Despite a slight upturn in form between the Monaco and British Grand Prix—sixth around the principality, fourth at Silverstone, and he was busy setting fastest laps in fifth position at Montreal before he spun on Lap 6—2012 has still not seen the results Ferrari expect from Felipe Massa.
A winner of 11 races, Massa has not been on the podium since the Italian Grand Prix in 2010, and this in a period during which his teammate won six races.
Many would point to Massa’s major accident in 2009—when a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn came loose and smashed through Massa’s helmet at more than 100 mph—as the turning point in the Brazilian’s ability to win races.
There is, of course, a great deal of merit to that theory. The incident was described as “life-threatening” at the time and Massa went from a race-winning, almost championship-winning driver in 2008 to a man whose very existence in Formula One is now being questioned.
This does ignore the fact that, when the car has been good, Massa’s still been capable of producing results. At his first race back after the accident, he qualified second, ahead of his two-time world champion teammate Fernando Alonso, and he was on course for a victory in the 2010 German Grand Prix before the infamous “team orders” scandal reared its head.
Has it really ever been any different for Massa? In each of his race-winning years prior to the incident, the Ferrari was arguably the class of the field, and Massa was still more likely to be found leading a race from the front than dragging his car up through the field or conquering treacherous conditions better than his competitors.
Since 2008, Ferrari have not once had the dominant package, and it may well be that Massa never possessed the abilities to transcend the capabilities of inferior technology.
Making the difference
There are very few that can, of course. In fact, whilst the phrase “out-performing the car” is one often bandied around in Formula One, it is not physically possible to make a car go faster than its performance limit. But there are those who can consistently lap at or near that limit, thereby maximizing the potential of their car and capitalizing on the mistakes of others.
Massa’s first Ferrari teammate, Michael Schumacher, was one such driver, and the last of Schumacher’s victories, in the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix, underlined this point: the “Regenmeister” dragged uncompetitive Bridgestone intermediate tires to victory, making the most of Renault’s technical issues, whilst Massa toiled in the midfield before eventually retiring.
Unfortunately for Massa, his current teammate Alonso is another such driver.
That Massa’s current car, the F2012, hasn’t yielded him much success in the first half of the season wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to those predicting 2012 form based on preseason testing. The car was handling badly, overheating tires and turned up for the season opener in Australia around 1.5 seconds off the pace in qualifying.
What would have left the same sages gobsmacked, however, is that Alonso leads the championship by 40 points going into the summer break. As remarkable as Alonso’s achievements have been, it shows what results the F2012 is capable of achieving given the correct circumstances.
That Massa’s points tally is only 15 percent of Alonso’s paints the Brazilian in a very dim light.
And yet this was the man who bested Kimi Raikkonen as his Ferrari teammate in 2008 and beat him on many occasions during the “Flying Finn’s” world championship year of 2007. This leads us to the ultimate question that arises from this appraisal: Which available Formula One driver could do better in 2013?
Ferrari do not intend to build a bad car next year—no one ever does—and with the right technology Massa does know how to win. How many available candidates can say the same?
The obvious choice to drive the car quickly is Lewis Hamilton, and having still not signed a new contract with McLaren, he may well be available in 2013. But his tumultuous relationship with Alonso necessitates an entire article of its own, not to mention that a lifelong McLaren man like Hamilton might struggle within the very different, very Italian, confines of the Scuderia.
Robert Kubica would surely have been on top of Ferrari’s wish list—prodigiously quick and friends with Alonso to boot—but he’s had his own debilitating injury, with no guarantee of ever regaining the dexterity required for Formula One.
Which leaves us with unproven talents—Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg or Paul Di Resta—or the nostalgic and nationalistic choices—Rubens Barrichello or Jarno Trulli.
No matter who Ferrari decide is best to partner Alonso for 2013, the popular opinion is that they’d be little more than a seat-warmer anyway, with Sebastien Vettel having some kind of (intriguingly vague) pre-contract for 2014.
Ferrari may well decide that, for the short term at least, it’s better the devil you know.