<
>

Fisichella expects new Renault to contend

2/7/2005

MONACO, Monte Carlo -- The stars have finally aligned for Giancarlo Fisichella. Which means the Italian with so much promise now will feel pressure to fulfill it.

Long rated as one of the best drivers in Formula One, Fisichella hasn't ever had a top-notch car to prove whether or not he can live up to the hype.

In Fisichella's nine year F1 career he has only one win (more on that lucky event
later), and he's spent the last three seasons with Jordan and Sauber,
certainly not front-pack teams.

But now the 32-year-old from Rome will be driving the Renault R25, which looks to be one of the best cars in the 2005 F1 lineup. This, he told ESPN.com, is a crucial time to prove to the world how good he is.

"It is really an important season," he said. "It's going to be very
important for me to be quick straight away, and because of that I started
my training very early this year to be ready by the first race. I feel
very strong physically and especially mentally because I now have the
chance to fight for the win and be with a top team."

Fisichella was chatting with reporters at the official launch of 2005 Mild
Seven Renault R25 in Monaco. His optimism in the new car was evident.

"I will do my best as usual, as I have done in the past," he said. "But
this year I will have a better chance than in the past, and I will try to
score lots of points, win some races and do my best everywhere."

Having driven for Benetton/Renault from 1998 through 2001, Fisichella has
slipped seamlessly back into the team. By the end of 2001 he and team boss
Flavio Briatore were not getting along very well. In an infamous team
press release at the 2000 United States Grand Prix, Briatore publicly
chastised Fisichella for not putting forth enough effort.

Fisichella qualified 15th for that race while teammate Alex Wurz qualified 11th.

"The result this afternoon highlights the difference between our two
drivers," Briatore said at the time. "Alex applied his mind to this race and studied
everything carefully before arriving at Indianapolis. Giancarlo tried to
rely on his talent which is no substitute for hard work."

Those days, believe it or not, are forgotten now.

"Flavio? Very good. Very, very good," Fisichella told ESPN.com when asked
how their relationship is now. "We spent a week in Kenya for the training
camp, and it was a very nice week. We did lots of hard work, but we had
the chance to meet each other, especially with Fernando (Alonso). There is
a good mentality to win between him and me. Even Flavio was very nice with
us. We had a very good week."

Asked why he rehired Fisichella, Briatore said: "Because he is quick and
because he is available."

The "training camp" is an annual Renault event that takes place at
Briatore's posh private resort in Kenya. It combines sport and physical
training to get the drivers in shape and build team camaraderie.

That's where Fisichella really started to get to know Alonso, the young star from Spain. Besides F1, the duo share a passion for soccer.

"We played in Kenya against some people there and we won," Fisichella said.
"Even Flavio was one of the players. It was fun. I think me and Fernando
are the best football players among the F1 drivers. Fernando is a great
driver and a nice guy."

They complement each other on the soccer field where Fisichella plays
offense and Alonso defense.

"'Fisi' and I like all sports, but maybe soccer most," Alonso said. "We
play it very often, and maybe now we [should form] a new team to play
together. I am defending and he is attacking, so we play together very
well."

Counting his year working as a test driver in 2002, Alonso is in his fourth
season with Renault. Fisichella said he isn't worried that Alonso will get
preferential treatment.

"Fernando has a bit more experience in the team," Fisichella said, "but
don't forget that I drove for them a few years ago, and most of the people
are the same, so straight away I felt a good atmosphere and feeling. We
will have the same chance. We will have the same cars. There is no No. 1 in the team. That is very important."

The question which will be on everyone's minds, though, is this: Is Fisichella a faster driver now than when he was with the team in '01?

"For sure I have more experience and for sure I am better," he said. "I
don't want to say that I am quicker, but I can do better during the race
because I can control the car a bit more and I can drive with a bit more
confidence."

Both drivers have high praise for the Renault R25, which they had a
chance to shakedown before the official unveiling. Compared to the '04
car, which Fisichella also tested, it is much more stable and predictable.

"I'm optimistic, first of all because I drove the car last week in
Valencia (Spain)," Fisichella said. "Already the feedback was good on the
first time out. The car looks better than last year's car. It is better
in rear end stability; the engine is a bit stronger, and so the package is
definitely better than last year. I know that we will have a lot of work
to do in the next few weeks before the first race, but I feel confident."

Fisichella's sole victory came in the chaotic and soggy 2003 Brazilian
Grand Prix. The race was stopped early because of accident debris, and
Fisichella's Jordan Ford happened to be in the lead at the time during the
pit stop sequences. In all the confusion, however, he was not declared the
winner until more than a week later, and so he never got to celebrate the
victory on the podium.

Although the win came in freak circumstances, Fisichella still doesn't
mind.

"The most important thing is to win," he said. "However you start, it is
important to win. I hope to have the chance to fight for the win this
year."

Renault scored one Grand Prix victory in 2004. It came in Monaco at the hands
of Jarno Trulli, the driver Fisichella replaces this year.

Ferrari, of course, won 15 of 18 races last year. Can they be beaten this
year?

"I hope so," Fisichella said, and then quickly added: "Definitely!"

"Ferrari is still going to be the No. 1 team," he said. "They have a
fantastic package, but because this year we will have a big change in the
rules, anything can happen. Maybe if the tire doesn't work or the chassis
is no good we can see some other teams winning."

Fisichella believes he, too, can fight for the championship this year. It might sound lofty, but with the right car, it's not inconceivable.

"It is my dream," he said. "It is in our schedule -- it is our target. I
hope so. I will do my best to improve the result of last year. [Renault
was] third in the Constructors Championship, so now the target for Renault
is to win."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.