When Good Isn't Good Enough
No driver announced his retirement at the end of the last race of the 2009 season in
The vast majority of them have drives in place, though I would be very surprised if Kazuki Nakajima reappeared, now that his long-time patrons,
Of the remaining established drivers, though, those with several seasons to their name, only Nick Heidfeld and Giancarlo Fisichella are without drives for 2010. While it seems more likely than not that Heidfeld will find a berth, either at the new Mercedes team or at Sauber if Michael Schumacher really is coming back to F1 with the German squad, it appears that Fisichella’s long F1 career might finally have reached its end.
Giancarlo Fisichella has been around in F1 for a very long time now and he’s one of very few drivers on the grid during 2009 who had experience of the previous generation of slick-tyred Grand Prix cars. In fact, with 231 races over 14 seasons in the sport, he is the fifth most experienced driver of all time, with only Barrichello, Patrese, Michael Schumacher and Coulthard having taken more starts. But what to make of those 14 long years? What did he achieve?
He came into the sport with Minardi in 1996, as an Italian F3 champion who had been driving for Alfa Romeo in the predecessor series to the current DTM, the ITC. The 1996 Minardi, only a minor re-working of the previous year’s car, which itself hardly set the world alight, was not a car in which anyone was going to be able to put in giant-killing performances, but Fisichella was generally quicker than his more experienced team mate, Pedro Lamy. It wasn’t enough to prevent him being moved aside to make way for the hapless but moneyed Giovanni Lavaggi when Minardi’s precarious financial state got really bad. He did enough, though, to attract the attentions of one Eddie Jordan, and for 1997, he was paired up with newcomer Ralf Schumacher in a Jordan Peugeot, where he instantly made an impression. The highlight of his second year in the sport was a second place at Spa in a wet-dry race, but he was also on the podium in
Then his career took a wrong turn. He switched to Benetton in 1998, just as that team was on a downward path, and he was forced to watch while
Things took a turn for the better when he cut short his
In 2005, we got our answer. After Mark Webber turned Renault down in favour of Williams, Flavio decided to give Giancarlo another crack of the whip, alongside Fernando Alonso. It’s hard to credit now, but at the time, it was far from clear which of the two would come out on top. Alonso was not a double world champion, but, like Fisichella, a man who had won but a single race. He didn’t appear to have quite the devastating one-lap pace of Jarno Trulli and it seemed to me at the time that they might be very closely matched. As it turned out, Fisichella never really even got close to Alonso. He won his first race for the team, but was helped by a freak rainstorm that left the Spaniard way down the grid. Thereafter, he was on the podium just twice more all season, in a car which Alonso took to seven wins and the world title. The following year, Alonso again took the title, and Fisichella again scored only a solitary win, on a day when his team mate had been hit by refuelling woes. And we had our answer, Fisichella didn’t have the right stuff.
To me, Fisichella’s lack of pace in his two years alongside Alonso at Renault remains one of the great mysteries of the sport. Was he just not quick enough? Perhaps, but this was a man who had shown himself as more than a match for the current world champion, Jenson Button, when they were paired at Benetton all those years ago, who had been quicker than last year’s vice-champion, Felipe Massa when they were both at Sauber. Who had looked quicker than just about everyone else he was ever paired up with in F1 (at least until those dismal last few races for Ferrari alongside Kimi Raikkonen). Was it psychological frailty? Briatore had Fisichella marked down as lazy, but I wonder if it was more that he simply couldn’t produce the goods under pressure. Think, for example, of the way he crumbled under attack from Kimi Raikkonen as they fought for the win on the final lap of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. Yes, his tyres were shot, but I’d still place a substantial sum that Alonso would have been able to keep the Finn back in the same circumstances. And when the teams opened the radio transmissions up to the TV broadcasters, it was notable how much more encouragement, how many more ‘hurry ups’, Fisichella seemed to need than many of his rivals. It’s always hard to know for sure, but I don’t believe Fisichella’s problem was fundamentally about a lack of innate ability. Rather, it seemed to me that, up against the very best, he lacked the competitive nature, the rage to win, needed to succeed at the highest level.
The irony, though, is that had Mark Webber not turned down Flavio Briatore in 2005, we might still be wondering today how good Giancarlo Fisichella might have proven to be had he got himself in the right car. Had that happened, Fisichella would probably have gone to Grove just as the team were spiralling into their own vicious circle of declining performance and falling budgets. As it was, though, he got his opportunity – he got it late, undoubtedly, but he got it, and he was found wanting.
It is noteworthy, I think, that with the exception of Michael Schumacher, the drivers who have had the very longest careers in the sport have tended to be good, rather than great. Barrichello, Patrese and Coulthard all won Grands Prix, but none of them ever took the World Title. I’m not sure I’d rate Fisichella in quite the same league as those three, but he was undoubtedly a very quick racing driver on his day. But as his career amply demonstrates, that isn’t enough on its own.