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Force India’s Fisichella to reach motorsport milestone in Monaco 16 May 2008

Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 on the grid.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Rd 2, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 23 March 2008 Giancarlo Fisichella (I), Force India, Force India-Ferrari VJM01, Bahrain Grand Prix 2008, Free Practice, Bahrain International Circuit, Manama, Bahrain, Friday, 4 April 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Minardi Ford M195B. Formula One World Championship, San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, Italy. 5 May 1996. World © Sutton Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Jordan 197, 2nd place Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, 24 August 1997. World © Sutton (L to R): Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Jordan recieves the winners trophy from the Brazilian GP from Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, 18 April 2003

Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella will celebrate his 200th Grand Prix start in Monaco, becoming only the ninth driver in history to reach that milestone. By the end of this season he will have moved up to fifth overall in the rankings of all-time starts.

As is often the case, there are different interpretations of what counts as a start. This total does not include the 2005 US Grand Prix, when in common with the other Michelin runners he withdrew on the formation lap, and nor does it include the French race in 2002, when he had a major crash in practice and did not take part in qualifying.

To mark the event, Fisichella will start the Monaco race in a new set of Alpinestars overalls and a helmet commissioned from Arai bearing a '200' logo.

Fisichella’s first Formula One start came with Minardi in Australia back in March 1996. The start was, to a certain extent, unexpected - shortly before the race he was a test driver and the then 23-year-old had not expected to make the trip down under to Melbourne.

“It was interesting what happened,” he recalls. “Ten days before the Australian GP I was test driver for Minardi, and was also driving in the international touring car championship and the DTM for Alfa Romeo. Giancarlo Minardi called me and said 'Giancarlo get ready, you are coming to Australia. Bring your helmet and bring your overalls.' I said, 'Ah that's nice, I'm happy to come and see Australia and see the first race.' He replied, 'No no, it's not to see the first race, you're going to do it!' I couldn't believe it and asked if he was joking.”

The Italian team owner was indeed not joking, as Fisichella remembers him stating: 'No, you're going to do it, you're going to be one of the 20 drivers on the grid on Sunday.'

“I was really shocked,” explains Fisichella, “because 10 days before the race I really didn't expect to race in Australia, but the team had had a problem with a Japanese driver who didn't pay. It was bad for him, but I was really, really happy!”

Despite his limited testing programme, Fisichella qualified in 16th and put in a very respectable debut performance, although he ultimately did not finish the race. “It was fantastic. The whole weekend was a bit of a shock for me, but one of the biggest things I remember was when I was at the drivers' briefing,” he recalls. “I was surrounded by Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger, and Jean Alesi, all my heroes... I was thinking I am one of them, I am here with them. It was really nice, a great period for me.

“I qualified 16th, which was good, and I was quicker than my team mate, Pedro Lamy. Before this race I had done just two tests in Fiorano, I had no experience at all. Then in the race I was in a good position, but I had a problem with the hydraulic pressure. I thought it was a good debut though, better than I expected considering my lack of preparation!”

Fisichella ran only eight races that season, before money pressures forced the team to take drivers who could bring significant amounts of funding.

“They were a few seconds slower than me, but everyone knew why I wasn't there any more,” he explains. “It was nice to be an F1 driver, but I was quite confident that I would be back in F1 in the future. In fact a few months later I signed a contract with Benetton, with Flavio Briatore. He told me that they liked me, but for next year they already had Berger and Alesi, so they didn't have space for me. He did however want to see me somewhere in F1 to get experience, so they found a compromise with Eddie Jordan. This is how I came to drive for Jordan in 1997.”

Alongside fellow new boy Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella soon showed his pace, but a potential first podium was lost in Argentina: “I was second and Ralf was third, and in the hairpin he pushed me out, and lost the possibility to get on the podium. So it was very disappointing.”

Third in Canada, the seventh race of the year, made up for it, but then Fisichella lost the chance of a sensational maiden win in Hockenheim.

“I was second in the grid, I was the leader of the race, ahead of Gerhard Berger so I was really, really competitive. Unfortunately I had a puncture, and I couldn't finish the race.”

However, he really made his mark with second in a soaking wet Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, behind only world championship challenger Michael Schumacher. At the end of the season he moved to Benetton, as had been previously agreed with Jordan when the Anglo-Irish team had signed him at the start of the year.

Fisichella has mixed feelings about the '98 season: “It was good, but it wasn't as I expected. Sometimes we were quite competitive, sometimes we were in the middle of the grid. In fact it was like that for a few years, 1999, 2000 and 2001. In 1998 I had a second in Monaco and a few other podiums. Austria that year was a big day. Qualifying was in wet conditions, and pole was a great result.”

Fisichella stayed with Benetton for the 1999 season, which brought some promising results. At the Nurburgring in 1999 he led the race, however again lost the chance to score his first win when he went off the road: “I was really quick with the grooved tyres in a damp situation, then I lost the headrest, and I lost control of the car and spun in the quick chicane. It was an opportunity to win easily, for sure.”

He continued to score podiums the following year in 2000, but the year after a radical Renault engine design proved troublesome: “At the beginning of the season we were fighting with Minardi! Then we made a big step forward in the middle of the year. I was third in Belgium, it was a great race, and we were getting better and better through the season.”

He finished the championship in sixth position and stayed with Benetton for one more season before deciding to return to Jordan in 2002 for what turned out to be a two-year stay. It was a largely frustrating time: “Unfortunately it was the wrong moment! The team was going down at that period, and we were struggling with the budget. It was a difficult season, apart from 2003 in Brazil, which was both an amazing and a difficult race.”

This amazing race proved to be the scene of Fisichella’s first, and long overdue, victory. At a wet Interlagos the Italian drove a sensational race, staying on track when others crashed, and eventually crossing the line in front. Unfortunately a safety car period just before the end of the race led to a miscalculation by the timekeepers that meant initially the win was awarded to Kimi Raikkonen. Later the FIA rectified the situation, and Fisichella received his trophy in a ceremony at the next race in Imola.

“I drove very well,” he explains. “We were a bit lucky, but I'd done everything perfectly. When I crossed the line my engineer was happy, he told me you are the winner, so I was really, really pleased about that. I don't know why, but by mistake they gave me the second place. So I couldn't celebrate my first victory on the top of the podium in Brazil. It was quite bad, really disappointing.”

For 2004 Fisichella went to Sauber. His plan was to show what he could do, and bounce back into a front running team. The strategy worked perfectly.

“Sauber was a midfield team, but sometimes we were quite solid, quite competitive,” he says. “I scored points quite often, I was usually quicker than Felipe Massa, so it was a good season. I did a few races where people could see my speed and in the middle of the season I was in contact with Williams and Renault. Flavio gave me a good offer, a two-year contract with Renault. It was a good moment, because in 2005 and 2006 we were competitive, and we won two world championships.”

After his three years away, the renamed former Benetton team was very different, but Fisichella started in perfect fashion by winning first time out in Australia. After that it became more difficult, as Fernando Alonso was well established in the camp.

“Australia was a great weekend,” Fisichella says. “It was fantastic, straight away winning with a new team at the first race, and pole position. Then during the season I had a few mechanical problems, and I couldn't score enough points to fight for the championship, especially at the beginning of the season. I was comfortable, but not as much as I used to be, with the electronics, with the traction control. Fernando was usually quicker than me, but sometimes I was quicker than him.”

Fisichella was stronger in 2006, and won from pole in Malaysia. He finished fourth in the world championship, but ultimately he was disappointed: “I had a good feeling straight away, but again problems with the car, mechanical, technical, same as 2005.”

When Alonso moved to McLaren, Fisichella had good reason to think that 2007 would be his season, but the Renault was not competitive.

“Unfortunately the car wasn't as quick as the previous year, the downforce of the car was completely wrong, the speed compared with McLaren and Ferrari was not good enough,” the Italian explains. “So it was very disappointing, and it was a tough season. Monaco was the only good one, fourth in qualifying, fourth in the race.”

At the end of the year, Fisichella signed for Force India. He has already demonstrated that he is as fast as ever, and his huge level of experience is helping the team to progress.

“It was a good but difficult decision,” he says. “I was moving from a top team to a new team, which in the last couple of seasons had been on the last rows. But so far we have done a fantastic job. We have made a big step forward, and I am really enjoying it. It's really encouraging. We've still got a lot of work to do, but we are getting closer.”

At the age of 35, and now in his 13th season, Fisichella is as motivated as ever.

“I don't think I've changed much, but I hope I am a better driver than when I started. I've learned quite a lot, how to manage the race, how to manage the qualifying session, and to put more attention on testing and talking with the engineers and mechanics. I still feel young, I still feel happy to work in F1, to be an F1 driver. The only problem is travelling around the world all the time! But apart from that, I still enjoy F1. I wouldn't still be here if I didn't.”