The brilliant Fisichella: was Italy's last great F1 driver 'too nice'?


Giancarlo Fisichella was blessed with uncommon F1 car control – but did he have that killer instinct? Matt Bishop remembers the mercurial GP career of 'Fisico'

2 Giancarlo Fisichella 2003 Brazilian GP

Fisichella in supreme control as usual, on his way to what would be an eventual debut win in Brazil '03

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This coming Saturday – April 6 2024 – will be the nickel anniversary of Giancarlo Fisichella’s maiden Formula 1 grand prix victory, for it took place at Interlagos on that date 21 years ago. It was also Jordan’s fourth and last F1 win, fittingly scored on the occasion of the team’s 200th GP.

It was a chaotic race in many ways. I remember sitting in the Interlagos media centre as the rain hammered against its tin roof so forcefully that it could take no more. It duly began to leak profusely, and soon those of us whose desks were situated in a shallow hollow in the uneven linoleum floor were forced to take our shoes and socks off and type our race reports barefoot in an inch of chilly rainwater. My desk was in such a hollow, and, although the rain soon abated and the track surface then became damp rather than sodden, the press room remained partly under water and from time to time I would splash my way over to the window to watch the cars snaking their way along the stretch of track between Turn 2 (S do Senna) and Turn 3 (Curva do Sol), across which a small stream was still running laterally. One after another, Justin Wilson (Minardi), Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams), Antonio Pizzonia (Jaguar), Michael Schumacher (Ferrari), Jos Verstappen (Minardi), Jenson Button (BAR) and Mark Webber (Jaguar) all aquaplaned or spun off there – although, uniquely, Webber managed to get going again.

By that time Kimi Räikkönen was leading the race from Fisichella, but, despite the undeniable fact that on normal Sunday afternoons in 2003 Kimi’s quicksilver McLaren MP4-17D was much faster than Giancarlo’s sluggish Jordan EJ13, the McLaren’s Michelins were beginning to look decidedly worn whereas the Jordan’s Bridgestones were not. On lap 53 Fisichella outbraked Räikkönen on the entry to the long, bumpy, downhill, blind-apexed, fourth-gear Turn 11, Mergulho, the fast left-hander described by Allan McNish when in 2002 he first attempted it in anger in a Toyota TF102 as “the most daunting corner in F1”, and took the lead. One lap later, at Turn 15, Arquibancadas, the superfast left-hand kink before the start-finish straight, Webber shunted heavily. Fisichella and Räikkönen tiptoed their way through bits of broken Jaguar then headed for the pit lane for fuel. Just behind, Fernando Alonso, distracted by his pit crew who were asking him questions about tyres, slammed his Renault at 170mph (274km/h) into a stray wheel that had become detached from Webber’s Jaguar, and had a monumental shunt, from which he was fortunate to emerge with only multiple bruises. The race was red-flagged, Raikkonen was erroneously declared the winner, and Fisichella was accordingly classified second.

Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan celebrates on podium Brazilian GP trophy 2003

A subdued Fisichella on Brazil podium after seeing himself initially demoted to second place

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I had interviewed Giancarlo at length in the Interlagos paddock three days before. That was not a rarity, for I rated him very highly and we got on very well. After the race I blagged a lift from the circuit to Sao Paulo’s Hotel Transamerica with Jordan’s engineering director Gary Anderson and its team manager Tim Edwards. They did not know whether to be deliriously happy with second or furiously unhappy that the FIA race stewards had deprived them of first. Our journey was light on chit-chat therefore. When we arrived, I hopped out while they parked their hire car, which, as it happens, was a huge Dodge Ram double-cab pick-up. As I walked into the foyer, I bumped into Giancarlo. I placed my hand on his shoulder and, after a couple of seconds’ hesitation, said: “What can I say?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “For two minutes I was in heaven. Then they tell me maybe I haven’t won and…” His voice tailed off. He forced a vapid smile. There was nothing more to say. But, thankfully, that bleak encounter became an inconsequential bagatelle when, five days later, the FIA race stewards’ error was corrected in an appeal court hearing in Paris. An impromptu podium re-enactment was performed in the paddock at the following race, Imola, Räikkönen handing the Brazilian trophy to Fisichella as an exuberant Eddie Jordan and a phlegmatic Ron Dennis looked on.

In those days I regarded Giancarlo as the second-best driver in the world. That may surprise you, given that (1) his last three years in F1 were somewhat lacklustre – his superb second place for Force India at Spa in 2009 a glorious exception – and that (2) not only that era’s numero uno, Michael Schumacher, but also his brother Ralf Schumacher, his team-mate Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Räikkönen, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button were all racing in F1 in 2003.

Giancarlo Fisichella 2003 F1 Awards

Italian picks up his ‘Drivers’ Driver’ gong

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But consider this. A little less than three months before the 2003 Brazilian GP had taken place, the inaugural F1 Awards Grand Prix Party had been staged at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre – a glitzy shindig featuring the 2002 hit single Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum) sung by the Cheeky Girls that I, for one, would have been delighted to see continue with or without the support of those scantily clad Romanian twin sisters, but it did not. One of the awards, without doubt the one most coveted by the drivers, was Drivers’ Driver, which had been decided by a secret ballot involving all of them. The winner was Fisichella.

When Villeneuve was asked to comment on Fisichella’s Drivers’ Driver triumph, he said: “Yes, there’s one guy out there who I think is very, very quick: Giancarlo. He has a really special talent.” When the same question was put to Button, he replied: “When we were at Benetton together in 2001, Giancarlo was way better on set-up than I was. He used to just turn up for each race, set the car up, and more or less match his eventual qualifying time straight away. He was always straight on it like that, and he was always really quick.” Indeed he was. Of the 17 grands prix that made up the 2001 F1 season, Fisichella was the quicker qualifier 13 times.

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I will never forget what Jean Alesi said to me shortly after the 1997 Canadian GP, in which Fisichella’s third-placed Jordan had finished just 0.654sec behind Alesi’s second-placed Benetton: “I tell you, Giancarlo was brilliant today. Fantastic. I honestly think he’s better than Michael. Honestly, in terms of natural talent, he’s better. In parc ferme I saw that his rear Goodyears had massive blisters. Really terrible blisters. Giancarlo and I were running close together during the race, and I could see that his car was all over the place. But, having seen those tyres, I think the way he managed to control his car, in spite of those incredible blisters, was simply amazing.”

Fisichella did not get his hands on a top-tier F1 car until 2005. By that time he had raced for Minardi, Jordan, Benetton, Jordan again and Sauber, bagging nine podium finishes in addition to his win at Interlagos in 2003, many of which had flattered cars that were either bad or mediocre but never truly good. Moreover, Button was not the only team-mate whose performances he had outclassed. He beat them all. Between 1997, his first full season in F1, and 2004, he was a brilliant driver of deficient cars, and the sad result was that over that period he acquired what I call shitbox syndrome.

Shitbox syndrome? Yes, over time, some drivers become extremely good at hustling poor cars to improbable grid slots and even jaw-droppingly impressive points finishes; but put them in cars that are capable of winning races and they sometimes disappoint. Or, to put it another way, if you were to saddle such a driver with a car that was good enough for P14, he might surprise you with P9. But if you were to give him a car that was good enough for P1, P3 might be all he could deliver.

Giancarlo Fisichella 2003 Monaco GP

Three-time GP winner showed all his skill with the unwieldy Jordan EJ13 at Monaco

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We saw exactly that during Fisichella’s time at Renault. When he arrived at the then super-competitive Enstone team in 2005, he started perfectly, with a pole and a win first time out in Melbourne, but that admittedly fine victory flattered to deceive, for he never won again all season, whereas his team-mate Alonso won seven grands prix and the drivers’ world championship. The following year, 2006, Giancarlo also started well, with a pole and a win second time out in Sepang. But, just as in 2005, he never won again, whereas Fernando ended the year with another seven wins and another drivers’ world championship. Yes, Alonso was and is a mighty driver, but still the discrepancy between them was a surprise.

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Fisichella relied on his natural finesse – more Ronnie Peterson than Emerson Fittipaldi, more Jean Alesi than Gerhard Berger. Like Peterson and Alesi – and others whose talent was also immense but mercurial – Giancarlo could sometimes drive mesmerisingly well. Here is an example. For Thursday qualifying at Monaco in 2003, which session decided the running order for Saturday’s all-important single-lap quali shoot-out, I stationed myself near the Louis Chiron statue so as to watch the drivers tackle part one of the Swimming Pool complex. Soon I was joined by two journalists who know how many beans make five – Peter Windsor and Mark Hughes. Visibly fastest was Michael Schumacher, who posted a stunning 1min 16.305sec lap in his Ferrari F2003-GA. Also impressive were Jenson Button, third in a BAR 005, and Jarno Trulli, fourth in a Renault R23. But when Fisichella’s Jordan EJ13 – yes, a veritable shitbox – catapulted into view, the deftness with which he stroked it through that formidable left-right combo, a couple of inches or so from the armco at entry, apex and exit, no more than five degrees of beautifully controlled oppo applied first one way then the other, took our collective breath away. We turned, looked at one another, and, grinning, gave the thumbs-up sign. As we walked back to the paddock after the session, I remember Peter shaking his head and saying, “What a waste of a driver.” When we checked the time sheets we discovered that he was P7: a fantastic achievement in that car.

Although Fisichella was gifted enough to be an F1 world champion, his kind of ability is not always sufficient. Did he lack the necessary killer instinct? Maybe he did. I hate what I am going to write next, but it is possibly true: perhaps he was too nice. I remember having dinner with him in Collingwood, Melbourne, in 2001, and in Granollers, Barcelona, in 2004. Both occasions were friendly and fun. In Collingwood he introduced me to Tignanello, a sumptuous Super Tuscan that he described as “the Pope’s wine”, and in Granollers we shared a bottle of Priorat, made in Catalonia, which has also since become one of my favourite reds. Yes, they were expensive wines, and, yes, he was a prosperous man, but nothing in his manner would have revealed to anyone at other tables, who did not know that he was an F1 star, that he was rich or even famous. He was, and is, remarkably normal.

“Lest we forget: Fisichella came from humble origins”

In 2006, in the Melbourne paddock, I bumped into him and asked: “Could I please interview you at Imola [which was the next race]?” He replied, “No, come and interview me at home in Rome on the Wednesday before. We’ll have more time then. We can have lunch.” Believe me, even back then, it was extremely rare for an F1 star to invite an F1 journalist to a meal at his home. But it happened – and what I found when I arrived at Giancarlo’s and his wife Luna’s plush but not too plush house in Castel dei Ceveri, a smart but not too smart suburb of northern Rome, made me surer than ever that Fisico, as his mates call him, was – and is – a lovely man.

Let us not forget: he came from very humble origins. His father was a garage mechanic. So joining us for lunch were his pals, who were builders or plumbers or taxi drivers or indeed unemployed. I remember Chico, Pietro, and Cesare, who were all happy to be chummy with this British interloper who spoke no Italian. “Cesare has been a mate of mine since we were nine years old,” said Giancarlo. “He built the pizza oven in my garden.” And pizza, cooked by Fisico, is what we ate, together, singing AS Roma songs, at a big table in his garden, which was littered with his kids’ toys – bikes, trikes, pedal cars, trampolines, slides, swings, and wendy houses – around which loped a rabbit and a donkey. “My kids’ pets,” our host explained, perhaps unnecessarily.

You want to know what kind of pizza he cooked us, don’t you? You may rest assured that no pineapples were harmed in the making of them. “I like to cook fast, and keep the flavours changing,” he said, warming to his task. “Maybe I start with a basic one – you know, tomatoes and mozzarella – but then I’ll do one with good Parma ham, then a spicy one with lots of garlic, then a cool one with zucchini flowers.” They were all delish.

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