To many, Ferrari is Formula One – especially, it seems, to Max Mosley. To be a Ferrari driver is an honour bestowed to the greatest of talents and one not given lightly. So why on earth is Felipe Massa going to be piloting one of the beloved red cars next season?
I’d make a case for Massa’s career being symptomatic of the failings of modern motor sport. His progression through the junior ranks was rapid, with championships in successive seasons, but in none of these series did he face top-level talent. At no point did Massa race against the other best European drivers of the time.
Massa’s subsequent F1 career has been one of promise but few results. His ability to drag the Sauber into the points is no mean feat, but this has been tempered by the absence of the kind of progression required for a place in one the top teams. Massa remains F1′s driver ‘most likely to shunt’.
Conspiracy theorists are already pointing to the fact that Massa is managed by Nicholas Todt (son of Jean) as an explanation for the drive. It is worth noting in Massa’s defence that Todt has only recently come to manage Massa, after he had already agreed a development and testing deal with Ferrari. Instead there are several plausible reasons for Massa getting the seat.
Felipe is cheap, in F1 terms, and this is no doubt coupled with contractual conditions that weigh heavily in Ferrari’s favour. I would imagine that there would be little legal wrangling if Massa was relieved of his position after a single season. This is in contrast to any other plausible candidates for the seat, the majority of whom would either be contracted to a major manufacturer or Flavio Briatore.
Furthermore for all his talent Massa is not a Michael Schumacher, or even a Ralf. Few other drivers would be willing to assume such a defined number two role and still call it career progression.
Another consideration is that Felipe does have extensive Ferrari testing experience (the entire 2003 season) so knows both the team personnel and how it operates. However, as Simon Arron suggested in Motorsport News, Ferrari’s tyre problems in 2003 could be explained by Massa’s inexperience as a test driver.
Despite all this it is hard to see the Massa/Ferrari marriage lasting much longer than a single season. As I argued in a prior article, Massa is not a technical driver, and such skills will be essential both for developing the 2006 car and competing with Michael Schumacher. Likewise, Ferrari have been on the back foot for much of 2005 and it will require great effort from all involved to turn the 2006 car into a race winner, especially given the unravelling of the Ferrari ‘dream team.’
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Massa/Ferrari partnership will be its ability to demonstrate to what extent the driver impacts upon car performance in modern F1. Massa has spent three years pedalling around in the most midfield of midfield teams. If he can score wins with the Ferrari it will doubtless demonstrate the importance of a competitive car.
Whilst Massa has garnered a lot of press over the move, it is worth remembering that this is by no means the first time that Ferrari have gone for a wildcard number two. The signing of Eddie Irvine for 1996 is a great example. Irvine’s junior formula record was hardly glowing, with the Ulsterman finally finding success on the lucrative Japanese Formula 3000 scene in the early 1990s.
Upon entry to F1 Irvine’s antics made Massa seem tame: after being punched by Ayrton Senna on his F1 debut, Irvine went on to score a four race ban in his third event after triggering a multi-car shunt that almost cost Martin Brundle his head. Much like Massa, Irvine’s first couple of seasons in F1 were a succession of ‘against the odds’ points finishes coupled with numerous incidents and accidents. Yet Irvine went on to blossom into a fine frontrunner who arguably could have won the 1999 World Championship had Michael Schumacher been inclined to help him in the final round.
Other signings have proved less successful. An almost reverse example to Irvine would be the case of Ivan Capelli, who only lasted 14 races at the Scuderia in 1992. This followed several fantastic seasons at March, where Capelli was frequently the only driver to take on the might of the McLarens.
His time at Ferrari was a total disaster, effectively terminating his F1 career. Likewise Stefan Johannson was a generally anonymous Ferrari driver (despite almost scoring a victory on his second outing with the team), although his tenure with the squad was nowhere near as disastrous as Capelli’s.
It is also worth remembering that Ferrari have traditionally housed hard-harging but erratic drivers. Jean Alesi and Gilles Villeneuve have both been deified by Ferrari fanatics, but neither could be described as consistent. However, both won the hearts of fans across the world by always giving 110%, even when the car was a dog.
If Massa proves to be even halfway as entertaining as that pair then his signing will have been justified. It would be far worse to see him pootling around to 4th or 5th without ever being truly engaged. My bet is on the former, but only time will tell.