Will Fisichella take the fight to Raikkonen?

d09bel1493An Italian, driving a Ferrari, at one of the great temples of motorsport. Forumula1.com’s Hugh Podmore pre-empts the only story that matters in Monza.

Giancarlo Fisichella was announced this week as a Ferrari driver for the rest of the season. His outstanding performance at Spa last weekend was obviously taken into account by a Ferrari hierarchy who judged it high time to rid themselves of the hapless Luca Badoer. But his arrival raises all sorts of questions for the Italian. How will he cope with a car that he doesn’t know, that he hasn’t helped develop? Surely he must be able to outperform Badoer? And, question of questions, what will he do against Kimi Raikkonen?

At the start of this season it was universally acknowledged that Fisichella was in the twilight of his career. He had long since had his chance at the top flight, at Renault, and had not made the most of it. Fernando Alonso had beaten him fairly and squarely in the same car, and it was time for the Roman’s career to wind down. This column wrote he and Barrichello off at the beginning of this year; hindsight makes fools of us all, but they honestly both did look on the way out.

Fisichella, however, had never really lost his touch. The man has always had the talent, on his day, to shame even the best. He occasionally outperformed Alonso at Renault – no mean feat, considering how Alonso’s team-mates have done since. Alonso’s stock rose considerably on account of having beaten Giancarlo into a supporting role. As recently as 2005, leading journalists still considered him one of the fastest in recent years, if unlucky.

But the key is to be found in Fisichella’s consistency, or lack of it. He has always shown the ability to profit from others’ misfortune; the zest to capitalise on a strange race day. He has also the more worthy talent of occasionally doing the absolute maximum with his machinery and coming up with an extraordinary result. He sometimes just hits a ‘sweet spot’, and is mind-blowingly good. See his Jordan heroics; see last weekend at Spa. But the important thing is that the Roman has not been able to reproduce the top-level form every weekend and has thus sometimes been compared unfavourably with not-great team-mates. See honours even with Ralf Schumacher after the 1997 season. Most hacks would now probably place Fisichella firmly in the second rank of drivers of the last ten years; with the Coulthards, the Heidfelds, the Trullis, rather than the Alonsos, the Hakkinens, the Raikkonens or the Hamiltons.

So where does this leave Spa’s hero at Ferrari? He will have several advantages over his immediate predecessor Luca Badoer. The first is that it would be difficult for Fisi to be worse. It’s relatively safe to say Fisi won’t qualify and finish last twice, nor run into the back of Adrian Sutil in the pitlane, nor break the pitlane speed limit four times. On a more serious note, Fisichella will have the distinct advantage of having as much experience as anyone of the 2009-spec F1 cars. He also knows how to race other front-running machines, how to dice and grind out a result, and most of all how to win a race.

But he hasn’t reckoned with a rejuvenated Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen is almost back to the form of his 2005 McLaren heyday, and is looking as convincing as anyone has this season running at the front of the pack. Raikkonen has finally earned the team’s respect – he now knows that at Ferrari, gutsy performances mean more than a fortuitous world championship. The Finn is also fighting for his F1 life, and always shows his best when his back is to the wall. As all within F1 know but seldom admit, the final barometer of Fisichella’s outright pace is his mercurial new team-mate.

Neither has Fisichella any knowledge of the Ferrari F60. Not one of Maranello’s best creations, the gawky machine has wavered somewhere between ‘just not fast enough’ and ‘promising’, but still did not inspire enough confidence for the hierarchy to continue its development. It can’t be an easy car to drive. Badoer was completely the wrong choice, but he isn’t clueless, and he found it impossible. Fisi could yet come a cropper on that count.

So what’s the bet for the future of Giancarlo Fisichella? A dream come true it may be, but unless he finds that sweet spot again soon with a new team, it could turn sour. Wouldn’t it be a little magical for the sweet spot to be hit at Monza, though? An Italian, driving a Ferrari, at one of the great temples of motorsport…