Article written by Mark Martin; a motorsport writer who works in the marketing department of price comparison company MoneySupermarket and worked on their Nigel Mansell television commercial campaign.
Felipe Massa was under a lot of pressure entering the season after two years of being heavily out performed by team-mate Fernando Alonso.
However, Ferrari stayed loyal to its driver stating that they were sure he would be able to recapture the form that had saw him challenge for the championship against Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
The season so far…
This faith appeared to be misplaced in the opening race of the new season in Australia where Massa was approximately one second per lap slower than Alonso. In the race, things got even worse with Brazilian quickly burning up his tyres and eventually colliding with Bruno Senna while running out of the points. Alonso meanwhile went on to secure a stunning 5th place in the ill handling Ferrari.
Despite media criticisms in Italy and calls for his immediate dismal, Ferrari vowed to work with Massa to eradicate his problems and built a completely new chassis in time for round two in Malaysia.
The qualifying pace seemed slightly better, with the Brazilian getting within four tenths of Alonso; but in reality this can still be considered to be a poor performance in a sport where millions of pounds are spent by the teams to find an extra one tenth of second per lap from their cars.
However, race day in Malaysia was a complete disaster as Massa tailed home in 15th position having struggled for pace throughout the day. Team-mate Alonso meanwhile streaked to victory, as Ferrari’s young protégé Sergio Perez putting in a stunning performance in the Sauber to take a superb 2nd place.
The rumours that Perez would replace Massa, which had been present ever since the Mexican tested for Ferrari late last year, suddenly intensified and Massa’s position looked even more vulnerable.
Massa is still in the car as we head onto round three, but for how much longer can he hold on?
Why so slow?
Massa was one of the star performers of the 2008 season, embarrassing his highly rated world champion team mate Kimi Raikkonen and taking the championship fight to Lewis Hamilton. He entered the final race of the year seven points behind Lewis Hamilton meaning that he needed to win and have Lewis Hamilton finish lower than 5th in order to be crowned the new world champion.
The Brazilian crossed the line to win the race as Hamilton started the final lap down in 6th position. However, at the final corner Hamilton passed Toyota’s Timo Glock and took the 5th place he needed in order to secure the championship; finishing just one point ahead of Massa.
Despite the disappointment, hopes were high for 2009. However, the Ferrari F60 was not a good car. Massa still managed to get some good results from it and generally outperform Raikkonen again until he suffered head injuries in a freak accident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix when a piece of Barrichello’s Brawn hit him on the head.
Despite initially being in a coma, Massa made a miraculous recovery and was back testing for the team before the end of the year. However, Alonso had been signed for 2010 and his much more flamboyant character immediately made him popular with the Ferrari team who had missed its long term leader Michael Schumacher.
Massa started 2010 strongly, but before long the strain of Alonso presence began to show. Things came to a head at the German grand prix where Massa took the lead at the start and was on-course for his first victory since his accident almost 12 months before. That was until he was allegedly asked to move over for Alonso who was better placed in the championship fight. From then on, Massa’s morale visibly dropped and he has not shown any signs of race winning form.
Many people have hypothesised that it is Massa’s head injury that is behind his dip in form, but Professor Sid Watkins predicted that it would take two years for Massa to recover fully. However, two and a half years later and Massa form is worse than ever. It is very likely that it is in fact the over powering presence and formidable speed of Fernando Alonso that is the primary cause of Massa reduction in confidence, speed and hence performance.
What next in the Massa saga?
Felipe Massa’s Ferrari contract is due to expire with Ferrari at the end of the season. The chances of this being renewed are almost nil; with the real question being whether or not he will be retained until the end of this season.
Of course Sergio Perez is the obvious candidate to replace Massa at the team, especially given his ever improving performances for the underdog Sauber team. Robert Kubica is continually linked to the team after coming close to a contract with them prior to his rally accident. However, would Ferrari really be willing to take a risk on another driver recovering from injury as they did with Massa. Kubica remember hasn’t driven in an F1 race since November 2010.
So what will become of Massa? A return to Sauber in place of Perez (the team for which he made his debut in 2002) would be a possibility; particularly in light of the Ferrari connections. But why would the Swiss team be willing to take a risk on the possibility of Massa returning to form? Particularly given the number of high quality drivers available at the moment and the Swiss teams need for drivers who can bring sponsors.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that we will see Massa follow the lead of his compatriot Rubens Barrichello and move over to the American Indycar series. Either way, Massa’s best years look well and truly behind him and that victory in the final race of 2008 when he came so close to the championship may well turn out to have been his last.