Formula 1: Can Felipe Massa Rescue His Dying Career?

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2012

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 24:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Ferrari attends the drivers press conference during previews to the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 24, 2011 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Felipe Massa had a terrible year in 2011.

Team mate Fernando Alonso wrung every ounce of pace out of the Ferrari, taking one win and nine further podiums.  He narrowly missed out on third in the drivers' championship, with 257 points—just one behind Mark Webber in the pace-setting Red Bull.

By contrast, Massa managed no better than six fifth places.  With fewer than half the points of Alonso, he was a distant sixth in the championship—only 29 points ahead of Nico Rosberg in the much slower Mercedes.

While the changes to the tyres may not have suited his style, it's the driver's job to adapt to change.  Prone to emotional outbursts and clearly feeling the pressure, his performances were simply not good enough.

Massa's career is hanging in the balance, and he was lucky to retain his seat for 2012.  Ferrari have frequently, and very publicly, said they expect better.  Chairman Luca di Montezemolo has even gone so far as to name possible replacements—though, speaking to Corriere dello Sport, he did say he expects Massa to rediscover his old form.

2012 is the crucial season for Felipe. We were not satisfied with his past season and neither was he. What I cannot forget is the fact that Felipe was often faster than Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen. He helped Kimi to his championship and a year later was a hair short of being champion himself. If the tyres warm up for him better next season, we believe Felipe can cope much better.

FIA president and former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt—the man who brought the Brazilian to the team—has also stated he believes Massa will do better in the coming season.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 24:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari and Felipe Massa of Brazil and Ferrari are seen during previews to the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 24, 2011 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (P
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Is such faith well founded?

No one expects him to beat, or even match Alonso.  The Spaniard is one of the best drivers on the grid, and Massa is not.  But he's expected to be closer.

Ferrari want a comfortable, but competitive number two.  Ideally, they'd have Massa finish every race just behind Alonso—picking up the points, taking points away from rivals, and not interfering with his teammate's title challenge.

That's the system at Ferrari.  They don't want two guys battling each other.  They want a winner, and a backup.  And they want the backup to be Massa.

And therein lies the problem.  Massa is a "confidence driver"—a man who thrives in a family-like atmosphere, needs the backing of the team, and needs to believe in himself to perform to the best of his abilities. 

He missed out on the world championship by a single point in 2008.  He wishes to believe he's capable of becoming a title winner, but Ferrari regard him as a clear number two.

It was OK being a number two under Schumacher—he was young, learning, and just delighted to have the opportunity to drive for Ferrari. 

His next team mate, Kimi Raikkonen, never went to lengths to ingratiate himself with the guys who built and looked after his car.  Besides, Massa often outpaced the increasingly demotivated Finn—he was the de facto team leader in 2008 and 2009.

Massa was an important part of the Ferrari setup.

But Alonso came into the team which had been his home for four seasons and immediately placed himself at the head of the table, taking away Massa's chair and putting it in the corner. 

The Spaniard dominated the garage from the start, and made it clear that after being surprised by supposed number two Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, he won't accept it happening again. 

From that moment on, Massa has gone backwards.  We have to bear in mind that 2010 was only a little better for Felipe than 2011 was—a stolen victory in Germany aside.

While it's possible—even likely—that his injury still affects him, the main problem is confidence.   He simply doesn't have any at the moment, and that's what he needs to turn things around.

But the team is the same.  Alonso is the same.  His role is the same, as are the expectations of Ferrari.

So can we really expect anything other than the same from Massa?