Back in 2008, after winning his home Grand Prix at the Interlagos circuit, Brazil,Felipe Massa was the new Formula 1 World Champion….or so we all thought. Felipe had done what he needed to do, win the race and then hope Lewis Hamilton didn’t finish any higher than 6th place to take the title, and, with just 3 corners remaining, that’s exactly where he was. As Felipe took the chequered flag, the Ferrari garage celebrated thinking they had done it; then it happened, on the penultimate corner, Lewis overtook 5th place Timo Glock, who was struggling with grip in the rain, and in turn, snatched the title from Felipe’s grasp.
Such a gut-wrenching way to lose a championship would be hard to for any competitor to take and then be expected to come back from, as the drivers at Ferrari are; unfortunately for Massa, it seems that he never fully recovered from that loss. The following season, with relations between former World Champion team mate Kimi Räikkönen and team becoming more and more strained, Massa was given the backing by Ferrari to prove his worth as a real contender. Mid-way through that season however, with Jenson Button holding a seemingly insurmountable lead in the drivers’ championship, disaster stuck. During qualifying for the Hungarian GP, a piece of suspension fell off the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn; at high speed, the piece bounced along track right into the path of the oncoming Massa who caught the spring flush in the helmet at 162mph, fracturing his skull and causing him to crash into the tire wall. Felipe’s, and almost as significantly, Ferrari’s, season was over.
Whilst never admitted publicly, the man is far too professional for that, after his efforts in 2008, and the horrific luck suffered in 2009, Alonso's arrival must have come as a huge snub to Felipe.
By the start of following season in 2010, thankfully, Massa had made a full recovery and was able to retake his place in the car. However, this time it was different; after another barren year, unacceptable by Ferrari’s high standards, the former 2-time World Champion, Fernando Alonso was brought in in place of the disillusioned Räikkönen.
Alonso, armed with a huge contract, was give one remit, to bring a title back the Ferrari. Whilst viewed by many as a great signing, the move for Alonso gave the distinct impression, that whilst a reliable and steady driver, Massa was not deemed the man to bring the glory, which had been craved since the Schumacher days, back to Ferrari. Whilst never admitted publicly, the man is far too professional for that, after his efforts in 2008, and the horrific luck suffered in 2009, Alonso's arrival must have come as a huge snub to Felipe.
The following 2010 season, whilst one of the most exciting of recent times for the fans, was not so good for Massa. In the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, 4 drivers, including Alonso, battled it out for the title eventually won by Sebastian Vettel. Felipe was not one of those 4. After a disappointing season by his standards Felipe eventually finished mid-table in 6th place. Some put his lack of competitiveness down to the accident, maybe the horrific nature of the crash had affected him psychologically, and in turn, taken away some of his speed; and who knows, maybe it had.
With his contact up at the end of the year, and Ferrari apparently looking at drivers like Webber, Di Resta and Perez for next season, it seems certain that Felipe’s time with Ferrari is up.
There was however one other significant incident that will have affected Massa that season; I am of course referring to the now infamous coded message. Ever since race leader Rubens Barrichello was ordered to slow down by Ferrari on the home straight to allow team mate Michael Schumacher to win the Austrian GP in 2002, team orders were banned. The whole event left a bad taste in people’s mouths; it seemed to defeat the purpose of the actual race if teams had the power to dictate who should get the points. From that day on though, it was clear to all who the number 1 driver at Ferrari was, and who was the number 2.
At the German GP of 2010, Felipe was winning the race, followed by teammate Alonso in second. Midway through the race, Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley came on the radio and informed him “Fernando is faster than you………Can you confirm you understood that message?” You could hear the anguish and duress in Smedley’s voice as he said it; he was basically being made to tell his colleague and friend to slow down and let Alonso through to take the lead. Although Team Principal Stefano Domenicali denied it publicly, Ferrari, rather than let their two drivers contest it out on the track for first place, had again decided to interfere in the race and pull rank. Once again, in a crass throw back to the past, it was clear who the number 1 driver at Ferrari now was.
Although you could see the annoyance and frustration in his face after the race, many would have voiced their displeasure in light of such treatment, not Massa; from that day to now, to his absolute credit, he has continued to remain the consummate professional for Ferrari.
You don’t just become a bad driver overnight and he's still only 31 - a fresh start at a team like Williams or Sauber could be just what Felipe needs.
From then however, performances have dipped, in 2011, after a season blighted with numerous run-ins and spats with Lewis Hamilton, he again finished a disappointing 6th place in the drivers’ championship, and the 2012 season has so far has been even worse. It’s incredible to think that Massa has not won a race since that fateful day at Interlagos in 2008.
With his contact up at the end of the year, and Ferrari apparently looking at drivers like Webber, Di Resta and Perez for next season, it seems certain that Felipe’s time with Ferrari is up. It’s hard to say if one particular thing has led to his falling away, I would suggest it was more likely a combination of all of the above. The agonising way he lost the title to Lewis, the accident and its possible effects that most of us can only speculate at, and the way he has been shunted down the pecking order within his own team in favour of Alonso; all this would be enough to make the best of us jaded, so are his performances over the last year or so really a that much of a surprise?
You don’t just become a bad driver overnight and he's still only 31 - a fresh start at a team like Williams or Sauber could be just what Felipe needs to get back in the groove; personally, I hope he does, because otherwise, in a sport like F1 where times move fast and certainly wait for no man, then we could well see the fall of Felipe.
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