F1's Great Drives: Giancarlo Fisichella - 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix

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A torrential day in Brazil paved the way for Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella to take an unlikely win with out-of-the-box strategy

Fisichella, Brazil 2003

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Some of F1’s greatest drives have come out of nothing. Previous race results, championship form, and car performance all go out the window; Giancarlo Fisichella’s passage to victory at the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix is one of the finest examples of this.

A race of high attrition in Australia should have been a good opportunity for points to open his account for 2003 – instead he finished 12th. It got worse next time out in Malaysia, as an electrical problem meant Fisi didn’t even complete a lap.

Come Round Three in Brazil however, Fisichella held his nerve and utilised his one-lap pace well, dragging his Jordan up to eighth on the grid. He qualified above driver/car combinations that should have been much quicker on paper, including the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya, BAR’s Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso in his Renault.

Race day was a typical Interlagos washout. The grand prix started under a safety car, with visibility a smidgen under zero.

Prior to the grand prix, Rob Smedley, who at the time was Fisichella’s race engineer, felt he had a good grasp of how events would unfold.

“I had a chat with Gary Anderson [Trackside Technical Director],” Smedley recounts, “We worked out how long it would take to get to the end [on fuel] and how much you would gamble on that with a set of tyres to get you all the way to the finish – when everybody else was stopping on a safety car.”

As is so often the case in motor sport, rubber was the crucial difference. Rules that year dictated that tyre companies could only take one type of wet-weather tyre to each race. Michelin went for full wets whilst Bridgestone elected for intermediates.

“We were gambling on the intermediate, it was such a good tyre, it would last and last. Then, specifically under a safety car, you’d find that other people were either doing more stops [than you] or they’d run out of tyres. That was the notion going into it.”

Brazil GP 2003

Torrential rain played into Jordan’s hands

Grand Prix Photo

Smedley’s plan was to pit as early as possible under the safety car, fuel the car to the finish and then outrun the field using their superior tyre durability – with Fisichella hopefully being the last man standing at the end of the race.

Anderson, whilst agreeing it could be a workable plan, decided to split the strategies – team-mate Ralph Firman would take a more conservative approach.

“I was very young at the time, and it seemed like a bit of a daft idea, but then we kind of adopted that it might be a bit of an idea,” says Smedley. “And so Gary said, ‘Ok then, you do it with your car.’”

As Fisi ran in formation behind the safety car, Smedley spent several laps trying to persuade the Jordan pilot of his masterplan.

“These were the days when you could talk openly on team radio. I explained the strategy to Fisi and he said to me, ‘Might be an idea, but we’re not going to do that.’

“Gary said to me. ‘Are we gonna do it or not?’ You know, kind of ‘Come on then, billy big bollocks. Let’s see if you’re doing it.’

“I said ‘No, no no, It’s a really good idea’, so I started to convince him, and at this point now Gary became resolute. Giancarlo was sitting on the fence about it and then said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it because we’re eighth, we can get some points.’ Gary then became even more agitated!”

The cars were comfortably cruising the track, conditions were improving and time was running out for Jordan to make a decision.

“Gary was now a firm believer in this strategy. So he was saying, ‘Cmon, cmon, tell him!’ So I explained to Fisi, “We think it’s gonna work. It’s gonna work for these reasons.” And he said to me, “Yeah, but if it doesn’t work like that, then we’re done aren’t we? We’re finished!

“I said, ‘Yeah, all right, well let’s just try it and I’ll take responsibility. Just do it.’ I can remember being very young and thinking, ‘Oh my God, if this doesn’t go right, then I’m gonna get an almighty bollocking at the end of the race!’”

The team waited for the end-of-safety car signal to be given, it finally arriving on lap six – crunch time for Smedley.

“Gary said to me. ‘Are we gonna do it or not?’ You know, kind of ‘Come on then, billy big bollocks. Let’s see if you’re doing it.’

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Smedley was resolute, gave the call, and Fisichella duly obliged by pulling in for tyres and fuel. The race started a lap later, with the cars driving through a harrowing wall of spray into T1. Somehow, no-one went off on this first lap of free-running.

Fisichella was at the back of the pack in 19th, only saved from being last by the buffer of his team-mate Firman.

Minardi’s Justin Wilson became the first victim of one of many rivulets that were running across the track. The biggest danger area was at the third corner, Curva Do Sol.

Heading down the straight into the start of lap 17, Ralph Firman’s right-front suspension failed. The Irishman’s out of control Jordan hurtled towards Turn One, narrowly missing Fisichella before collecting the unfortunate Toyota of Olivier Panis.

The safety car came out once more and many drivers elected to pit. Fisichella was the beneficiary as both Jacques Villeneuve and Jarno Trulli emerged from their stops behind him.

Renault accidentally sent Alonso out on slicks, the resulting pitstop to rectify this lifting Fisichella another place.

The lap 23 restart was accident-free once more, but this was soon to change. Jordan’s strategy continued to work as Fisichella kept pushing his way up and others pitted. The very next lap, one of F1’s most famous car parks began its inauguration. The plentiful stream running across Turn Three caught out Montoya, who spun straight off into the barriers.

Michael Schumacher, Brazil 2003

Michael Schumacher joins the unfortunate few in the barriers at Turn 3

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He didn’t even have time to get out of the car before Jaguar’s Antonio Pizzonia joined him at almost exactly the same spot.

Michael Schumacher – proving no-one was infallible – was the next to go off at the same place two laps later, pirouetting elegantly before crunching into the barriers. The safety car was brought out once more.

Further pitstops for competitors lifted the sole remaining Jordan to eighth – the first points paying position. In 17 frantic laps, Fisichella had fought back to where he originally was when he made his pitstop. Now the hard work could really begin.

The race got underway again on lap 29, and it took only one lap and a few corners for Minardi’s Jos Verstappen to be the next to spin out at T3.

Fisichella had just been overtaken by the resurgent Kimi Räikkönen, who had pitted on lap 27, so he moved back into eighth. From here on in, the Italian and the Finn’s races would be intertwined as they moved in parallel up the field.

Jenson Button followed Verstappen into the Turn Three barriers two laps later. He became the corner’s sixth victim and the fourth safety car of the day was brought out.

The Italian was now up to sixth, executing the plan to perfection thus far. Smedley was full of praise when recalling Fisichella’s efforts that day.

“He did a massive job, I have to say it’s one of the best races that he’s ever done. To keep it on the track, to keep concentrated. He was always on the limit of the performance of the tyre. If it was raining harder, he would slow down but he would slow down less than other people – you can see watching the telemetry we used to get.

“He was always on the limit and to do that on one set of tyres for that long and to keep that level of concentration when you’ve got, you know, all these world champions going off around him…”

Both the intermediate and wet tyres were wearing at a rapid rate on the drying track, suggesting a move to slicks. However, there was no way any driver could negotiate the river flowing across T3 without grooved tyres.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Brazil 2003

Fisichella’s Jordan catches fire in the pit lane after the red flag

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A drive-through penalty for Alonso passing under yellows lifted Fisichella up to fifth on lap 42. The stakes were getting higher, the rewards greater. Could Jordan’s man keep it on the road?

Come lap 46 and Fisichella’s fellow Bridgestone runner Rubens Barrichello was leading. Between them were the three Michelin-shod cars of David Coulthard, Räikkönen and Ralf Schumacher – Fisichella was faster than all of them. One lap later and things got even better.

Ferrari had miscalculated the amount of fuel it had put into Barrichello’s car. Quite simply, it wasn’t enough, and the local hero ground to a sickening stop halfway round lap 47.

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“In the last laps it started to rain, which is again exactly what we’d hoped for.” Smedley tells us, “And I remember Rubens [Barrichello’s] manager at the time, he was stood on our pit wall saying ‘It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain, I can see it’s gonna rain.’

“And I was thinking ‘Is this bloke for real or not?’ He kept tugging at me ‘It is, it is, it’s gonna rain honestly, it’s all gonna work!’

“Anyway it did, the rain got really heavy again and all the guys on the Michelins started sliding off. And of course, the Bridgestone worked really well in those conditions.”

Williams’ Schumacher was the first to relent, pitting for fresh rubber as he finished lap 48. Four tours later Coulthard came in, just as Fisichella was bearing down on Räikkönen. Could the backmarker Jordan take the McLaren for the lead?

Heading into the Merghulo corner, the struggling Raikkonen (who had only run a mere 27-lap stint) got a mean twitch of oversteer and ran wide. Fisichella saw his chance and pounced to snatch the lead of the race.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Brazil 2003

Fisichella had to settle for second on the day due to a timing mix-up

Grand Prix Photo

It had been 47 laps since Fisichella and Smedley had rolled the dice by pitting under the safety car, dropping the Jordan all the way to second-last. Now it was leading the race, driving as if on fresh rubber.

Just when it seemed like the drama couldn’t heighten any further, Mark Webber had a huge accident coming out of the final turn, scattering debris across the track.

Fisichella and Räikkönen avoided the debris, whilst Alonso did not. Preoccupied by discussing tyre choices on his team radio, the Renault driver came in at full-speed as he headed on to the start/finish straight, striking one of Jaguar’s detached wheels dead on.

Alonso speared into left-hand barrier before violently spinning into the other. The Spaniard emerged from his Renault seemingly winded, but unharmed. The race was immediately red-flagged and, since it was past three-quarter distance, was declared over.

As Smedley puts it, “This is where it became brilliantly and completely Jordan-esque.”

The Jordan pit crew began celebrating wildly in the belief that their man had done it. Others were not so sure. Eddie Jordan could be seen running frantically up and down the Interlagos pitlane on his cellphone, trying to establish the result.

Fisichella pulled in and his car promptly burst into flames. Had the race gone on any longer, he wouldn’t have made it.

Rules at the time stated that the results must be taken from two laps prior to the race being ended. Since he’d just started lap 56 at this time, and was leading two laps previously, the leading driver was Fisichella. However, the TAG Heuer timing sheets apparently said otherwise.

A glitch in the system displayed the Italian as having only started the 55th lap. The stewards referred to these and declared Raikkonen as the victor since he led on lap 53.

Smedley was desperately stating his case for victory though amidst the confusion and mixed emotions. “Eddie and Gary, particularly Eddie, just went nuts, because we’ve won the race, (and then) because we were second. And I said, ‘No, no, we’ve won!’

“Eddie was just delirious, with all the cash that it was going to bring him, just beyond himself. He said, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

“I was utterly convinced and remember everybody saying to me, ‘You’re mad, what’s this rule?’ and I was like a nerdy…not far out of my teens and knew the sporting regs and bits from the back of my hand. And I knew that we’d won on the count back rule.’

A slightly crestfallen Jordan team had to watch their man take the second place trophy on the podium – still an incredible achievement for the team at the time.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Eddie Jordan, 2003 Imola

Fisichella and Jordon received the winning trophy at the following round at Imola

PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

Smedley though, was finding it hard to reconcile with having the win taken away.

“I was just going on and on like a stuck record, to the point where Gary and Eddie were just like ‘Oh just stop going on about, it doesn’t it matter’ and I’m like, ‘Yes it does matter, this is my first ever grand prix as an engineer, it really does matter.’”

“On the Sunday night we all went out and got really drunk. Then on the plane home I was working out all the timing to put together a case.”

An appeal was arranged. Once Smedley and his team presented the FIA with the facts, the conclusion was swift.

“We went down to see the FIA at Heathrow on the Tuesday. Honestly, the hearing must have taken about three minutes. They looked at it and said ‘Yeah, you’re right. You won’.

And with that, the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix belonged to Giancarlo Fisichella and Jordan. A perfect combination of strategic vision and superlative driving skill had delivered one of F1’s most memorable wins.

Does Smedley ever remind Fisi of his initial reluctance to take on the race winning strategy?

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been taking the piss out of him about it for the last 20 years!”

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