Massa can reinvigorate Williams, but don't expect miracles

By on Monday, November 11, 2013

Massa still has a lot to offer Williams

So what do you make of Felipe Massa? Is he a driver who has been spectacularly unspectacular since his horrendous injury four years ago, or is he a driver who was simply unfortunate to be up against one of the greatest drivers in history performing during his prime?

The truth, as ever in Formula 1, is somewhere in the middle.

Massa was never the most consistent driver, but between the middle of 2006 and 2009, he was one of the top performers on the grid. He was competition for Kimi Räikkönen in 2007 before a mechanical failure at Monza ended his hopes while in 2008 he mounted a title challenge that fell short only at the final corner.

Since his return from injury, Massa has been subjected to the role of number two to Fernando Alonso, most notably at Hockenheim in 2010, exactly 12 months after he sustained his injury. Alonso’s superior pace pre-Germany meant that Massa’s status as a number two driver was not undeserved, but the manner in which events took place on that afternoon could have been handled much better.

Accidents blighted Massa's Monaco weekend

Accidents blighted Massa's Monaco weekend

Massa then went missing for much of 2011 but midway through 2012 his form improved as he collected a couple of podiums and began to match Alonso on a more regular basis. That trend has continued into 2013, but the reality is that Massa has 106 points to Alonso’s 217. Frustratingly, there have been glimpses to suggest that Massa remains a top driver, but they are few and far between. It is this inconsistency that still blights him as a driver; the recent Indian Grand Prix typifies all that Massa has to offer: he qualified in fifth place, rocketed up to second at the start and finished a highly credible fourth. But interspersed between these moments are errors that scupper an entire race weekend: clashing with Adrian Sutil in Bahrain, crashing out of qualifying in Montreal, hitting the wall in practice at Silverstone, spinning out in Germany and dropping it on the first lap in Korea. All errors that have been magnified in a formula where perfection is a requirement for success.

It isn’t just the errors that have blighted Massa. There have been several weekends where Massa has demonstrated comparable pace to Alonso, but has failed to string it together across a 90 minute race. Overall, his departure from Ferrari indicated that the team no longer had faith in Massa to be part of a championship winning team.

Williams has scored just one point in 2013. Williams F1 Team

Williams has scored just one point in 2013. Williams F1 Team

The marriage of Massa and Williams is an intriguing prospect. Both have performed much better in the past then in recent seasons, but there is nonetheless cause for optimism. The new engine regulations provide the opportunity for a team such as Williams to charge up the order – their interpretation of the 2009 rules was much better than results suggested – and in Massa they have one of the most experienced drivers on the grid. Coincidentally, 2014 will be the first time that Massa has driven a Formula 1 car not powered by a Ferrari engine.

Williams’s troubles over the past decade or so have been well documented, with outgoing driver Pastor Maldonado’s win in Spain last season their only victory in the past nine years. In 2013, Williams has amassed just the single point and are comfortably the ninth best team. Next year, the team will switch from Renault to Mercedes power and while it would be foolish to expect Williams to surge towards the front, they cannot afford a repeat of 2013.

The acquisition of Massa, combined with the technical talents of Pat Symonds, should move Williams in the right direction. Amid the news of Massa joining Williams, their retention of Valtteri Bottas flew slightly under the radar.

Bottas arrived in Formula 1 with justifiable hype but outside observers would be quick to point out that Bottas has underachieved. That is far from the case, as the Finn has shown rapid qualifying pace compared to Maldonado in a dismal car, which is no mean feat. Remember, when wet weather conditions struck in Canada, Bottas was rapid in all three segments and qualified in an astonishing third place on the grid.

Bottas was third on the grid in Canada

Bottas was third on the grid in Canada

Bottas has come close to scoring points on a number of occasions but ultimately his inexperience has held him back. His approach off-track is also impressive; considering the potential of the Williams FW34 – which Bottas drove on 15 occasions in practice last year – he would have anticipated the FW35 to be in the ballpark. When it became clear that it wasn’t, he kept working hard with the team and never threw his toys out of the pram. Something that his more experienced team-mate did not manage.  More crucially, Massa will be able to provide Bottas with mentoring, helping to turn the Finn’s prestigious talent into on track results. However, while trading Maldonado for Massa is an upgrade and a second year Bottas will also be improved, the machinery that comes out of Grove will be the key.

The rules provide Williams with an opportunity which means that the dismal 2013 season will be just a memory; with Massa, Bottas and Mercedes on board, there will be no excuses for failing to progress. Formula 1 will be a healthier place with a more competitive Williams.

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