F1: Will Ferrari’s Loyalty To Massa Be Repaid?

In October, Felipe Massa secured another season sitting in a Ferrari for the upcoming calendar – despite having a dismal…

Dan Eyre

Contributor

Felipe Massa

In October, Felipe Massa secured another season sitting in a Ferrari for the upcoming calendar – despite having a dismal start to the season, the Brazilian was rewarded for a string of improved performances, including a podium position in Japan. That was his first podium in 35 races. He has always been a number two in Ferrari colours, but does the 31 year old still have the pace to compete for one of the top 3 teams in the sport?

Massa’s career in red has been an eventful one to say the least: replacing fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello for the 2006 season at Ferrari, Massa landed himself a seat partnering Michael Schumacher in the German’s farewell year. Finishing on the podium in the European, French and Japanese GPs, plus victories in Turkey and is home race in Interlagos, Massa’s first season with Ferrari was fairly successful. And when the chequered flag waved on the incredible career belonging to Michael Schumacher, Massa would have been thinking he was going to be Ferrari’s number 1 driver for the next season.

Instead, the Italian team brought in Finish driver Kimi Raikkonen from McLaren. Although Massa took the number 5 car, the Ferrari for the number 1 driver of the team, Raikkonen was estimated to be the highest paid driver in F1, with a base salary reportedly worth US $51M annually, suggesting maybe Ferrari had more confidence in the Finn instead. Ferrari’s money was well spent, as Raikkonen went on to win the championship in his first season with the Italian team, winning in Brazil whilst Lewis Hamilton could only finish in 7th, meaning Raikkonen won the championship by a single point. 6 wins, coupled with 6 other podium finishes made the Finn a huge hit with the Ferrari faithful. Meanwhile, Massa could only manage 4th place in the championship.

The Brazilian’s poor campaign continued in the start of the 2007 season, as he crashed into David Coulthard in Australia before spinning off in Malaysia. With 2 DNFs on Massa’s record, he needed to bounce back quickly. And so he did. Wins in Bahrain and Turkey with a 2nd place in between them in Spain put Massa right back into the hunt for the championship.

Near the end of the season it became a 2 horse race for the title, between Massa and Britain’s Lewis Hamilton, and it all boiled down to Massa’s home race in Brazil. With Hamilton ahead in the standings coming into the race, Massa would need to win and hope the Brit finished 6th or lower. What happened next will remain one of the most incredible finishes to a Formula 1 season ever. Massa crossed the line in 1st, whilst Hamilton was still half way round the track in 6th place. Ferrari celebrated, as Massa got the call through the radio telling him he had won the championship.

It was a premature celebration however, as on the last corner, Timo Glock would make history. Finishing the race on the wrong tyre setting, Glock was struggling for grip, and with only seconds of the lap left, Hamilton made the overtake to promote himself to 5th, making him the youngest ever F1 champion. The cheers quickly turned to gasps in the Ferrari garage, as Massa painfully had to settle for second place in the drivers’ standings.

The 2009 season started with a bang, but not by the big names: Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull were stunned by Brawn GP, who despite having only months to prepare for the season, blitzed the circuit. Jenson Button won 6 of the first 7 races in his new car, as they would eventually ease their way to victory in the Constructers’ Championship. But it was in Hungary that the F1 world stopped to a stand still. In the closing seconds of Q2, Massa was hit by a piece of debris that had fallen off the Brawn GP car belonging to fellow countryman Rubens Barrichello.

The spring from Barrichello’s car hit Massa on his helmet, 1inch above his left eye, whilst travelling at 162 mph, and the impact knocked him unconscious, and the onboard footage from his car showed that he had his feet on both the accelerator and the brake pedals. Massa smashed into the barrier at 62 mph, but the engine could still be heard revving on the limiter, indicating that Massa’s feet were still on the pedals, and that he was still unconscious.

His condition was initially described as “life-threatening but stable”, but quickly improved, and he was discharged from hospital the following week and returned home to Brazil. He wouldn’t race again in the season. It was a terrible accident, where many didn’t expect Massa to come back to the sport.

Fortunately for Felipe he was able to return to racing, however he was never quite the same. He never seemed confident overtaking other cars, and always seemed to be a second off the pace. And understandably too, considering the scale of the crash and damage to Massa’s head and eye. Despite back to back podiums in the first 2 races, his 2010 season never really kicked in. Picking up low position points for the rest of the season, it seemed the accident had taken its toll.

In 2011 Massa failed to pick up a podium in the entire race calendar. Repeatedly finishing either 5th or 6th in races, Massa never challenged for a podium position, and finished 6th in the overall drivers standings, 109 points behind 5th place Hamilton. The 2 were closer on the track however, the pair colliding countless times over the season. Hamilton’s over-eagerness to overtake matched with Massa’s hesitation to attack led to incident after incident between the two.

Then came the dramatic season of 2012, where Alonso and Vettel battled it out to the last race of the calendar. Alonso’s teammate Massa however was nowhere near this fight, and instead battling to stay in the top 6 drivers, before he was kicked out of the top 6 by his old teammate Kimi Raikkonen, who returned to the sport with Lotus. Despite 2 podium finishes, Massa finished 57 points behind 6th place Webber, but before his final position in the drivers’ standings was confirmed, he was already offered a seat with Ferrari next season.

But is that really the right move for the prancing horse team?

Massa’s position with Ferrari has been surrounded with speculation over the last few years: there were rumours that Robert Kubica would replace the Brazilian in 2011, however any chance of these reports being true were quashed by the Pole’s rally crash. In February 2011, Kubica was involved in a crash whilst racing a Skoda rally car, injuring his elbow, shoulder, arm and leg. Kubica had impressed in his 4 years in F1 beforehand, but we are still yet to see the return of the Polish driver in Formula 1.

Next to be linked was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi: the Japanese driver had impressed with his attacking abilities, after finishing 12th for the last 3 seasons in a row, but it appears that Kobayashi never improved as much as expected, as now it seems nobody wants him. Kobayashi’s seat at Sauber was taken away from him this winter, and with only one space left in the entire F1 line-up, it seems unlikely that we will see the 26 year old race this season.

During the 2012 season, there were rumours of Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta all being linked with Massa’s seat, but all these rumours didn’t impress Massa’s teammate Fernando Alonso, who described them as “little names.” One person previously linked who isn’t a little name is Mark Webber – the Australian has been frustrated with the way he’s been treated compared to teammate and three time champion Sebastian Vettel.

After winning the British Grand Prix in 2010, Webber was heard on the radio saying; “Not bad for a number two driver,” and Christian Horner wasn’t impressed, despite how much he tried to hide it. 2 years later at Silverstone, after piping Alonso to 1st place in the race, Webber signed a contract extension with Red Bull. Another possible replacement for Massa now made unavailable.

So only one man is left linked with Massa’s seat, and it just happens to be a three-time world champion. Sebastian Vettel has been linked with Ferrari for the last few years, with rumours of a pre-contract being signed between the two to come into place for the 2014 season. So, perhaps Massa was offered the contract just to keep the seat warm for Vettel: it would seem pointless to bring in someone new just for one season, if they knew Vettel was going to join them. But what if Vettel doesn’t leave Red Bull? Some argue that Ferrari should have got a young, impressionable figure into the seat, so that Ferrari and Alonso could mould the young driver into what they wanted, and what that driver needed to be.

But if Vettel was to join the Italian team next season, what would be the advantage for Ferrari?

Massa isn’t going to offer Ferrari much this upcoming season: we won’t be seeing the Brazilian challenging for the title, and we probably won’t see him competing for many race wins. And with Red Bull and McLaren having 2 competitive drivers, will Ferrari lose out on only having Alonso at the front of the grid?

Back when Ferrari were dominant in the Schumacher years, Rubens Barrichello was a fantastic number 2 driver to have, as he often held up the pack behind the German, creating a secure gap to allow Schumacher to take the chequered flag time and time again. And in a more competitive field, the help of a teammate could be more useful than ever.

However, Massa’s supporters would say that Alonso was just a few points from wining the title last season, so he can clearly manage without that assistance. The debate will continue whether Massa should be in Ferrari red this season – it appears that Ferrari are confident that Vettel will be joining them next season, as the benefits of keeping Massa don’t seem overwhelmingly high. Whether it’s down to Vettel, a lack of suitable replacements or a genuine belief in Massa’s ability, all we know is that we will be seeing Massa race in the next season.

And for now all he can do is let his driving do the talking, as this could well be his last campaign with the Italian team.

 

Do you believe Massa can repay Ferrari’s faith in him? What is the alternative? Share your thoughts below.