Giancarlo Fisichella is an enigma. Coming into the sport with Minardi in 1996, when the team were still able to provide a real springboard up the grid, he proved his merit sufficiently to earn a drive with Jordan for the following year. The team was on the up after a spectacular debut, the inevitable sophomore slump and a steady improvement, and there was a real feeling of ability surrounding the team for the 1997 season where, paired with the debuting Ralf Schumacher, Jordan were able to claim podiums and challenge, albeit unsuccessfully, for wins.
Flavio Briatore, a man with a nose for talent, came calling, sweet talking the talented Italian driver into a contract with Benetton. The period was a roller coaster ride in terms of results, but throughout no one in the paddock blamed the pilot for the mess the team was in. Nevertheless a drive with one of the top three teams failed to materialise, and Fisichella found himself returning to his old stomping ground at Jordan, then in decline since a spectacular year in 1999. The homecoming was eventful, with the driver finally claiming a somewhat fortuitous win in an action packed Brazilian Grand Prix, but little else in the way of results.
Plugging away nonetheless, Fisichella has come through this year's Silly Season on top – a drive with the renamed Renault team is seen as just reward for eight years of solid driving – not a traditional top three team, perhaps, but inevitably this year will give the team that result in the Championship.
But how good is the man who, in 2002, was the first driver chosen by his peers as the best of the bunch? Is Fisichella all hype or the real deal? Two men who know the answers better than most are Gary Anderson and Mike Gascoyne. Anderson was the Technical Director for Jordan for both of Fisichella's spells with the team, in 1997 and 2002/03, and Gascoyne filled the same role for Benetton. Both men are known for their outspoken nature, and had a lot to say about the diminutive driver.
DC: Gary, when Fisichella came to Jordan in 1997 what was he like, and what were his technical abilities like then?
Gary Anderson: "It's like anything – he was new, and he drove the car using his talent to the best of his ability, so I think he'd be quick when everything was good, and sometimes he could come out of not being so good, but you needed a bit of luck on your side – inexperience means you need a bit of luck to find the right things. Now he had good technical feedback, but from limited experience - it was as good a technical feedback as you can expect from a new driver.
"He came to us in 1997 with Ralf - Ralf was fresh, and Fisi was after only a year at Minardi, so they were both very inexperienced at the time. Fisi was a very, very talented guy, and we had some great races – we probably should have had a few more good races except that both of our drivers were inexperienced and for all the talk, experience counts. We made a few mistakes ourselves – you don't like to think that you're inexperienced after six years, but you are. I think the season was pretty good, with the Peugeot engine and a good car, and in general the two of them were always fighting each other.
"But if you look at our season it was pretty stable – we were, I think, two hundredths of a second off pole at Hockenheim and nearly won the race, or at least nearly came second when the tyre went; in Argentina he and Ralf came together and Ralf ended up third; and I think Fisi went on to finish second at Montreal and third at Spa. They were good, solid results, and from the experience he had, his technical feedback was excellent - you can't expect more than that, you know. And Ralf, to be honest, was the same – both of them would say now that they had a good year, and if only they knew what they know now we'd have been in a very, very competitive position. That's life."
DC: Mike, how were Fisichella's technical abilities as a driver by the time he got to Benetton?
Mike Gascoyne: "I think the year I worked with him (2001) he did an absolutely superb job for Benetton - he had a reputation perhaps of being a little bit lazy and a little bit inconsistent, although very, very quick. I have to say, at the start of the year the car wasn't very good but he drove fantastically; he is a very talented driver. But his work ethic was also good - he never let his head go down. The sort of reputation he had was that if his head went down he'd get a little lazy, and I think that since 2001 he worked fantastically hard and when the car got better then bang, he was there to take advantage of it.
"I think the other thing is that he's since proven - and he's had some frustrating years at Jordan and then Sauber - is that he's blown all of his teammates away, he's done it consistently, and he's done a similar job, kept his head up and smiled. I really worried when he went to Sauber last year actually - the first two or three races I think Massa had the better of him, and you really wondered had the last two years at Jordan knocked the edge off, had he just lost the spark, and the first few races when Massa beat him you thought 'hmm', but he's then done a great job for Sauber as well.
"So I think he's a lovely guy, very like Jarno [Trulli] in some respects – a very unpolitical, nice guy – and I think the one thing about him as a driver is that whenever he gets into the car and he drives a lap, that's as quick as it goes. If you make the car two tenths quicker he gets in it, puts another set of tyres on, and it goes two tenths quicker, if you make it two tenths slower he gets in and goes two tenths slower. So he's instantly on it, he doesn't have to build up to it or say 'well yeah the lap time was slower, but I feel...' – bang, he's just there. And I think that's very nice to work with as an engineer, because you just look at the stopwatch and there it is, that's what it is. Very uncomplicated, very nice guy, and I'm glad to see him get his chance back at Renault because I think he deserves it."
DC: Gary, when he came back to Jordan after being at Benetton did you see any difference in him, in his technical abilities?
Anderson: "Yeah, obviously his feedback and approach was much more stable – he'd lost a lot of the sort of Italian emotion they talk about, because he'd had the corners knocked off it a bit. His feedback was from an experienced point of view, and what he kept was the youthfulness and momentum, and the motivation he gave for the rest of the team. He was still there to do the job, but he wasn't a hardened old Formula One driver like some of them are, wandering around and you can see it. Now obviously Jordan didn't have good seasons in 2002 and 2003, for loads of reasons, no individual one reason, but whenever we gave him an opportunity he picked it up and got on with it, which is quite good really - at that time we probably bought a lottery ticket more often than we should do, but we didn't have a chance of doing well if we didn't.
"Austria (2002) was a pretty good example – I think we qualified 12th or 13th or something, and we were driving around 12th or 13th, but because of Takuma Sato's accident we got the pace car, got him fuelled up, and suddenly we were in fifth and he was driving around at the pace of everyone around him – if you slot him in somewhere, he can cope with it, which is excellent, and you can't ask for much more than that. Then it's up to the team to provide the tools for slotting yourself in there. And again in Brazil (2003) it was wet and stuff, and people were falling off the road, but he didn't – at the end of the day it might have been a lucky win, but you make your own luck as well, you know.
"If you can give him an opportunity he'll do a very good job, and he's very, very consistent, drives the car really well with a lot of finesse – at tracks like Monza and Hockenheim as it was we obviously run with no downforce, and they need a lot of finesse because they're running with very low downforce in slow speed corners – and he's really, really got that feeling. He drives the car nicely, he's good to the car and tells it what he wants from it and the car responds. If you give him the tools, he can do the job."
DC: There must have been a difference in expectation from when he joined Jordan in 1997 and when he returned; in 1997 he was a young guy, inexperienced, but when he came back you must have looked at him as a more seasoned professional.
Anderson: "1997 was a big year for us, to be honest, because you go up and down, and you're limited by budget – budget limits the people you have – and because you're limited with people you're limited with experience and expertise. So you sort of go up and down with the flow. If you get it right, you get it right; but if you're a big team with lots of money you've sort of got a surplus of good people all bouncing off each other, and you take away the humps and hollows a bit, you smooth it out a little bit.
"We weren't in that position, but in 1997 we put a huge effort into the car, and with young drivers coming in. I'm personally a young drivers' man – it's great to see two young drivers together because yeah, they'll make a few mistakes and end up in a few gravel traps probably, but they're out there driving the wheels off it.
"But he really hadn't changed that much, except he had a bit more experience. With Fisi and Jordan in 1997 - I wouldn't just say Fisi - you'd never quite have known if you were going to a race and were going to be competitive. with Fisi in 2002 and 2003 he was at a level, and if we went up and down it was because of us. So you take that as an equation, and that's what you need to do – as a driver you just build on his ability to get the best out of a car as possible and not try to take too much out of the car. Because you can, if you drive a car at its limit - inexperienced drivers can possibly over-drive, and in 1997 we suffered a bit of that.
"We'd had some of the old hardened guys in the car and thought Jesus, getting up in the morning and finding the motivation for that can be pretty difficult, so for me - give me a young driver any time, someone you can try to work with. He's not out there trying to drive a Williams, he's trying to drive the car he's got, because he's not got that depth of experience. We only know the car we built, and he only knows the car he's driving, and just gets on with it. That was the goodness of 1997 for us, that was the thing that motivated the team, and in 2002 that was the thing he brought back to us, that was the thing he carried, and he never ever once sat in the car and said 'the Renault did this, the Renault did that'."
DC: Mike, how do you rate Fisichella for his technical feedback, for his work with the engineers?
Gascoyne: "I think certainly the year I worked with him he was very good – he worked hard in the tests, he stayed with the team and so on. I wouldn't say he's the most technical of drivers – he's a sort of 'give me a halfway decent balance and I'll get out there and drive it as well as it can be driven' sort of thing – he's not one to pour over the data for hours or go into the technical side of it as some drivers are, he's a little bit more seat of the pants if you like. But he has the talent to do that, and I think going back to Renault he'll have an engineering team that will know him very well, and who know how to get the best out of him, and I'm sure they will get the best out of him."
DC: Gary, what is Fisichella's biggest strength?
Anderson: "I think he carried that sort of youthful, talented thing - it was a different sort of level, you know, but not difficult to work with. I think through his career he has carried that sort of youthfulness with him, even though he's got a lot older and a lot more experience. He now knows what's required to be up the front, and he still carries that youthfulness with him, he keeps his enthusiasm and he's a nice guy to work with. Rob Smedley, his engineer, and he worked together really well, and I suppose Fisichella's biggest thing was to give him motivation – everybody feels that they don't get demotivated but you do, and you're the last person to realise that yourself, probably."
DC: Fisichella has this obvious natural talent, and Fernando Alonso is the same, but I wonder if they maybe coast a bit on that rather than taking that as a base and grafting away from there.
Anderson: "I agree 100% with you – I think one thing you can say about Michael Schumacher, and he is the best of the best, is that he does both. Michael has got the natural talent, but he does work at it, he is physically fit, he does motivate the team, he does work with them, he is there, he motivates his mind, he is mentally fit as well as physically fit - there are a lot of pieces to the jigsaw, and the guy who has the most pieces can build the jigsaw, and Michael's got most of the pieces.
"The problem with a lot of the drivers is, I think, their attitude. They think that being a motor racing driver is better than working, and you don't have to put that much into it if you've got natural talent. So you've got to be careful because it's a hard world out there."
DC: Mike, people have mentioned previously that Fisichella's not the kind of guy who is going to have a massive part in pushing the car forward, or pushing the engineers forward.
Gascoyne: "No, but I think he does it in a different way – he drives it as quick as it can go, and it's your job to give it to him, so he's not there pushing you to change the car and improve it and work on it from that point of view, but the fact that you know that you have a guy there who can do that pushes the team on, because if you know that if you are two tenths behind and in P4 that if you can make it two tenths faster he'll then go in front of him. He's not one of those guys in the team that is pushy, who says I need this and I need that, but he's sort of 'make it halfway decent and I'll do the job for you' – he's that sort of approach.
"I inherently feel you don't need a driver to push the engineering team because it's my job to do that – we're doing everything flat out for them – what you want is someone who, when you've done a good job, goes out and hauls the shit out of it, and Fisi can do that. I think drivers can push teams, but ultimately they shouldn't need to – they should be pushed by the organisation that's in place to do the job.
"I've always laughed when someone says a driver comes to the team and he'll push them and make them work harder – well fuck me, they ought to be working hard as it is, and they shouldn't need that. Drivers aren't around long enough to do that, they're not here all day, they're not here at ten o'clock at night, and quite rightly they shouldn't be, but there should be someone here who is doing all of that so I've never really seen why you need all of that from a driver – what you need is someone who can drive it as quick as it can go."
DC: There's a feeling in Formula One these days that the days of a driver who comes along, jumps in the car and goes quick and then gets out and goes home are over – Williams's Sam Michael, for one, believes that the drivers have got to get in with the teams, with the engineers...
Gascoyne: "I think Sam's right, and ultimately if a guy is just quick, well, I think there will be guys who can just do that, but in Formula One now it's such a complete thing – you've got to do all the media work, the engineers need you, you've got to do all the briefings, you can't just get out of the car, smoke a fag and say 'you guys fix it', because the engineers need all the information. You've then got to go to the press conferences, you've got to go up to the Paddock Club, you've got to go and see the sponsors, you've got to go and see Mr. Toyota or whatever - so you've got to be able to do all of that, and if you can't you're not going to be the complete Formula One driver, because there are guys out there who are just as quick as you who can do that, and therefore they're going to win.
"If you look at Michael Schumacher, he's very successful because he's the complete Formula One driver. So I do think ultimately if you just drive it quick then that's all I need, but we need so much information to ensure that they have the quickest car - there's an element that they've got to be able to do the debriefs, they've got to make sets, they've got to not talk crap, they've got to say the right things, they've got to understand the telemetry, they've got to be able to feel the tyres, and they've got to be able to debrief all of that information. So if you get guys who can't do all of that, no matter how talented they are, you're not going to end up with a car that's quick enough."
DC: Gary, you've mentioned before that Fisichella was next to impossible to get to the factory
Anderson: "Yeah, he's very distant from all that stuff, you know – you would have to ask him to come, and he'd find reasons not to. It's probably because he lives in Rome and we're in England, so it's not like you're driving around the corner. But as a team of people, it's the guys back at the factory that never see the drivers, and need that motivation from them. Fisi is one of those in the pitlane who visit the factory maybe twice a year – the British Grand Prix and a Silverstone test probably. If you were going to make it every month, say one Monday every month we're going to be at the factory for a day's work, an engineers meeting and blah blah blah, get it all thrashed out, he'd say 'well couldn't we do it at the track before a race meeting?'
"And he's right, but it doesn't carry that weight with the guys back in the factory who want to hear his voice – they don't just want to hear it from me, I'm just a middle man there, and am I saying it my way or am I saying it his way? You need to come sometimes, and just chat that stuff through with them and they get a bit of inspiration."
DC: We'll have to see if Renault can do that to Fisi...
Anderson: "Well that's the thing – he's going back to Renault and the same regime, whereas if he'd have gone to Williams, it would have been expected of him, and now that's gone. Can Renault change that? Can Renault go through their managerial and operations changes? It's bloody difficult."
DC: Mike, Fisichella's never really had a top drive in Formula One, and there's always been this question about why hasn't he been given a Ferrari drive, a Williams drive, a McLaren drive – do you think it's this complete package perception?
Gascoyne: "Well no, because I think in 2001 all of us in the team would have loved to have kept him but contracts were done. I think I'd love to see him do well next year – if I was still at Renault I'd be supporting the fact that he's going there, but having said that I'd also have supported having kept Jarno because he's done a great job for them this year as well, and that only really became destabilised since it all changed, for the inevitable reasons of Mr. Briatore! But I'm sure Fisi will do a great job, and it'll be nice to see."
DC: You know Renault inside and out, you know what they are, you know what they've been, you know what they've lost or are losing for next year, you also know what they are gaining with Fisi. They've got all the budget, they've got all the resources and everything else – so what is Fisi going to do next year?
Gascoyne: "I think he'll be capable of winning races – one of the things I think I did very well and very professionally for Renault was leave them with a very good organisation of staff and very good people, so that they probably didn't need me in some respects! And Bob Bell, who was my Deputy Technical Director [and is now the Technical Director], is one of the guys I probably rate highest in the pitlane. With him taking over for sure they were going to stay at a very high level, so I had no doubts they'd do that this year.
"John Iley, an aerodynamicist there, has left for Ferrari, and I rate him superbly highly, and Mark Smith has left, and he's a designer that I rated, and both of them I brought to Renault. Dino (Toso), who took over from John, is very good but has been unwell and hopefully is recovering, Mark's gone and they've still got Tim (Denham – joint chief designer with Smith) but they'll miss out on the work that Mark would be doing. So they've got good strength in depth, and with Bob organising them they'll work in the right way, and I'm sure that they're strong, I have no doubt about that.
"You win in this business ultimately by engineering stability – look at Ferrari, look at McLaren in the late eighties, look at Williams in the nineties. When those teams broke up they lost. Now they (Renault) have lost a couple of key people. Having said that, they do have strength in depth, so it is a key time for them. They're losing Jarno, they're gaining Fisi – I think that's probably... I think Jarno is one of the quickest guys out there, Fisi's pretty close, Fisi's probably a more consistent racer – so I think that's just about a straight swap, there are some pluses and minuses. The key is whether they've kept the engineering stability with all of the changes that they've had, but Bob's still there, Tim Denham's still there, there are a lot of good people still there, so I wish him well."
DC: Gary, is returning to Renault a good move for Fisichella?
Anderson: "I think from my point of view Renault's changing a bit, and he needs to be a little careful that it doesn't change for the worse – a few people are moving here and there. He drove for us, and he drove for Renault, before, and if you go back to the same team again you don't really bring another sort of viewpoint, so he's going back to a team that's got its viewpoint that he learned from, and it doesn't strengthen the team by bringing in something else, whereas let's say he'd gone to Williams, he's never been to Williams and they've got their attitudes, he's driven for Sauber, Jordan, Renault and Jordan in his earlier career and have gone to another team – it would have added to what the mix is, so if I'd have been his advisor I'd have said Williams is a good spot, a good opportunity, and Renault could be in a little bit of trouble itself, and you don't really strengthen it."
DC: Mike, Renault have been very much built around Alonso, especially now with Jarno going – how's Fisichella going to deal with that?
Gascoyne: "I think Fisi's race engineer will be his old race engineer from when he was there several years ago - Alan Permane, who was Jarno's race engineer this season and was Fisi's for several years before that. So I think he'll be very comfortable within the team. Fernando's an easy guy to get along with as well, so I don't think that'll be an issue at all."
DC: And they've got very different driving styles – Alonso's a bit more of a monster in the car, whereas Fisichella's much smoother. If they're going to build a car to Fernando's strengths...
Gascoyne: "I don't think they'll do that – I think they'll build a car from the wind tunnel, and if they work in the way that I set up, and I'm sure they will be, then that's not an issue at all."
DC: Gary, all things considered, what are your expectations of Fisichella for next year?
Anderson: "I think Alonso, watching him and watching him drive, is a very aggressive driver – he's a fairly brutal driver, really, with the car. Maybe the car needs that, maybe the car doesn't need that, I don't know. Fisi, on the other hand, has a lot of finesse – he's good to the car, tells the car what he wants from it. And again it depends on the design philosophy; Trulli is quite an aggressive driver as well, and he's always been a good one lap man which shows up an aggressive driver, because it's hard to do that all the time. So I think the car has evolved along the path that the guys have set, so if they get some time on it, that means an aggressive driver can pull it out of it, but it doesn't look like a finesse kind of car where you have to keep it on line and neat and tidy to drive it.
"I hope Fisichella can do a solid job – I think Alonso is quite good, and as you say the team has been built around him and the car's mentality has been built a bit around him, and also it's going to be his third year there, so the team itself is bent a bit in the direction that suits him, because that's who they've got. And I think Fisi's a bit the other way – he's a quick driver, but he's not an aggressive driver. He likes to play with the car, feel the car and drive the car, and as I say Alonso is quick so I think it's going to be his biggest measure yet to see what happens - he went to Renault with Jenson Button and he knocked Button over, but he had a lot of experience and Button had fairly little.
"I wouldn't know what to say there, to be honest. I rate Fisichella as high as... well, Michael's out there on his own, but I rate Fisi as high as anyone else as a driver personally - and in the right environment I'd rate him as excellent. But it's very easy to drop once the environment does, and then you don't get the best out of him. But as I say, the way the team is built to Alonso, and they've now dropped a little bit after coming through strong - and I'm not sure how far it's going to fall.
"I just really, really hope he's not at the wrong place at the wrong time again – that would do my head in if he is!"
Giancarlo Fisichella: In his Own Words
Giancarlo Fisichella has been waiting for this moment for his entire career. With a Renault contract for next season safely in his pocket he looks at his past teams, his abilities, and his plans to take on the incumbent and to push the team to new glories.
DC: Back in 1997, you went to Jordan after most of a year at Minardi – what sort of technical abilities do you think you had then compared to now? What were your strengths and weaknesses?
Giancarlo Fisichella: "Well I am obviously much more consistent, I have much more experience, I can jump in the car and go flat out on the first lap, I can understand the behaviour of the car much earlier – obviously you need experience for that, and I have eight years of experience and feel confident, comfortable."
DC: Yes, but what do you remember from that period? You've obviously changed a lot since that time – do you now look back and say 'I thought I knew a lot, but now I realise it was not so much' or do you think you've stayed the same over the years?
Fisichella: "I think my speed is very similar as a few years ago, and I told you I have more experience, I can drive in the race more consistently, without mistakes and very quick – a few years ago it was a bit more difficult to do that, and I am even much more stronger now, physically and mentally. It's very important to spend a lot of time with the engineers to improve the car and the set up and everything – it's very important to understand the behaviour of the car. But obviously the engineers have the job to improve the car."
DC: When you went to Benetton, do you think you learnt a lot more moving from one team to another on a technical level?
Fisichella: "Yeah, yeah, I learn a bit more, especially when you work with people with a lot of experience like Pat Symonds, Gary Anderson, so when you have a good engineer you can see, you can learn a lot from the car."
DC: What were the main differences that you noticed between the teams moving from Jordan to Benetton and then back to Jordan?
Fisichella: "Well, not a big difference. Unfortunately when I went back to Jordan the team lost a lot of sponsors, and the budget was very poor, so the car was not good at all, was not developed during the year, and it was quite difficult – we lost lots of people in the factory. It wasn't so easy."
DC: Gary Anderson was wondering if maybe a move to Williams would have been better for you, because you would be going to a different team with a different way of working, whereas by going back to Renault you might just go back to the way things were done there before...
Fisichella: "We'll see next year, but I think Renault has a very good potential – they are now quicker than Williams – and it's important to move to a new team and have straight away a good feeling. I know most of the people at Renault, so it's going to be easier at the start of the season."
DC: How do you think you are going to fit into a team that, although you used to work there, have been pretty much molded around Alonso?
Fisichella: "Okay, I think if they make a good car I'll have the same opportunity as Alonso to do well."
DC: Alonso is a very aggressive driver whereas you are a very smooth driver. Do you think that will make a difference?
Fisichella: "I don't know – I can't tell you now – it depends on the characteristics of the car. But I am very, very confident and optimistic for next year."
DC: "Finally, on a technical level, how do you rate your year at Sauber? What do you think you've picked up from being here this year?"
Fisichella: "I think I did very well – I did my best, we did very good in the development considering the work we did in the track in testing. They do lots of work now in the windtunnel, but we don't do a lot of testing, and we went in the right direction. I think I did my best – we are quite happy."
Felipe Massa changed manager last year, which is unexceptional except for the fact that no one seemed to officially know the name of his new representative until this week. Considering his remarkable comeback to racing it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that his manager's name was a Mr. Lazarus, although it turned out that Massa had in fact signed with one Nicolas Todt. I guess that's a name that has its uses.
I say remarkable because the Formula One history books are littered with the names of ex-drivers, men who looked great in the junior categories and then for one reason or another failed to live up to their reputations when they finally made the big game. Unless your name is Verstappen (and/or you have a large sack of cash to fan yourself with) once you are out of a race seat it is almost impossible to get back into the limelight - the overwhelming majority of drivers are pushed out rather than jump of their own volition.
One only has to look at the current woes of Allan McNish, Antonio Pizzonia and Justin Wilson to name but a few. Of course, none of these drivers have the son of the Ferrari team boss as a personal manager.
Late in 2002 when Peter Sauber announced that he wasn't going to renew Massa's contract the 22-year old Paulista's career looked to have stalled almost straight out of the gate. Fast but wayward was his team boss's opinion - the talent is there, but he should spend a year testing to polish the rough edges. Massa made no secret of his displeasure at the time.
At the recent launch of his team's new car Sauber stated that Massa had two offers for 2003 - a race seat with Jordan or a test seat with Ferrari. Massa wanted to race, but given the yellow-liveried cars patent lack of pace that wasn't an option, and wiser heads prevailed in putting him into a red driving suit. Massa spent the year pounding out laps on circuits around Europe in the long shadows of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, honed his craft and looked for the secret door back into a race seat. So with the benefit of hindsight does he now perhaps see his team manager's point?
"I think maybe," Massa allows, slumping back in his armchair and kicking his legs out in front of him in one of the upstairs bars at the Salzburg hangar (owned by team sponsor Red Bull) where the team held the launch on Monday. "For me I wasn't happy in that time because I wanted to carry on in the races.
"But I have to say I had a great opportunity to come to Ferrari and to have a very good year, to do a lot of mileage and to learn a lot. So I think on one side he was right, and on the other side I was not very happy at that time! But I think we have to think about now, and to learn the best way ahead, and now I just want to do my best, and that's it."
And he should be well prepared for that way ahead - Sauber will be using the same engine as Ferrari this year (the new engine rules for 2004 meant Ferrari obviously had no desire - or incentive - to design and engineer two different engines at the same time) paired with the gearbox he used all through last year. On top of which the outward appearance of his new car looks remarkably similar to the car he piloted last year, which could be useful for setting up the aerodynamics package.
(Later in the day new teammate Giancarlo Fisichella flagged this as a definite plus to the driver pairing: "It's quite important to have a teammate like Felipe who drove for one year for Ferrari - he has some information to give us, and you know there is a lot of collaboration with Ferrari, which is important.")
However, this is a big job to drop on the slender shoulders of the 22-year old driver. At Ferrari, Massa was used to almost unlimited resources and personnel to help him find his way, whereas he now finds himself in a team that is not exactly noted for their engineering and set-up abilities - Sauber annually starts the season well before sliding down the order as the other teams come to grips with their cars more efficiently than the Swiss team. This will be one aspect where Fisichella will be a big help - he has vast experience at pushing a recalcitrant car forward when by all rights it shouldn't.
And then there's all that talk about Sauber's miraculous new wind tunnel. However, it should be noted that they are still in the calibration stage - the new car was designed without it (in a government owned tunnel, no less), and it will take some time for parts to flow through and find their way to the car - Peter Sauber has flagged Imola as the start of this process, although there are still any number of problems that could arise before the tunnel is on-stream, quite apart from the learning process involved in coming to grips with such a specialised piece of kit. All of which means there will be increased pressure on Massa to get the set-up right using his experience from last year.
The obvious question mark is whether the year at Ferrari has had the desired effect in calming down the young Brazilian. "I think every year you learn in Formula One," Massa notes, "and after one year as a race driver for Sauber and one year as a test driver for Ferrari I think my ability is a lot better than two years ago. I think for sure Sauber is a great team with a lot of professional people, and the same with Ferrari. They are both huge teams, and to work with Michael and Rubens was great for me.
"I was at most of the races, in most of the meetings, and it was very, very important for me - it was like my university. Now I am just looking forward - after 15,000km with Ferrari I have to say it was a great experience. I think in Formula One experience is very important - you always learn, and you always grow up year by year. For sure it was a great experience for me at Ferrari, and now I am just happy to be back in the races and I just want to do my best, to get points for the team and to get the best result I can."
Q. Has Michael helped you with anything?
Massa: Yes, I think I learnt a lot. I think it's very interesting to see how they work with the engineers, how they talk with the engineers, and with everybody in the team. Even in the car how they talk, which way they go. Michael has I think 14 years in Formula One, has six titles - for sure it was great to have this kind of experience. I mean he's a great driver, he's very technical, and he's also very careful and concentrated and works very hard every time, even in the good and the bad situations. He's very strong, so it was good.
Q. Did you get a feel for how quick you are compared to Michael and Rubens?
Massa: Yes, and I was happy because sometimes I had some very good lap times. Sometimes I was at the very high level in terms of developments, but in the test we didn't really compare - in the test maybe you test one part, another driver tests another part - but to be honest I was very happy with my year at Ferrari.
There were, of course, a number of rumours about Massa's testing abilities last year, particularly when the battle over tyres heated up. Where there's smoke then fire can generally be found not too far away, and it seems likely that a driver who was dropped from a race seat because he was too ragged is not going to turn into a smooth, methodical driver overnight. It's a question mark that annoys Massa - he suddenly sits up straight and creases his brow before replying.
"I have to say in the first year it is very difficult to do much development - I didn't have much experience, I was just from Formula 3000 and I was only 20 years old, and you can't expect a huge amount from a guy like that. If I look back I have to say that my experience in 2002 was a lot lower than it is now, but it is very difficult to take a young driver and say you need to develop in the car.
"As I said when I arrived in Formula One I was only 20 years old, I had only had a few tests before, and it was not enough experience I have to say, and I think for sure I made a lot of mistakes but I also made some great results. People always look at the bad thing, but not always at the good things - I think for sure I had some up and downs but at least I made some points, which was not bad for the first year.
"I think now I have more experience, and for sure you always learn with your mistakes, and I think I learnt a lot - last year I had only a few mistakes, I didn't have any big crash, I spun only a few times, so I think you always learn. I think after two years I've grown up a lot."
One obvious aspect of the experience he mentions is his abilities with the media - the question about his testing aptitude was the only one which visibly ruffled his feathers. Massa, who only a couple of years ago when asked by a female journalist "can I get an interview?" shot back "can I get a blowjob?" before following her around all day to apologise, is now as PR savvy (or anodyne) as the top drivers.
Take, for example, the question of his possible return to Ferrari. Given his (and his manager's) links to the red team, the question marks about how long Schumacher actually intends to stay with them (and that, at the time, Barrichello didn't actually have a contract announced for next year), then clearly people are wondering if Massa is being groomed for a return to Ferrari, this time in a race seat.
It's an interesting story and Massa knows it, but he won't be drawn on the topic on the record, the shoot from the hip approach now transformed into toeing the party line: "I have a two-year contract with Sauber, and I'm very happy to be here and I'm looking forward to that very much. The future is always the future, and we can't always be thinking about maybe what will happen next year, what will happen the year after. I know that if one day I am driving for a top team like Ferrari then I would be very happy."
Massa has already started testing for Sauber, taking last year's car out in Jerez last month in between his continuing Ferrari testing programme. How much have the team improved since he left? "Actually it was already a step compared to the C21, my car in 2002. For sure comparing it to the Ferrari car I think it was some kind of difference in the aerodynamics side, and now we learn - I gave a lot of information to Sauber, and I think now for the new car maybe we can improve a lot.
"For sure the Ferrari was a lot better, in tractions and everything, but I'm looking forward to this new car a lot. I think it's too early to say, but I think we can improve. You know, I feel very happy to be back - I think after one year as a race driver, one year as a test driver it's a great feeling, and now I'm just looking forward to the next tests in the new car.
"I'm just happy."
Sidebar: The Sauber Gameplan
Predicting what to expect from Sauber is generally a simple thing - point to the middle of the field and that's where they'll be. The Swiss team seems to wear being the median point of Formula One as a badge of pride, and although their job gets a little more difficult every year, given the increasing manufacturer input almost across the board, it's an ambition they've pretty much met throughout their history.
The car is a difficult thing to gauge: they are running the same engine as the World Champions, along with their 2003 gearbox, and the aerodynamic styling of the car had some wags at the launch suggesting they could see the red paint showing through. All of which should be a Good Thing, except that the much heralded new wind tunnel is still not in operation, leaving the car to be designed using a public tunnel during normal work hours (ie. not the usual Formula One 24-hour work days). Sauber's development programme always suffers in comparison to the other teams, and even with their new tunnel this is unlikely to change.
The drivers are easier to ascertain. Fisichella is Fisichella - everyone in the paddock seems to rate him as one of the top three drivers in the field, although that hasn't helped him collect a drive in a top three team to date. He will, as always, get in and drive the wheels off the car and hope it stays together until he crosses the finish line, at which time he will get out and ask his manager if any of the big teams have called offering him a drive yet.
He is making no secret of the fact that he is looking at the Sauber drive as a stepping stone to a grander ambition (he has a two-year contract, with an opt out option after one year, just in case), and like every Italian he has dreamed of piloting a red car since some time before birth. Part of the appeal of his current drive is that he is paired with a known quantity for Ferrari, and the thought process is that if he beats Massa then they will have to at least consider him if a drive becomes free (Fisichella: "Of course my target is to beat him, everywhere, everywhere and every time - I'll do my best, and Felipe is a good guy, a quick guy").
Massa is, of course, a known quantity to the team, which will help (being the only Swiss team most of the employees are there for life - no need to worry about those sometimes awkward introductions then), as well as having some valuable information from their engine supplier. Whereas there is a lot of pressure on Fisichella to come out on top (at 31 this could be his last shot at getting into a top team), Massa has the comparative luxury of not having to worry quite so much - he has those solid gold Ferrari contacts, is still vastly less experienced at the end of the day, and at only 22 looks to now have a long future ahead of him.
So it's a battle between the smooth and consistent Fisichella and the exuberant and sometimes ragged Massa (or, as Peter Sauber put it when asked how his new drivers compliment each other, "we have one who has a lot of experience, and one who is maybe a little crazy!"). Fisichella should come out on top, although if Massa is smart he will camp out in the garage and study his teammate to hone his innate ability for the future. Unfortunately this battle will also be joined by BAR, Toyota and Jaguar, and they will all be fighting for whatever points the top four leave behind.
And Sauber will finish the year in the midfield. Again.
He pounds around the circuit, round and round, time and again. He does it because he's a driver and it's what they do. He does it because he loves it, and he doesn't know of anything else to do. He does it because he can. Nick Heidfeld is testing components at Monza, and he is the only driver there. He has the track to himself and is in his element. The Autodromo di Monza is a beautiful place, a tree-lined track in the middle of a former royal park, but he doesn't see it - all he sees is the grey stretch of road in front of him and the next bend. He drops down a gear and powers into the corner, the gravel trap around it disappearing in his peripheral vision, while I drive along a service road listening to the howl of the engine and smiling; the sound of a Formula One engine driven in anger filtered through the trees of Monza is like nothing else I know.
Sauber has brought two trucks and a catering van to the track, along with about forty staff, and they've hired the track just so that Heidfeld can drive around and around, faster and slower, bringing it in to tweak the car every few laps. All these people, all this money so that he can do what he loves to do. He brings the car into the pits at lunchtime because he's told to, cutting the engine and leaving the immense silence behind him as he walks through the pits to one of the trucks for a massage. The mechanics and engineers watch him as he walks by, knowing this is their signal to stop, and half of them going outside for a cigarette while the others go next door for lunch, as if in some unsaid shift.
The engineers and mechanics love working for Sauber, even though they know the team is not a winning one, and they love working with Heidfeld. When he walks through a room they watch him just like the fans do elsewhere, despite having worked with him for years and knowing him personally, and when he stops anywhere they move towards him and ask if there is anything they can do for him. Heidfeld seems oblivious to this, like all of the drivers are, presumably having become used to this as a way of life over the years.
After lunch one of the team members approaches me and asks if I'm interviewing Heidfeld and would I mind doing it outside, as it's too cold for him in the pit. I follow him over and shake hands with Heidfeld as the other man fetches a jacket for him. Heidfeld is a physically small man, like so many of the new breed of drivers, looking more like a jockey than the robust drivers of the past, and he has an intensity about him that is also common in the paddock.
Throughout our discussion he never averts his eyes from me unless someone comes to talk to him about the car, a subject of far more interest to him than our conversation, and this intensity can sometimes be disturbing. It's the focus that all the drivers have, and presumably they concentrate this way on everything in front of them, but it feels unusual to be focused on in this manner when it's directed at you.
Heidfeld doesn't like the interview process, although he accepts that it's part of his job and is extremely courteous throughout. I could see that he'd rather be out on the track again if he had his way. It's probably this reluctance with the media which is behind his relative low profile outside of the paddock, but it doesn't worry him. "I think my profile in Formula One is quite good," Heidfeld comments on my theory. "Probably outside Formula One it's not as good as it is inside, but that doesn't really bother me. I also don't care if other people get more media attention than I do. My goal is just to move up and therefore I hope that the team bosses see that I'm doing a good job."
He's right - no less a driver than Michael Schumacher constantly sings his praises when asked for his opinion on the younger drivers, and this approach works for him at Sauber. They are constantly pursuing the bigger teams, and time spent in the car can only help this pursuit.
I spoke to a couple of engineers at lunch, and they were fully behind Peter Sauber's decision not to join the Friday test sessions on track at the Grand Prix, because they feel that over the season the Friday testers will suffer from lack of performance enhancements, which can only come from extended testing periods like this. Does Heidfeld think Sauber made the right decision to opt out of the new test programme? "Yes," he says, "because I think we have the money to do quite a lot more testing than we would be allowed to do on this Friday."
The problem with this decision is there is a lot less running for the teams on a race weekend because of the new rules, which means it will be harder to set the car up for the race. "Yes, it is harder," Heidfeld states, "but then it is the same for everybody apart from three [four] teams." He agrees with the engineers who acknowledged that there was a set up compromise on race weekends, but it was one that they could live with.
DC: Do you think testing is going to help you defeat Renault?
Heidfeld: "No - at the moment I think we are too far behind."
DC: Would they still be a target?
NH: "Of course we try to do our best and beat them, but I would be surprised if we would at the end of the season (because) they are so strong - they had pole position at Malaysia, and that is more than most people expected. They have been on the podium twice now; they are really strong."
DC: What would be your target now? Is it fourth and maybe Williams drops down, or is it fifth?
NH: "No, I think the target should be fifth place."
DC: You don't think you can beat Ferrari then…
Heidfeld laughs. "Of course not!"
The downside of the testing decision would seem to be the workload of the testing schedule. Not that it worries him much. "I enjoy all the testing," Heidfeld says. "It can be tough, as it is here when you just come back from Brazil - you arrive Monday afternoon and then you have to get up at like 07:30, which in Brazil time would be 03:30, so it's a bit mad to get up in the middle of the night and go testing. That's a bit tough, but usually I like to work. Over the whole season it would be nice after one race to have no test and relax a bit, but in general I like it. I actually want to do a lot of testing, because I want to be sure whether the parts we have are better or not."
When I spoke earlier to one of the engineers he said that Sauber usually tests for three days between each of the European races, which seems a large workload. "It depends," Heidfeld comments. "If we have the races in Europe I think it's okay to do even more. Next week is probably four days, because normally we split it anyway; Heinz does two days and I do one day or vice versa. So we could both do two days. But for us it's more of a question of the money - if we had more money we could do more testing."
I looked at the wall behind him and noticed a bicycle leaning against it, and realized that Heidfeld doesn't seem to have the same exercise regime as the other drivers - he gets fit by driving more.
Sauber have taken well to the new qualifying rules, running a bit lighter than the other teams and putting the cars further up the grid than they would be on pure speed. This has put the drivers further into the spotlight, which has made Heidfeld's reliability problems more noticeable.
"It's a little bit frustrating," he acknowledges. "On the first and third races I think there was a good chance to score some points, especially in Brazil, and we don't have a lot of those races over the season. Now we already had two with rain and other crazy things going on, and I was not able to finish in those races - I finished in Malaysia, where I pushed like mad but all I got was one point."
This seems to be the curse of the midfield teams - you can push like crazy and still not end up with anything to show for it. "Yeah," he laughs, "I think if I had finished the other two races I would have been in a bigger chance to score some more points" - which can only be frustrating when your teammate seems to be having all the luck in the team at the moment.
DC: How has it been working with Heinz in your team? You're both from the same town, which is a unique situation.
NH: "I think it's the first time it's happened in Formula One, but on the circuit it doesn't change anything. We get along well, but we didn't know each other very well because he's like ten years older than me. Okay, we met before, but on the circuit we just try to do our work."
DC: Does it help in the team that you are both German speakers?
NH: "Not a lot because the meetings are held in English anyway. A lot of the engineers are not German - (there are) a lot of different nationalities, and I find it easier to do the meetings in English anyway because most of my time in motor racing I did the meetings in English, so I know a lot more things in English than in German."
DC: Nevertheless, Sauber being fairly German, does it feel like home to you?
NH: "Yes it feels a bit like home, but I don't think it has a lot to do with the language. It's simply the atmosphere within the team and the way people behave, and I've felt good within the team since the beginning. Now it's my third year and it makes it even easier."
The silly season seems to start earlier every year, and Heidfeld's current contract with Sauber finishes at the end of this one. Heidfeld's not playing the game yet - if he's given the matter any thought, he's not about to tell anyone about it.
DC: What are you thinking about for next year?
NH: "I don't know yet. I had a two year contract plus one year option from Peter's side, and at the end of the year it runs out - we have to see what happens."
Of course the biggest surprise in the paddock last year was Heidfeld's former teammate Kimi Raikkonen moving to McLaren, a team that Heidfeld has been closely tied to for a number of years. Many people were surprised that Heidfeld was overlooked despite his long-term contract with McLaren and wondered if he had subsequently cut ties with the company. "I still have a contract with McLaren Mercedes," he replies warily, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter, "but I can't tell you for how much longer that runs."
Formula One is a hard mistress, and she demands a lot from those involved with her. Heidfeld's career started at the ailing Prost team, a disastrous year after the successes of his German F3 and International F3000 titles, before stepping up to Sauber two years ago. Young drivers get into the sport because they love it, and only later develop the burning desire to get to Formula One because it's the pinnacle, the ultimate driving competition. But is it still fun at this level?
"Yes it's very joyful," Heidfeld confirms, "and the reason for me starting with this sport was the fun. It's still the fun that drives me, so I get most of my motivation because I just enjoy it. Then obviously I want to win, and it would be (even) more fun if I would be further up the grid."
DC: It seems like an amazing amount of work that you guys have to do - I was just wondering what the fun part is.
NH: "Well, now it is a whole testing, which is tiring but the thing I enjoy most is just sitting in the car, and driving the car."
DC: You just like going round lap after lap?
NH: "Yes. It can be tiring to do a lot of traveling, but the driving is the best part, you know."
DC: Even the testing?
NH: "Normally yes - as I said sometimes it gets tiring but usually I like to do it. I find that the three day test is on the limit - if we go to one circuit for four days it gets really boring; I did that once and didn't like that."
DC: Does it make any difference if you're the only team testing on a circuit, as here, rather than if you went to Barcelona where the other teams are?
NH: "Yes. It has up and down sides - you have a bit of comparison, but anyway you don't know how much fuel the other teams running are carrying, and you also have less rubber on the circuit so it takes longer to stabilise a bit and to get to a good speed. But on the other side you fully concentrate on yourself, that's what it's all about, and you have no red flags and no distractions."
He glances across at the pits, and I realise I'm being one of those distractions - so I let him get back to the car. It doesn't take him long - as I'm packing my bag I hear that familiar shriek as the mechanics start the engine up, and I know he's getting back to what he loves - sitting in his car, pounding out lap after lap again, coming in and out of the pits to test different parts so that he can make it faster, make it more fun.
He does it all so that he can just get to the race and drive.