If 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.
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
At 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?
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.
Is 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