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. Kimi is so much more mature than any of the other three. I guess that’s what comes of a long history of bad breaks and Nearly-won championships…

    Actually, I’m ashamed to admit it, but Massa’s baby face has much to do with my reluctance to put him in the same class as Raikkonen/Alonso/Hamilton. He just looks like a boy out playing with the men. ;)

  2. yep, little racing in the Ferrari, same as little racing in the McLaren, same as little racing in the BMW … further down the grid nobody cares as they have nothing to loose… and that is how the F1 is run … 2 BMWs collided a race or 2 ago, and what kind of issue was made out if … team mates are allowed to race each other only in quali, but even that is not true anymore (as Hungarian McLaren case shows). As the top teams have no way to decide on no 1 driver this year, they simply do not want to see them fighting for position on the track. the points they may be loosing are worth way too much in $$$… so unless the guy ahead messes up the start, or gets stuck in traffic and looses out in pit stops, or makes a mistake and goes off the track, the team mates will finish the races the way they started, unfortunatelly … and this is not only Ferrari case, look at Monaco … Team comes first, spectators last …

  3. I’m blown away noone has mentioned that all Massa does when he doesn’t get first in the race or in qualifying or in practice, he makes millions of excuses. He doesn’t belong where he is. A good driver, yes. A champion, no; a good representative of the sport, no; a coward, yes.

  4. Number 38 said on 29th August 2007, 5:02

    Clive ! Are you nuts …..?
    “He (Massa) just looks like a boy out playing with the men (Raikkonen/Alonso/Hamilton.)”
    Haven’t you got Massa mistaken for Hamilton? Hammy’s the “boy” in more ways than age. Some think Massa was taken on to be #2 driver……maybe to Schoomi but he’s turned out to be a match for Kimi and Ferrari can’t sack him for #2 while he’s leading! There’s a lot of
    nagative chat about the Brazilian but he qualifies well and runs well when in front and considering how F1 races are basically just high speed parades anyway what better qualities to have than good qualifying and front line performance? He’s no good in the rain, eh? What about the other 17 races run in the dry? Someone’s priorities are misguided. Massa…..good and getting better.

  5. This is nice summary Number 38:
    “There’s a lot of nagative chat about the Brazilian but he qualifies well and runs well when in front and considering how F1 races are basically just high speed parades anyway what better qualities to have than good qualifying and front line performance? He’s no good in the rain, eh? What about the other 17 races run in the dry? Someone’s priorities are misguided. Massa…..good and getting better.”

    He made some mistakes this year, but he is sure learning from them. He messed up the start in Sepang, but he has been damn careful since then and never lost his P1 since then in the first corner … That is just one example

  6. It’s a comment on his baby face, Number 38, and nothing to do with whether he can drive or not. ;)

    Hamilton may be younger but he doesn’t look it (he looks pretty instead). As for Massa’s driving, I’m still undecided.

  7. Dan M said on 29th August 2007, 14:35

    “Kimi is so much more mature than any of the other three. I guess that’s what comes of a long history of bad breaks and Nearly-won championships…”

    Who would have thought that Kimi of all people would be the most mature….. On the track, certainly not off it.

  8. Hey, even oldies enjoy a good party now and then, Dan. :D

  9. Massa has come from the back of the field before on mnay occasions. Most notably in Silverstone this year to finish fifth.

    He was the driver that overtook more cars then anyone in 2004 and 2006.

    The F1 world still seems reluctant to call him a star. As for the Turkish grand prix won on the saturday it was a load of crap. Massa was going faster then that lap of Kimi’s anyway.

    They are both equally as fast. Massa just has more team “welding” knowledge and puts it to effect like Micheal did. Really celebrating each and every win. It lifts the team. Kimi’s words are playing the mental game as every driver does!

    Massa’s wet driving isn’t too bad (Alonso didn’t too). I think he just killed his tyres and that allowed Alonso to close in. He didn’t screw up at the European GP. Kimi and Lewis did…

    Kimi is a tad overated. He may have speed but that’s about it really. He is prone to mistakes and concentration lapses. Massa gave Micheal a challenge yet he is always the forgotten one for some reason.

    Maybe someday people will realise just what a star Massa truly is….

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