Why Rob Smedley's Williams Arrival Could Inspire Felipe Massa to Bahrain GP Win

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 04:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives during practice for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 4, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

When Felipe Massa was at the peak of his powers between late 2006 and 2008, when he was a frequent race winner and title contender, there were three circuits where he was considered untouchable.

Like during Sebastian Vettel’s nine-race winning streak in the second half of the 2013 season, the Formula One community arrived in these paddocks already knowing which driver would be standing on the top step of the podium come Sunday afternoon.

They were rare examples of a driver, a car and a track in perfect harmony, made all the more spectacular by the fact that Massa was and never has been truly considered as one of the most talented competitors on a grid with Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen.  

These forces of nature took place at Istanbul Park, the scene of Massa’s debut victory, Interlagos, where he seemed to run solely on the spirit of Ayrton Senna, and Sakhir, the venue for this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

And after a Malaysian Grand Prix that saw Massa experience a bout of deja vu, with his Williams team telling him in no uncertain teams to move over for his “faster” teammate, a return to a place that once served him so well comes at an ideal time for the Brazilian.

The Bahrain Grand Prix, in fact, presents Massa with arguably his and Williams’ best chance of taking a victory in the 2014 season.

The wet qualifying sessions of Melbourne and Sepang, and the levelling effect that rain brings to F1, mean that a race weekend is yet to play out accordingly so far this campaign. Williams’ quite visible handling difficulties in damp conditions have left both Massa and Valtteri Bottas qualifying in the obscurity of the midfield despite the team being regarded as the closest rivals to the pace-setting Mercedes cars at the close of pre-season.

The dry conditions in the Bahrain desert, then, should finally see Williams flex their muscles for the first time this year at a track where Massa set the fastest time of anyone in testing barely more than a month ago.

Red Bull’s sudden, almost miraculous return to form after a disastrous final test in Bahrain suggests that it is a matter of time until the reigning world champions, Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren utilise their superior resources and establish a more familiar pecking order, perhaps as soon as the fifth round of the season in Spain, the weekend that traditionally sees the introduction of major update packages.

This means that Williams, the privateer team with less money to play with in contrast to their more fashionable rivals, simply must capitalise on their early pace advantage if they are to secure a first grand prix victory for almost two years.   

And what better weekend for Massa to achieve his first win in over five years than the race which sees Rob Smedley, his race engineer for 135 races at Ferrari, officially begin work with Williams?

Massa’s excitement with Smedley’s arrival as head of vehicle performance was summed up when in the lead up to the race weekend he told Edd Straw of Autosport:

He's going to bring a lot of experience to the team and he's going to bring a lot of good ideas for race team organisation.

There's a lot going on in the team, a lot of improvements, a lot of things that are going in a good direction.

But there is still a lot to do and I am sure he will be an important key as well.

Among those “good ideas” that Massa believes Smedley will bring to Williams, you’d imagine, will be how to speak to drivers in a correct and honourable manner.

The contempt with which Massa was handled by his new race engineer, Andrew Murdoch, who used almost the exact same words that Smedley was forced into using in ushering his driver out of the way of Fernando Alonso at the now-infamous German Grand Prix of 2010, would have horrified the Brazilian’s partner in crime.

After all, the one aspect that made the relationship between Massa and Smedley so universally popular was their retention of a human element. In a sport which has increasingly seen drivers become the pawns of the prat perch that is an F1 pit wall, which is so reliant on the crunching of numbers and the analysing of data, their rapport has always provided the endearing impression of two friends taking on the world.

Sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always maintaining a sense of perspective, always retaining enjoyment.

That sense of perspective was lost dramatically in Malaysia when Williams found themselves arguing over which driver would finish seventh. The height of this humiliation should not be underestimated at the beginning of a season which represented a fresh start for Williams, with new personnel, a new engine partner in Mercedes and, of course, a new title sponsor in Martini.

The renewed vibrancy and excitement was surely not expected to have dissipated by the second round of the season, but the Bahrain Grand Prix represents a great opportunity for the Williams master plan to regain some momentum.

And although Lewis Hamilton ended Friday’s free practice running over a second clear of the next non-Mercedes driver, if anyone is to take the fight to F1’s dominant team in the darkness of the desert this weekend, Massa might be the one to do it.