Felipe Massa must be the leading candidate for most improved driver of 2008. In fact, you could make that case for the last two seasons, since he put the shaky start to his Ferrari debut in 2006 behind him.
This time twelve months ago he didn’t look like being the man who would lead the Italian team’s championship bid this year, but that’s exactly what’s happened. So can he go all the way to win the title?
Finding his feet at Ferrari
Massa’s move to Ferrari in 2006 was met with a degree of scepticism. It was hard to point to many stand-out performances from his three years at Sauber, and the convenience of his manager being Jean Todt’s son led to conclusions that Massa was being planted at Ferrari as a competent but non-threatening number two to keep Michael Schumacher happy.
That assessment was borne out in the first half of 2006. Massa made high-profile mistakes at Bahrain, Melbourne at Monaco. But as the year progressed he settled down and scored his maiden win at Istanbul – he remains undefeated at the track since – and a popular win in his home race.
This season started badly for Massa with mistakes at Melbourne and Sepang. But since then he’s scored points regularly, largely stayed out of trouble, and above all he’s usually had the beating of Kimi Raikkonen.
This is perhaps the most surprising thing of all because many expected Raikkonen to have little trouble keeping Massa down – especially having won last year’s championship.
It’s a very rare thing for the drivers’ championship to pass from one driver to another while the two are in the same team (Alain Prost did it twice).
But Massa, just one point behind Hamilton in the standings (seven if Hamilton wins his appeal), could do it. It would be especially ironic given that Massa relinquishing the lead of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix helped Raikkonen become champion.
There are two particular areas in which I think Massa is yet to prove himself capable beyond question.
This first is race craft. Although he passed more drivers on track than anyone else last year, the statistic is flattered by the occasions on which he found himself towards the back of the grid having to pass much slower cars. It’s hard to think of many occasions where he’s gone wheel-to-wheel with other front-runners and come out on top, apart from his pass on Lewis Hamilton at the start of the Hungarorian Grand Prix.
Part of this perceived race craft weakness are his defensive skills. He more-or-less pulled over and let Lewis Hamilton pass him at Hockenheim. Last year Fernando Alonso brushed him aside late in the race at the Nurburgring to take the win.
The Nurburgring race ended in wet conditions, which is the other scenario where Massa struggled. But, like his race craft, this is an area where we have seen clear signs of improvement this year, particularly at Monaco. Still, that nightmare race at Silverstone will linger in the memory for a while.
There are competing explanations for what’s behind Massa’s turnaround. I think it’s hard to discount the observation that he’s simply improved with time. Plenty has been said about the role of Michael Schumacher and Rob Smedley in getting more out of Massa but, important though they have surely been, they can’t get in the car and drive it for him. Massa has simply been getting the job done, and his technical approach and/or driving style appear to get more out of the F2008 than Raikkonen’s do.
Massa has visibly improved almost every aspect of his game since joining Ferrari. But is he now world championship-winning material? Would he make a good champion? Have your say in the comments.
Read more about Felipe Massa: Felipe Massa biography
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