Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Good Isn't Good Enough

No driver announced his retirement at the end of the last race of the 2009 season in Abu Dhabi, and it should perhaps therefore be assumed that, at the time at least. every one of the 20 drivers on the grid for that race wanted to be back in five months time when the F1 circus reconvenes in the sands of Bahrain. We have since learned that Kimi Raikkonen has opted to turn down whatever Mclaren were prepared to offer him in favour of driving a Citroen C4 in the World Rally Championship, but every other driver in the field appears intent on continuing their career in the sport.

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, Toyota, have pulled the plug on their F1 team. For similar reasons, it is far from clear that we will see anything more of Kamui Kobayashi, which is a shame because he looked rather handy in his two races for the Japanese team at the end of the season. It’s far from clear whether Renault will be back on the grid next year either, but if they are, I would be very surprised if Romain Grosjean were back in the car after his lacklustre showings with the team this year.

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 Canada, and might even have won in Germany had he not suffered a puncture. In a car which was no match for the Williams, Ferrari, Mclaren or Benetton most of the time, his 20 points represented an impressive haul and identified him as one of the sport’s rising stars.

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 Jordan’s fortunes rose, enabling them to take their first win in 1998, and to emerge as outside contenders for the World Title a year later. Fisichella spent four years at Benetton, and while he generally outpaced his team mates, Alex Wurz and, for one year, Jenson Button, he was no longer perceived as being destined for greatness. Flavio Briatore, boss of Benetton at the time, publicly criticised his ‘laziness’ and lack of commitment in 2000. He was turfed out for 2002 when the team became ‘Renault’ and its form began to improve. So he found himself back at Jordan, just as things were falling apart for the Anglo-Irish team. A confluence of freak circumstances saw him pick up a win at Interlagos in the rain in 2003, but the team’s general level of competitiveness is best illustrated by the fact that he would score points only once more all year, at the attrition-hit US Grand Prix.

Things took a turn for the better when he cut short his Jordan contract and ended up alongside sophomore Felipe Massa at Sauber. After initially being outpaced by the young Brazilian, whose full potential was then not widely recognised, he established himself as the faster and more consistent of the two Sauber drivers in the second half of the year, bringing in a consistent haul of points. At that point, it was hard to know what to make of Fisichella. Some wrote him off. He’d been around for a long time without ever really establishing himself as a front runner. Ron Dennis, when asked whether he was considering hiring the Italian, said dismissively “If I was going to sign Fisichella, I would have done it years ago.” Others, though, noted that he had proven as quick, if not quicker, than every team mate he had ever come up against and wondered if he was one of the sport’s great lost talents – someone who was simply never in the right place at the right time.

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.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home