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Fisichella at Force India - fresh start or false dawn? 05 Mar 2008

Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 Formula One Testing, Day One, Barcelona, Spain, 01 February 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton (L to R): Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1, and Vijay Mallya (IND) Force India F1. Force India F1 Team Launch, Mumbai, India, Thursday 7 February 2008. World © Sutton Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 VJM01 Formula One Testing, Day Three, Jerez, Spain, 14 February 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Jordan can finally celebrate his Brazilian GP win.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, 18 April 2003 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 talks with an engineer. Formula One Testing, Day Two, Jerez, Spain, Tuesday 15 January 2008. World © Hartley/Sutton

Giancarlo Fisichella has been a Formula One fixture for over 12 years, but this season he will begin a new phase of his career. From former world champions Renault to the youngest team on the grid, Force India, Fisichella’s future has certainly taken a surprising turn for 2008. But will a new seat spur the three-time race winner on to greater things, or set him on the fast track to retirement?

Thus far the combination seems to be working out well for team and driver alike. He bettered three younger men - Ralf Schumacher, Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi - at last year’s shoot-out for the final spot on the 2008 grid and has since impressed in testing for his new team, finishing as high as fourth in a recent Barcelona session.

With new owners, a boosted budget and aspirations to be on the podium by 2010, Force India are certainly generating a lot of excitement, and it’s Fisichella who appears to be right at the very centre of that buzz, with team boss Vijay Mallya lauding the contribution of the experienced Italian at every turn.

After a disappointing final ’07 season with Renault, it has no doubt been a welcome boost to Fisichella’s ego, although even before he had settled in there was talk of who his replacement might be. Force India have certainly not been shy about their patriotism and are widely expected to draft an Indian driver into their ranks once a suitable candidate becomes available.

So is Fisichella, reportedly on a two-year deal, nothing more than a stopgap for the former Spyker squad? It’s certainly unlikely the 35 year-old, in the twilight of his career, features in Mallya’s long-term plans for Force India, and both men know that the odds of an older driver moving from a high-ranking team to a lesser one and succeeding are not great. Fisichella’s contemporary David Coulthard may have hauled himself back on to the podium after his move from McLaren to Red Bull, but he has been the exception rather than the rule.

But even if Fisichella really is only a ‘temporary’ solution, Force India are taking his new role seriously, and understandably so - he was, after all, chosen for a reason. From his 194 race starts with five different teams, Fisichella has built up a wealth of knowledge and it is this depth of his experience that makes his signing a real coup for an inexperienced team like Force India. They already had a fast driver in highly-rated youngster Adrian Sutil. Now they have some much-needed maturity to complement Sutil’s speed.

Could that speed be a concern for Fisichella? Quite possibly. At 25, Sutil is over ten years’ his junior, and the ambitious German has the advantage of having already spent a year with the team. Last season Fisichella was overshadowed by his rookie team mate, Heikki Kovalainen, and it begs the question whether history is set to repeat itself. In testing so far, however, Fisichella has stamped his authority on the team, with Sutil confessing plans to learn as much as possible from his elder team mate. And for all the knowledge Sutil gleans from Fisichella, you can bet the Italian, challenged to go faster, will be doing his best to outshine his youthful counterpart.

Unlike Sutil, Fisichella remembers what it’s like to win with this team - he drove for them back in the Jordan days and took their last victory at the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix. And after the grandeur of Renault, trying to recapture those glory days with the help of Mallya’s much-needed investment may be just the kind of challenge he needs. Away from the demands of a world championship winning team, he may just have the opportunity to flourish.

Having turned down testing roles with bigger teams for the chance to keep racing - and publically declaring he is not in it for the money - Fisichella still seems to have the hunger. The shock of almost being left without a drive looks to have boosted his motivation and now he just needs to maintain momentum. Do that and Force India could revitalize his reputation, even if it doesn’t bring him another race win. Fail, and he will be remembered as a driver who showed glimpses of huge potential numerous times during his career, but somehow never quite fulfilled it.