Next weekend Felipe Massa will experience a unique cocktail of pressures very few Formula 1 drivers ever have to face.
Finding yourself in a championship showdown that’s gone down to the final race is one thing – doing it all at your home Grand Prix is quite another.
Home race heroes
Drivers respond to racing in front of their home crowds in different ways.
To some it seems to make no difference to their performance – Michael Schumacher, for example, was no more crushing at Hockenheim or Nurburgring than anywhere else.
Others seem to suffer under the weight of expectation. Rubens Barrichello, particularly in the immediate post-Senna years, is an example. Facing up to the burden of taking over from the much mourned Ayrton Senna in his countrymen’s affections, with neither the machinery nor the experience to do it in the late ’90s, he struggled.
Still others positively thrive on it. The great example is Nigel Mansell, who seemed to find an extra gear whenever he raced at Silverstone. His victory over team mate Nelson Piquet in 1987 is remembered as as one of the great F1 wins, but the magic was there in 1983, 1988 and 1989 as well, and on his last two appearances at the venue in 1991 and 1992, when he obliterated the opposition with a superior car.
Massa’s unique challenge
Felipe Massa surely belongs in this latter category. Whatever misgivings there have been about his abilities up until this year, the Paulista has always delivered at home.
On his second visit to the track as an F1 drivers in 2004 he put his Sauber fourth on the grid – the best starting position he and team mate Giancarlo Fisichella managed in the car all year.
In 2006 – his first visit to the track as a Ferrari driver – he capitalised on on problems for team mate Michael Schumacher to run away with the race. Last year he was on top again, and a second consecutive home victory would have been his, had he not been required to move aside for Kimi Raikkonen, much as Raikkonen did for Massa at Shanghai.
Massa’s good at home, but how good is he under the peculiar pressures of a championship showdown? That’s a situation we’ve never seen him in during his F1 career, and he pre-F1 experience doesn’t offer many useful pointers either.
Perhaps he’s just one of those people who’s at their very best when under peak stress. Or perhaps there’s a tipping point and the demands of performing at home in a championship-decider – the chance to inherit the mantle of Senna – may prove too much.
It’s one more fascinating dimension to this riveting championship showdown.
How do you think Massa will fare in his crucial home race?
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