“Felipe: Your F1 career is behind you. Can you confirm you understand this message”
Felipe Massa has been the #2 Ferrari F1 driver for a very long time now. In fact, since the team dropped Rubens Barrichello at the end of 2005, the second car has been piloted by Massa. Now it looks as if the Scuderia has lost patience with the Brazilian, and is ready to cast him aside at the end of the 2012 season, perhaps sooner.
When he entered the sport in 2002 with Sauber, it seemed as if he was a preordained Ferrari driver, farmed out to the customer team to get some experience. When I watched him at Silverstone that year, he didn’t exactly seem at ease with the car, alternately prodding it then chasing it through each turn.
Age and experience have definitely mellowed that style, and he has been able to rack up 11 Formula 1 wins in his six years at the team. I would normally at this point make some bitchy comment about the number of Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships the team has amassed in this time, but the fact of the matter is that Massa has never had anything other than a superstar driving the other car in the team. The only time this could be argued was in 2008, where Kimi Räikkönen was in the slough of demotivation. Massa capitalised, scoring 6 of his 11 wins in just this one year, on the way to losing the championship ten seconds after it looked in the bag.
But in Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso, Felipe has found himself pitted against the best. He’s defaulted to the role of “competent number two,” which can be a nice safe secure place for an F1 driver in a top team. Most of the money and adulation, hardly any of the real pressure. Let’s not kid ourselves though: Felipe has never really looked like threatening the greats on the other side of the garage.
Looking back, Felipe’s career has had a number of shocks that would cause even the most mentally-stable of drivers some difficulty. It seems as if Felipe has not recovered from them fully.
It seems fairly certain that Massa was meant to play #2 to Michael Schumacher, and to learn from him. But at the end of 2006, when Michel “retired‚” instead of promoting Felipe to the #1 status he probably felt owed, the Scuderia offered asylum to McLaren refugee Kimi Räikkönen. Räikkönen was feeling unusually motivated as he’d been dropped by the Woking outfit, and as Alonso and Lewis Hamilton engaged in their Kramer vs Kramer scrap to lose the World Championship, Kimi quietly put in a string of car-defying performances to snatch the cup from the squabbling duo. Felipe was left behind in his dust.
In 2008, with point proven, Kimi went back to cruise-and-collect mode, and it was Felipe who picked up the baton. With McLaren bruised by the previous year’s fight, Felipe was able to capitalise on their lack of solidity, and took the championship fight to the last corner of the last lap of the last race. Finishing first, with Hamilton out of position, there was a heart-breaking number of seconds where Felipe celebrated while Hamilton’s wet-shod McLaren blew by a series of slick-shod cars in torrential rain. 30 seconds later Felipe’s championship had been ripped from him by the Briton.
The next year saw all teams struggling to play catch-up to Brawn. Massa’s struggle became particularly personal after a piece of suspension, jettisoned from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn BGP001, impacted his helmet at somewhere north of 150mph. The season was over, and many pundits reckoned that was it for Felipe.
But it wasn’t. He came back for the 2010 championship, now with Fernando Alonso in the other car. Alonso must be soul-destroying to have as a team-mate. So fast and so dogged is he that no result within his grasp is allowed to slip away. For someone as inconsistent as Felipe it must have been a nightmare come true.
And then, to Hockenheim 2010. Massa leading, Alonso second. “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you,” came the message. Felipe was being asked to sacrifice the win. The win that would have come a year to the day since he nearly died in one of the red cars. How can you overcome such certain knowledge that the team does not want you to win races in its cars? I normally believe that the one who completes the race distance in the shortest time is the one who deserves to win, but in this case, Ferrari should have held station. It would have been the honourable thing to do.
Now, mid-way through 2012, Massa is nowhere. Alonso has gathered the team up, with its terrible car, and personally driven them to the top of the driver’s championship. Felipe is struggling to get into the third part of qualifying. It really looks like it’s time for a change.