Feature F1 Unlocked
UNDERDOG TALES: When Fisichella put Force India on top of the world with a Spa weekend to remember
At the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix, Giancarlo Fisichella and Force India came out of nowhere to mix it with F1’s front-runners and leave the paddock in disbelief. Continuing our new series that highlights moments in F1 history when drivers and teams punched above their weight, we caught up with ‘Fisico’ for the inside story of his shock pole position and podium, and a dream move to Ferrari that followed...
Force India got their hands on a proven race winner and podium finisher for their debut F1 season in 2008, with Giancarlo Fisichella taking his experiences from a host of well-known teams to Vijay Mallya’s rebranded operation, whose origins stretched back to the Jordan outfit formed in the early-1990s.
A slow start for Force India holds Fisichella back
But it would be a challenging adaptation to the top echelon for the Silverstone team, as they struggled to 10th in the constructors’ standings – ahead of only Super Aguri, who fell off the grid four races into the campaign amid financial problems – with a best finish of 10th.
And the start of their second term was barely any better. Stuck towards the rear of the field with another uncompetitive car, Q1 exits and distant non-points finishes were the norm, meaning Fisichella and team mate Adrian Sutil found themselves as far away from the F1 spotlight as could be.
It was a stark contrast to Fisichella’s preceding stint with Renault, which yielded a brace of Grand Prix victories, six more podium finishes and a best season classification of fourth – building on the ‘midfield maestro’ skills he had demonstrated at Sauber, Jordan and Benetton before that.
“The first season in 2008 was tough,” Fisichella recalls of his move to Force India. “It was a new team, the package of the car wasn’t great and it was difficult to score points, and to be [near the] top 12, top 14 in a qualifying session. In 2009, the car was better, but at the beginning of the season as well it was a bit difficult. We were not quick enough, again, to score points.”
Major updates thrust Force India into contention
However, just as Force India looked set for another point-less trip around the world, the turnaround of all turnarounds took place during the sport’s visit to Spa-Francorchamps in late-August – the circuit providing a complete test of F1 machinery across its long straights, flowing sections and fiddly chicanes.
Amid the aforementioned struggles, Force India had been hard at work behind-the-scenes on developments they hoped would put their season – and short F1 journey so far – on the right track, with the eagerly-awaited boxes of goods getting shipped out of the factory just in time for the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.
“We had a new package – aerodynamic package – over there,” Fisichella says. “We got it on Saturday morning and, as soon as I put it on the car, I went out and I was maybe one or one-and-a-half seconds quicker than the day before… It was impressive; the car was much, much better, easier to drive and very consistent.”
As alluded to, Fisichella’s best Friday time of 1m 47.506s was followed up by a 1m 46.114s during final practice on Saturday morning to put him comfortably inside the top 10 places, despite an unfortunate meeting with a rabbit that prompted a front wing change.
Heading into qualifying later that day, the usual concerns over making it out of the Q1 phase were suddenly and surprisingly replaced by hopes that a coveted spot in the pole position shootout could be possible.
Fisichella pulls off the qualifying lap of his F1 career
Then, as qualifying got under way, Fisichella and Force India reached another level, the VJM02’s new aero package bedding in beautifully, the supplied Mercedes power unit singing down the straights and the experienced Italian gaining confidence at every turn.
Given the particularly cool ambient and track conditions, there were also big question marks about which tyres to be on throughout the three-phase session, leading to an unusual situation where the softest rubber was not necessarily the best option. But this only seemed to play further into Fisichella’s hands.
The result? Top of the timesheets in Q1 and a clear signal that driver and team meant business. What about Q2? No problem at all. While Sutil fell at the second hurdle, Fisichella kept his car up in fourth to safely make it through to Q3 for the first time in Force India’s history, prompting some early celebrations on his side of the garage.
But their Spa adventure would not stop there. In fact, it was only just beginning…
As Fisichella rounded the 7.004km circuit in Q3, with conditions and tyre windows still proving crucial, he brought the benchmark down to a 1m 46.308s – a time that none of his rivals could eclipse, which meant he found himself holding a scarcely believable pole position.
After a season and a half of anonymous performances, Fisichella and Force India had just pulled off one of the biggest shocks in recent F1 history.
“After the FP3 we were [looking] competitive, the car was good, but you never know,” Fisichella remembers, with the cautious optimism he felt at the time coming out in his voice. “We didn’t know [about] the other people after FP3, what they used in terms of fuel loads and new tyres or whatever. We were quite optimistic to get in the top 10, but we knew it was difficult for us.
“Actually, we went through [Q1], I did in Q2 the fourth-quickest [time], and I said, ‘We are there, we can score first two rows, for sure!’ Then I did a fantastic qualifying lap in Q3 and I scored the pole. We couldn’t believe it! The whole team went crazy and there was a big party after that.”
Could a dream pole be turned into a dream victory?
The party would be short and sweet, though, as Fisichella and Force India were determined to convert their high-flying qualifying performance into an equally impressive result on race day – the team yet to even score a point in F1 at the time.
“Just after the qualifying session, the target and the dream was to get on the podium – even third [would be] a fantastic result,” Fisichella comments. “But I said, ‘If I do a good start, and if I am first out of the first corner in the first lap, I do my best! I try to win the race. Why not? The pace is there’.”
First up on the checklist was a strong start, which Fisichella nailed with a clean getaway to head into La Source in the lead, while a lock-up from Nick Heidfeld compromised his and Jarno Trulli’s entries, allowing Robert Kubica to sneak through on the inside and Kimi Raikkonen on the outside via the large run-off area.
Already a few car lengths clear, Fisichella’s advantage was boosted further by the Ferrari of Raikkonen and BMW Sauber of Kubica going wheel-to-wheel along the Kemmel straight, and then coming to blows at the exit of Les Combes – everything appearing to go the pole-sitter’s way.
But chaos behind – which involved Renault rookie Romain Grosjean running into the Brawn GP of championship leader Jenson Button, and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren being collected by Toro Rosso newcomer Jaime Alguersuari when he backed off – triggered a Safety Car.
An early Safety Car hands the advantage to Raikkonen
That erased Fisichella’s early lead over second-placed Raikkonen, who was in prime position to get a tow along the two lengthy straights between La Source and Les Combes at the restart, while exploiting the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) that was fitted in his Ferrari.
“After the restart of the Safety Car I was still leading, but Raikkonen was using the KERS,” says Fisichella, who could do nothing to stop his rival breezing past at the exit of Eau Rouge when the action resumed. “We didn’t have the KERS on the Force India. For about seven seconds you can use 70, 80bhp more, and I couldn’t close enough his overtaking [move].
“After that it was so difficult to overtake him, because in every corner, at the exit, he was using the KERS and he was able to pull away [around] 20 or 30 metres, which was enough to keep the [lead] position.”
But Fisichella did not give up, and what he delivered across the next 40 or so laps batted away suggestions that Force India had flattered to deceive in qualifying.
Indeed, many paddock figures thought Fisichella’s car would be much lighter for the start of the race, given the regulations at the time that required drivers to post their qualifying laps with the fuel load they would take into the first stint.
As it transpired, Fisichella had plenty of fuel onboard, going just as long into Grand Prix as Raikkonen while breathing down the Finn’s neck and pressing to reclaim P1 – both drivers pitting together after 13 laps and for a second time after 30 tours.
“No one believed we had enough fuel to do one or two laps in the race until the start,” says Fisichella. “Then I did the same [number of] laps as all the other people. The whole race I was behind [Raikkonen] by one second, eight tenths, 1.2 seconds... We did the same strategy at the pit stop.
“If I had a chance to overtake him, I’m sure I was quicker than him, but following him I was losing a little bit of downforce and it was difficult for the tyres. He was lucky because he was using the KERS, and I didn’t [have it]!”
Fisichella pushes Raikkonen all the way to the finish
Despite a herculean effort, these challenges forced Fisichella to settle for the runner-up spot at the chequered flag, with just nine-tenths separating his Force India and Raikkonen’s race-winning Ferrari across the line. The driver behind? Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who had two victories and a handful of podiums under his belt at that point in the season.
Having gone almost 30 races without a point, Force India bagged eight in one go in a haul that would be key to them out-scoring Toro Rosso and staying off the foot of the constructors’ standings at the end of the campaign.
“We could have won the race without the Safety Car, but second position was incredible for the whole team,” Fisichella beams as he relives the moment he put his hands on the trophy. “It was an amazing day and I was so, so proud, so happy about it.
“It was nice just after the race celebrating that [podium] in the paddock, in the garage, with the whole team, and then we had a fantastic dinner all together.”
While Fisichella battled Raikkonen for victory that weekend, the other Ferrari was the last to finish the race, with long-time test driver Luca Badoer winding up more than half a minute away from the car ahead and almost a lap down in total.
The former Scuderia Italia, Minardi and Forti driver had jumped into the cockpit for the European and Belgian rounds after Felipe Massa’s frightening mid-season crash in Hungary, but struggled in every session, leading Ferrari to hunt down an alternative for the final stretch of the campaign.
Ferrari come calling after Fisichella’s performance
Fisichella’s eye-catching run came just at the right time and it did not take long for Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali to make a call…
“Two days after Spa, the Tuesday after Spa, I got the call from my manager, Enrico Zanarini,” says Fisichella. “He told me, ‘Giancarlo, I spoke right now with Stefano, and they want you to replace Felipe for the rest of the season’. We just needed to find a compromise with Force India.
“On Wednesday we went to Maranello, I spoke with Stefano and we found like a compromise. After that we called Vijay, [he] was nice to give me the possibility to go to Ferrari, and after a few days I signed the contract with them.”
As if the stars had not already aligned enough, Fisichella’s first race for Ferrari would come at his and the team’s home Grand Prix. It was the realisation of a dream for the Rome native, who joined a select group of Italians to represent the Scuderia and lapped up the attention from the tifosi at Monza.
“It was incredible to be there, to do my first race with Ferrari in my home Grand Prix in Monza,” he says. “I felt a lot of power from the people, from the fans – all my family and all my biggest friends [were there]. It’s another great experience and I will never forget it.”
What might have happened at Force India?
Though Fisichella’s move to Ferrari was a dream on one hand, the team had little to celebrate with their F60 design that season, dropping down the pecking order amid the major aerodynamic rule changes and only scoring a single victory – Raikkonen’s triumph at Spa.
As such, Fisichella had effectively hopped out of a more competitive car to put results to one side and secure the privilege of driving for Ferrari, with Q1 or Q2 exits, and non-points finishes, being recorded across the final five rounds.
At the same time, Force India continued to show an impressive turn of pace with their upgraded challenger. At Monza’s ‘Temple of Speed’, Sutil grabbed a spot on the front row of the grid, while Fisichella’s replacement, Vitantonio Liuzzi, qualified seventh after a season and a half on the sidelines.
Sutil came agonisingly close to landing a podium in Italy, finishing within half a second of third-placed Raikkonen and posting the fastest lap for good measure, and the German popped up again during the penultimate round at Interlagos with a second row start.
Almost 15 years on, it begs the question whether Fisichella has any lingering regrets about his decision…
“I’m sure if I was still there [at Force India] in 2009, if I could end the season over there, I could score some other podiums and a lot of points, because the car was much better after Spa,” Fisichella reflects. “Even [at] Monza [it] was really quick, I remember, with Tonio and Sutil. They were quite competitive in qualifying and in the race also, so it was a little bit of a shame.
“But, you know, when Ferrari called me, I couldn’t say no! It was my dream since when I was younger to drive for Ferrari. I was at the end of my career, so I had to take this consideration, and going to Ferrari was the right decision.”
Fisichella becomes part of the Ferrari family
Since then, Fisichella has made Ferrari his home, calling time on a highly respectable F1 career at the end of 2009 and taking on endurance racing with the famous marque. Le Mans Series and World Endurance Championship titles followed in the GTE Pro category, along with class wins at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“There was a possibility to be still in F1 [for 2010] – not with Ferrari, with maybe a smaller team like Sauber or whatever,” Fisichella states. “Or [I could] take a new [direction] to move in a new championship, which was the WEC with a GT car.
“Ferrari offered me a nice contract to be with them in a GT championship. I said yes and I’m still there, I’m still one of the Ferrari factory drivers in the Competizioni GT team. I’m really proud about it, I’m still having fun!”
And Fisichella’s fun-filled chapter in red all stemmed from that ground-breaking weekend at Spa in 2009 – one that will stay with him forever.
“For sure it’s one of the best memories in my life and one of the best weekends I did,” he says of his special pole and podium. “I was so comfortable with the car, Spa is my favourite circuit… Everything was perfect! I can’t forget it and I will take it [with me] all my life.”