Changing my mind about Massa

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Nurburgring, 2007 | Ferrari MediaIf you’d told me five years ago that Felipe Massa would be a serious contender for the 2007 world championship, I wouldn’t have believed you.

As the 2002 series drew to a close, Sauber’s rookie driver was under a cloud. He’d had a year marked by crashes, culminating in a needless collision with Pedro de la Rosa at the Italian Grand Prix. Faced with a ten-placed grid penalty for the following race, Peter Sauber benched his young charge and brought Heinz-Harald Frentzen in as a one-off.

Frentzen was set to replace Massa for 2003. But somehow the Brazilian driver has since turned things around – and forced people like me to change their opinions of him.

When Sauber plucked Massa from obscurity to drive in 2002, everyone gave them the benefit of the doubt. Massa might have been young, but so had Kimi Raikkonen the year before, and he had impressed.

Path to F1

Massa arrived in F1 having won championships in the last two seasons – but it was hard to give much credit as to how challenging those series had been.

He won the inaugural Italian championship in 2000, the same year that Raikkonen triumphed in the British series. Despite missing two rounds the Brazilian tied on points with Raffaele Giammaria. It can had be said that Giammaria has since set the motor racing world alight, but Massa did also win the Eurocup Formula Renault that yet

Massa then made an odd career move. Instead of following one of the conventional routes to F1 via Formula Three or the Grand Prix-supporting international Formula 3000 series, he instead moved to the European (a.k.a. Italian) F3000 series which raced on many of the circuits he had already visited.

Sure enough, Massa won at the likes of Vallelunga, Enna-Pergusa, Monza, Imola and Valencia. But when it came to new circuits for him such as Donington Park, other drivers led the way. Nor could this be called a series of any great depth – there were eight rounds and 16 points-scorers during the season, although he did beat future 2003 FIA GT champion Thomas Biagi.

False start

My impression of Massa in 2002 was of an over-rated crash-prone driver. Looking more closely, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the flashes of promise.

He was taken out in the massive first-lap crash at the opening round at Melbourne, but scored on his second outing in the fierce Malaysian heat of Sepang, no less.

His often wild driving style did not inspire confidence. He crashed out of four races and his qualifying laps were hair-raising to watch. But by the end of the season he was usually bringing the car home – until that careless incident with de la Rosa.

The Ferrari connection

In 2003 Massa spent a year as a Ferrari test driver before returning to F1 with (Ferrari-supplied) Sauber in 2004. After another year at Sauber in 2005 he was promoted to Ferrari alongside Michael Schumacher.

From the outside it is hard to tell whether this was part of a managed progression of Massa’s career to bring him to Ferrari at around the time Schumacher would be retiring. But the guiding hand of the Scuderia through Massa’s manager Nicolas Todt – son of Ferrari executive director Jean – appears to have been at work in some way.

When Massa was given the Ferrari seat in 2006 I felt that he hadn’t gotten it on merit, that Ferrari just wanted someone who would be so grateful of the chance to drive for a top team that he would accept any restriction imposed upon him and dutifully support Schumacher’s title cause – a role Rubens Barrichello appeared to have grown disgruntled with.

It seemed odd that Ferrari, who could rely on having the pick of the drivers, would in 2006 choose Massa, who was thoroughly beaten by Giancarlo Fisichella in 2004 (at a time when Fisichella was being destroyed by Alonso at Renault).

By 2005, his third season as an F1 driver, Massa had made clear progress. He didn’t crash out of any races and edged 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve on points.

But still there wasn’t much to distinguish him from any number of other drivers on raw performance. I suspected my cynical explanation for why he had landed the Ferrari seat was accurate.

Master and apprentice

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Melbourne, 2006 | Ferrari MediaAt the start of 2006 it looked as though 2002-spec Massa had showed up. He spun in the Bahrain Grand Prix while third. He crashed in qualifying at Melbourne and again in the race. At Monaco he crashed again in qualifying and started from the back of the grid.

But he beat Schumacher on merit as early as the Malaysian Grand Prix – and by the end of the year was even giving Schumacher headaches in the races. Nowhere more obviously than at Istanbul, where he took pole position from Schumacher and won the race after a fortuitous (for Massa) safety car interruption.

Whisper it – but could Massa’s growing strength as a driver even have hastened Schumacher’s decision to leave the sport?

Massa today

Last year didn’t change many people’s opinions about Massa – but 2007 surely must force some re-evaluation of his abilities. Most F1 pundits – myself included – expected Raikkonen to blow him away this year and it simply hasn’t happened.

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Nurburgring, 2007 | Ferrari MediaIs he now championship-winning material? Perhaps, but remember that all Massa’s wins so far have come from pole position. He didn’t look confident in the wet either at the Nurburgring this year or the Hungaroring or Shanghai in ’06.

All of his five victories to date have come from pole position, and his racecraft still leaves something to be desired – Lewis Hamilton made him look an absolute fool in Sepang, and Alonso embarrassed him equally at the Nurburgring.

But I’ve been forced to eat my words – Massa has seriously upped his game in the last five years and is vastly quicker and more consistent than he was before. If he can plug these few gaps in his arsenal (and remember he has Schumacher on hand to help him) then he could yet grab the 2007 title.

Photos: Ferrari Media

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24 comments on Changing my mind about Massa

  1. This is what I wrote on Feb 21 at my season preview:
    “Felipe Massa – He needs to beat Kimi early in the season to avoid No. 2 status. I think he is pretty equal with Kimi and may actually benefit from his Ferrari experience and beat him regularly.”
    :-)
    But is true that he has yet to prove his race craft in fighting from back.
    In Sepang however he simply felt asleep at the start. He tried to claim the position back from Hamilton and went off the track. Many slammed him for it, but I think what he did was right though risky. I was there and the fight between him and Hamilton made all the grandstand around scream…
    At Nurburgring he was humiliated more by his wet tyres than by Alonso. His car was few second slower, there was not much he could do…

  2. There was a shot, back in 2002, which showed Massa’s driving which convinced me he was a man to watch. He seemed back then to drive with a style I’d never seen before and use a completely different line to everyone else. It contributed to his crashing because people were expecting different things of him. I thought that it would mean he’d be super at overtaking because he would be in a different position. But his style has changed over the years and is now much more conventional.

    But yes right back from 2002 I predicted Massa would win the world championship at some point. I predicted the same for Kimi when he arrived (which I’m obviously still waiting for) and just to prove I’m not lying the same for Sato.

  3. still hopeless in the rain and useless under pressure.

    he’s only improved by such a large amount, because he was so far back to begin with.

  4. Massa is, in my opinion, a good driver whodoes not have the racer instinct. Please don’t look simply at his point standings, relative to Kimi’s, and call him “fast.”

    I know this is wild speculation but I believe there are many team orders in Ferrari. Kimi’s demeanor and statements about when the “win is decided” suggest something.

  5. ooooh, good spot Sean. i like that way of thinking.

    it’s also interesting that massa got himself a brand new chassis for this race.

  6. hm … why would Ferrari pay so much to Kimi and then deliberatelly pushed Massa ahead ? does not make much sense unless the goal was to bring him to Ferrari so he does not go somewhere else …

    Kimi’s comments in my opinion meant exactly what they meant – the race was decided on Saturday (as most of them theses days), Massa qualified ahead. He was ahead after race start and unlike in Magny Cours Kimi did not make use of the pit stops … I do not see any anti Kimi conspiracy there…

  7. Journeyer said on 28th August 2007, 15:08

    As far as I know at the moment, Ferrari is only implementing one team order:

    No overtaking between teammates after the last pitstops. And that’s been there for years, really.

    We’re not in the Schumi era anymore. The points standings say as much. If they were implementing team orders, they’d have a much better shot in the drivers’ title race than what they have right now.

  8. Number 38 said on 28th August 2007, 15:32

    Massa grab the 2007 title ???????
    Make up 16 points over Hamilton in 5 races with Alonos and Kimi running interference? NO CHANCE, but he’s still a super driver, much improved from his Sauber days and he’s got several years of superb driving ahead. Ferrari knew what they were doing signing him…….

  9. SoLiD said on 28th August 2007, 17:11

    He is overrated imho.
    As you said, he only won from pole… in a great car!
    Driving fast in a great car is one thing… racing hard in any car another.
    I believe Ferrari knew they would replace Schumi with a #1 driver like Kimi
    and they needed a #2 driver. Not 2 #1 drivers.
    He did have some good races, but his lack of progress in hungary told me he hasn’t got what it takes…
    and his rain races are terrible… he used his tyres as an excuse imo … I hope we can see some wet running this year, so he can prove himself (or my pov)

  10. Ali AydoÄŸan said on 28th August 2007, 17:25

    As I said before, he lacks some qualities of a champ. He fails to be competitive under difficult situations; like rain, being chased or chasing somebody, even lapping a backmarker…I did not believe what he said about his tyres vibrating badly in Germany, too.
    I was more than convinced about his current qualities in Silverstone, after he followed Kubica(who in my opininon is not good at defending yet, remember MagnyCours against Hamilton, Hungary against Alonso) for about 14 laps and could not attempt a single overtaking move(Yes he climbed up to Kubica,not mentioning how he overtook some of them, but a champ would do more with a race winning car). Then Hungary followed, where he did not show anything new.
    Yes he drives fast and clean in relatively clean conditions, collected so much points this year, but still I do not think he has shown (hope to see in the future for a tight competition) enough to convince people that he is capable of winning the title.
    If I would pick someone to surprise me, that would be Heidfeld with several solid performences so far.

    Put the racing aside, Massa seems to be a nice guy out of circuit, as far as I watched in his several interviews and footbal match in Turkey this week.

  11. Robert McKay said on 28th August 2007, 18:40

    Most of this years races have only been won from pole, so I don’t think we ought to write him off on that basis. Having said that, I still think he’s the weakest driver of the top 4 right now. But this title race is about consistency, and luck, and minimising mistakes, and he could yet win it, if not on outright pace.

  12. Daniel said on 28th August 2007, 19:30

    Massa is truly impressing me on qualifying… five poles out of twelve races, remembering that twice (Albert Park and Hungaroring) he couldn’t really fight for it. Besides only winning from pole, he and Raikkonen are the only ones who lost from pole this year. While Kimi retired, Felipe made two mistakes: a poor start at Sepang and slow overtaking procedures against backmarkers at Magny-Cours. But he has improved ever since: in his next four poles, he was able to keep his position out of the first curve.
    Yes, Massa still needs to learn a few things to win the Drivers’ title, but I think what makes difficult for you to understand his pace this year is the fact that you over-rate Raikkonen… believe me, he’s not that much either. Kimi lacks consistency and luck to become a champion, just as Felipe.

  13. Vertigo said on 28th August 2007, 19:34

    Massa definitely isn’t the complete driver yet, but there have been plenty of incomplete drivers (Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Jody Sheckter) who have won the title. He has had his share of bad luck and he has learnt from it, and know the tide will turn against Hamilton and Alonso. As for Kimi…I don’t think he cares if Massa beats him. I don’t think he cares about anything much.

  14. Daniel said on 28th August 2007, 19:41

    sorry, Hamilton also lost from pole…

    Oh, and as for the rain, why nobody takes into account the fact the he and Alonso avoided acquaplaining and, after them, many cars (Hamilton included) ended up on the gravel?
    Had Massa commited the same horrible mistake as Raikkonen at the pit entry in Nurburgring, you all would be certainly suggesting he’s not good enough to drive a Ferrari…

  15. Milos: I don’t think they’re favoring Massa over Kimi. I just think there is little racing taking place in Team Ferrari.

    Here are Kimi’s words:

    “If on Saturday all would have gone well, I could have caught the pole,” he said.

    “But after I had been beaten by my teammate I knew that my cards had already been played. When you know when your teammate is going to pit, there is hardly anything to do, above all if you are the one who has to stop before him.

    “I got really close to Felipe just once, but we were at the end of the second stint. My car was really, really good: I could have gone much faster than I was.

    “The most important thing was that the team gained as many points as possible, so there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. Anyway, we have reduced the gap: that is what we wanted, but just like in Budapest my race was quite boring.

    “Thinking about what could have been done in a different way doesn’t change anything. I made a mistake in my last attempt in Q3 and I paid the consequences. I hope that next time we will have a perfect weekend.”

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