Adrian Sutil is adamant that he is driving better than ever in 2008 - even if his stock has fallen a little since his impressive rookie season in Formula 1 last year.

Having turned a number of heads over the course of his 2007 campaign in the top flight with a string of standout performances in his back-of-the-grid Spyker-cum-Force India machine, much was expected of the young German during his sophomore season, only for the arrival of the experienced Giancarlo Fisichella to somewhat steal his thunder.

The Italian clearly held the upper hand over the initial races - with Sutil failing to out-qualify his 35-year-old team-mate until the sixth outing in Monaco - but since then things have levelled out more between the pair, with the qualifying battle currently tilted six-five in Fisichella's favour, and that drive of Sutil's around the tortuous, unforgiving streets of Monte Carlo going down in memory as one of the undoubted performances of the year to-date.

"The team has always been behind me," the 25-year-old stressed in an interview with Dutch magazine Formule 1 Race Report, giving the lie to suggestions Force India chairman Vijay Mallya had considered replacing him with test driver Vitantonio Liuzzi early on in 2008. "When it was obvious that I was having some problems, they gave me the time to work it out.

"There was a lot written about it in the press, but I never thought I was going to get fired."

Blaming his initial struggles on a lack of testing time over the winter months, Lewis Hamilton's former F3 Euroseries team-mate also sought to point out that racing alongside three-time grand prix-winner Fisichella was an altogether different prospect than that which he had faced in 2007, when Christijan Albers, Markus Winkelhock and Sakon Yamamoto between them shared the sister car.

"I have to be driving really well, otherwise I am behind him," the man from Starnberg insisted. "Last season was different - I knew almost certainly before every session, 'my team-mate will be half a second slower'.

"There's not so much between us (Sutil and Fisichella) in terms of driving the car at the limit. If there were three tenths between us, that's a different story, but sometimes you could just flip a coin [to separate the pair]. That's not too bad, is it?

"I think I'm at my very best now. Of course I was driving as quickly as possible last year, but [this year] is a different thing."

Sutil, like Fisichella, is expected to remain at Force India in F1 in 2009, but in the meantime, he revealed, he is simply hoping another opportunity like Monaco will present itself that enables him to transcend the abilities of his car and prove his worth in the uppermost echelon. Due to its ostensibly similar nature, Valencia this weekend has to be counted as a possibility.

"It's interesting for us to run on a new track," he affirmed. "The circuit is very challenging, but feels more like a permanent race track than a street circuit as it has lots of run-off areas and long straights and very smooth asphalt.

"It was, however, difficult [on Friday] morning with lots of dust, making it very hard to get a good lap out of it. In the afternoon it was better, but it was still quite dusty and once you got a little bit off-line you had no grip at all.

"Everything was really as normal, with a standard programme with the tyres. We have some issues with graining as usual, but overall I was quite pleased with the first day. The seamless-shift [gearbox] is a very good step, and I was happy with the progress."

"My main focus has to be to beat my team-mate, but if I am in front of Giancarlo, it doesn't mean I [will] go immediately to Ferrari.

"This is the most difficult stage of my career, to get into a better team. Look at Giancarlo - he has been years in Formula 1 and only two or three of them with a really top car. Sometimes you need a bit of luck as well."

Sutil failed to beat Fisichella in opening practice, ultimately winding up half a second and six spots adrift of his team-mate, despite having outpaced the Roman early on. Indeed, Fisichella's eleventh place was Force India's most encouraging showing for a number of races, and left him optimistic of perhaps a better weekend ahead than of late.

"We ran through our normal programme," he stated, "even though it was a new circuit. It's a pretty good track, nice to drive, although it was very dirty and slippery in the morning.

"We had a very good second session with some quick times, and made some strong progress on the set-up. The seamless 'box is working well and we can push quite hard, but let's see what happens in qualifying."

"Generally [it was] an interesting day for us," summarised the Silverstone-based outfit's chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne, "as it is always challenging to run at a new circuit, and particularly one that stretches the drivers. We had no real mechanical problems - only a small brake issue with Giancarlo, which was very quickly solved.

"All-in-all we ran through our normal programme and tyre evaluation and, although it's hard to tell from Friday form, I think we look more competitive and have made a slight step forward that we'll look to carry over to the rest of the weekend."


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