The curious case of Felipe Massa

By on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Photo credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

November 2nd, 2008: Felipe Massa dominates the Brazilian Grand Prix to take his 6th win of the season and the world championship. Or so he thought. Cue high emotions and one of the most dignified responses to losing a title the sport has ever seen.

Almost three years later, Massa’s racing world appears to be falling apart after yet another dismal race in a season that has failed to see him stand on the podium. That damp Brazilian afternoon in 2008 still remains the venue of Massa’s most recent grand prix victory.

So what exactly has gone so wrong, and what does the future hold?

Massa’s malaise began over the winter following his near-title success. The F60 was a terrible car, one of the worst that Ferrari ever produced. Nevertheless, whilst results were unspectacular, Massa was best of the rest behind Brawn and Red Bull. Then came that fateful day in Hungary.

Much has been written about Massa’s head injury and whether that has slowed him down. History suggests that a driver can return from serious injury, as demonstrated by Mika Hakkinen. No-one will really know whether the injury has slowed him and Massa himself has vehemently denies that.

Oh no, not him again... Photo credit: FIA

One reason for Massa’s struggles could be that day in Germany last year, when Fernando was faster than him. Being asked to concede a race victory for a team mate has to be one of the most psychologically destructive events to happen to a racing driver. Those extra seven points didn’t win Alonso the title, yet in the long term, what effect did it have on Massa? Suddenly the realisation has hit home that he isn’t seen as capable of winning the title, leading the team nor winning races. It’s well known that Fernando Alonso needs to be the de facto Number One. Remember 2007, or even the few occasions that Giancarlo Fisichella was faster than him in 2005-6. That really riled him. Nevertheless, if Ferrari wants a number one and two, they could do with one faster than Massa. Despite Fernando Alonso being one of the best drivers in Formula One history, Massa has underperformed massively in their two seasons together. Currently, Alonso has 227 points. Massa has 98.

You could argue that a lot of Massa’s problems have been out of his control. Yet equally, those problems only saw him lose a potential 5th place. Hardly awe-inspiring.

Felipe Massa. Photo credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

A more worrying aspect of Massa’s current predicament is that he’s slowly turning into a paranoid figure. Granted, he has reason to be wary of Lewis Hamilton considering their history together this season, yet he isn’t helping matters. That sarcastic ‘good job’ in the media pen in Singapore, his refusal to accept an apology from Lewis after Suzuka and his rambling interview in India has all the hallmarks of a driver blaming someone else to take attention away from their own deficiencies. It’s commonplace for a driver to look to blame anything other than himself for incidents, but few top drivers go to the extent that Felipe has recently. Twice in India he broke his suspension – once in qualifying and once in the race – on almost exactly the same kerb. Granted, the car may have been damaged from the flexing front wing and the contact with Hamilton, but for a man of 150 races, watching him try and compete Turns 5 to 9 in India was like a comedy of errors every lap. To then demand changes to the track – when 23 other drivers avoided making the same mistake – was laughable and only highlighted the feeling that Massa is taking attention away from his own errors.

So what next for Massa? The Brazilian Grand Prix will be his 100th race for Ferrari and many fans – even diehard Ferrari fans – are hoping it will be his final one for the Scuderia.

Sergio Perez, like Massa, started with Sauber. Is he Massa's successor come 2013?

Yet it is unlikely to be. Massa has a contract for 2012 and Ferrari has repeatedly said that he will be driving for them, especially considering that candidate number one is still recovering from life-threatening injuries. The only reasonable replacement would be Nico Rosberg, but a longer term option would be Sergio Perez. Another year with Sauber could be all he needs to sharpen up and be ready for 2013.

The plain facts are that Ferrari has not won a title since 2008 and they are desperate to see Fernando Alonso win a third championship. Whilst even with Massa’s help the 2011 title would have been out of reach, Ferrari needs a driver that can finish closer to Alonso and take points away from the Red Bull and McLaren drivers. Massa has achieved that just once this season (on pure pace alone), finishing ahead of Button in Valencia.

It’s sad to see a driver underperforming, especially one with several grand prix victories. Doubly hard when it’s in a Ferrari, as so few drivers get away with minimal results in such a prized seat for so long. One terrible season is excusable, but two? And what evidence is there to suggest that year three post-comeback will be any better? Remember when Massa said that after Abu Dhabi last year that he was pleased with the Pirelli tyres and that they would suit him? Well he’s scored even less points than in 2010, whereas Alonso looks set to almost match his 2010 tally in a far inferior car to the F10.

There are several grand prix drivers having an annus horribilis but Massa’s 2011 season was said after last year to be make-or-break. With no podiums and a paltry 98 points (about the same as he achieved in 2008 under the old points system!), it’s hard to see what continuing at Ferrari can offer him other than mediocrity and more criticism. A move to a different team could see him rebuild his career, but after savouring several victories in a Ferrari, it’s always going to be a backwards step.

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