end of the year. Two further years in the same championship saw him edge his way up the table, finishing second in 1993 before finally clinching the title the following year, alongside 10 wins, 11 pole positions and victory in the prestigious Monaco GP support race.
The championship success attracted the attentions of the Minardi team, which promptly offered him a testing contract for the following season. In order to keep his hand in between the sporadic tests, however, Fisichella accepted a drive in the increasingly popular International Touring car series with Alfa Romeo.
Although the saloon series did not produce any noteworthy success for the Italian, his Minardi links finally bore fruit in 1996, when he was offered the seat originally earmarked for Japanese pay driver Taki Inoue. Eight races were enough to convince observers of his talent, and Fisichella was soon being offered test-drives elsewhere.
Although under a management contract with then Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, Fisichella found himself being offered a seat at Jordan, when Nigel Mansell turned down the chance of driving for the team. Teamed with the German Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo formed one of the youngest driving partnerships in F1. The season was a stormy one, however, as the team-mates clashed on more than one occasion.
Fisichella emerged from the Jordan season with a better reputation than his rival - having taken two podium finishes in Canada and Belgium - and found himself the subject of a contractual dispute between his team and that of his manager. Benetton eventually won custody of F1's hottest young property, although Giancarlo admitted that he would have been happy to stay with Jordan.
While Jordan struggled to finish a race in the first part of 1998, Fisichella and Benetton team-mate Alex Wurz pushed hard to be the closest rivals to McLaren. A first victory was not forthcoming for either driver, although Fisichella took his first F1 pole position in a wet Austrian qualifying session. The Benetton challenge fell away in the second half of the season, however, and the Italian scored just three points between Canada and Japan.
Fisichella stayed with both Benetton and Wurz for 1999, hoping that the team could sustain a prolonged assault on the world championship. Early testing showed the radical B199 to be on the pace, but it proved to be an unpredictable handful as the year wore on. Sporadic points finishes punctuated the Italian's early season, with second in Canada a surprise highlight, but things gradually got worse from there on.
Fisichella decided that, having reached the bottom, Benetton could only go up in 2000 and, consequently, found himself paired with Wurz for a third season. The new B200 looked a definite improvement over its predecessor, and both drivers hoped to see more of the top six, only to be cruelly denied by a mid-season slump in form. Fisi began the year well, inheriting second on Coulthard's DSQ in Brazil, then visiting the podium again in both Monaco and Canada. He ended the year being overshadowed by the erstwhile lacklustre Wurz, however.
Benetton and Fisichella decided to stick with each other into 2001, and the Italian found himself partnered by 2000 season wunderkind Jenson Button, on loan from Williams for two years. If that wasn't enough of an incentive to push harder that year, Fisi also wanted to impress Renault bosses sufficiently to be considered a potential employee for 2002.
As things turned out, it wasn't to be, although Fisichella comprehensively out-performed Button in the first two-thirds of the season, as the British driver struggled to settle into Flavio Briatore's regime. Despite scoring a podium finish against the odds in Belgium, and taking eleventh in points, however, Fisi was already signing papers to take him back to Jordan for 2002.
The Silverstone team provided a more settled environment for the Italian in 2002 and he quickly re-acquainted himself with faces familiar from his debut season in F1. Armed with the latest Honda engine - and ranged against another young upstart in British F3 champion Takuma Sato - Fisi was hopeful that he could score regular points in 2002 and even grab the odd podium.
It was though far from an easy season, the Jordan team struggling financially and in the end Giancarlo was forced to settle for three fifth places - coming one after the other in Austria, Monaco and Canada - and one-sixth place at the Hungarian GP. Other than that it was a pretty dreary year, with eight retirements and little to smile about. He also missed the French Grand Prix following a heavy crash in practice prior to qualifying.
If Fisi hoped that 2003 would be a step forward, and that the Ford powered Jordan would help him to more points finishes, then he was sadly mistaken. More often than not, Fisichella was struggling in the midfield rather than pushing for points. An awful season had only one good point.
Fisichella was in the right place at the right time when Fernando Alonso decided to ignore yellow flags in Brazil and caused the race to be brought to a premature end. He took his maiden F1 win to provide Jordan with a little sunshine on a very grey season. Or did he? Kimi Raikkonen was declared the winner and a dejected Fisi was awarded second place on the podium. However, in the week after the race, stewards admitted they had made an error and that on the count-back rule the Italian had indeed been the leader. Fourteen days later he got his hands on his winners' trophy, although he missed out on spraying the champagne from the top step.
In 2004 Fisichella moved to Sauber and he did enough to impress many people up and down the pitlane. There may have been no major highs, but Fisi was consistently 'there or there abouts', thanks to some good driving and a solid car, in the shape of the C23. His reward was nine points finishes, five in succession towards the end of the year, his best result of the year, a fourth place in Canada. In total the Italian scored 22 points - 10 more than his team-mate, Felipe Massa - to finish eleventh overall in the drivers' standings.
His form was enough to convince both Flavio Briatore and Frank Williams that they wanted him, however Fisi eventually opted to go for Renault, and returned there in 2005, to work alongside the same team he was in from 1998-2001 - when it was known as Benetton.
Fisichella began 2005 in the best possible way, by winning the opening race of the season in Australia. After that though it all went downhill and while his team-mate, Fernando Alonso went on to take the drivers' championship, Fisi could only finish on the podium on two more occasions - when he took a third place finish in Italy and a second in Japan towards the end of the year.
In total he finished in the points on only 11 occasions, ending the year fifth in the drivers' championship with 58 points - 75 less than Alonso. All in all it was a pretty disappointing season, although to be fair he had more than his fair share of bad luck and mechanical woes.
Despite the knowledge that Alonso had already signed to race for McLaren in 2007, Fisichella nonetheless entered 2006 knowing he needed to impress in order to keep his plum drive at Renault, but yet again the season proved to be a tale of unfulfilled potential.
With the exception of a dominant win at the second round of the season in Malaysia, Fisichella had a rather nondescript season that did little to enhance his reputation alongside his championship winning team-mate.
Indeed, the reason this time was nothing to do with reliability problems after Fisichella finished all but two races over the season, remarkably scoring in each event he completed. However, despite the unfailing consistency, Fisichella again seemed to lack sparkle alongside Alonso and never really challenged for race wins.
Ending the season fifth overall once again, Fisichella's 72 points were an improvement on the season before, something that earned him a stay of execution. However, while Briatore placed his faith in the Italian for 2007, Fisichella found himself up against racy new team-mate Heikki Kovalainen and knew that he must step up to the mantle or forever be branded an under-achiever.
Sadly, Renault's pursuit of the 2006 title with Alonso had left it playing catch-up when it came to designing and developing the R27, and both Fisichella and Kovalainen paid the price. Off the ultimate pace of Ferrari and McLaren, and only sporadically able to race with BMW Sauber, the pair found themselves fighting for points and had to settle for seventh and eighth in the championship accordingly.
Unfortunately for Fisichella, he trailed Kovalainen when it mattered most, having managed a season's best of fourth in Monaco, and, with Alonso returning to Renault after an unsatisfactory year with McLaren, the Italian - and Heikki - were surplus to requirements.
With few top seats on offer - he was connected to Williams before rookie Kazuki Nakajima got the nod - Fisichella's only post-season test outing came with Force India (nee Spyker, Midland and Jordan
), with whom he ultimately agreed terms to race in 2008.
If the Roman was hoping for an Indian summer to his grand prix career, however, he was to be sorely disappointed, with the campaign marking the first since he made his debut in the top flight all the way back in 1996 in which he would end the year without even a single point on the board.
Force India may have been under new ownership, but the traditional tail-ender position of its predecessors Spyker and Midland F1 was sadly maintained, and indeed in ten of the 18 outings Fisichella found himself rooted firmly to the final row of the starting grid, the only real consolation being that he marginally out-performed young team-mate Adrian Sutil over the balance of the campaign – a fact that was possibly critical in him holding onto his seat for another crack in 2009.
That is not to say there were not any highlights, however, and twelfth spot on the grid in front of his home fans at Monza – after taking full advantage of the tricky conditions in qualifying – was truly an inspired effort, whilst on a handful of other weekends too Giancarlo came agonisingly close to making the Q2 cut, only to be pipped each time right at the last.
He was even more noticeable on race days, as the veteran of more than 200 grand prix starts put all of his experience to good use to run up inside the top three in both Singapore and Brazil – and on neither occasion did he look either uncomfortable or out of place, as he consummately held off rivals in much faster machinery without putting so much as a wheel out of position.
Though regular repetitions of such performances were thought unlikely in 2009, the Silverstone-based squad’s engine and technical tie-up with McLaren-Mercedes bore fruit as the year went on, eventually allowing Fisichella to vault from non-scorer to pole-sitter at Spa-Francorchamps. Having put the VJM02 on top of the pile in qualifying, the Italian only missed out on an historic victory after an early safety car allowed the KERS-equipped Kimi Raikkonen to fire past him at the restart, but the veteran harried the Finn much of the way to the chequered flag, giving Force India a first podium finish.
That performance, and the unfortunate circumstances at Ferrari following Felipe Massa's Hungaroring accident, opened a door that Fisichella could not resist towards the end of a lengthy F1 career. Replacing the lacklustre Luca Badoer alongside Raikkonen from Monza proved less of a dream opportunity than he may have imagined, however, as he struggled to get to grips with a slightly lame Prancing Horse, and he failed to add to his tally with a best finish of ninth on home soil.
Despite harbouring hopes of returning to a race seat for 2010, Fisichella finds himself still at Ferrari, but relegated to a test and reserve role behind Massa and Fernando Alonso. He has already decided to explore other avenues, and will race GT sportscars alongside his F1 duties.