Felipe Massa's Slide to 4th at 2014 Austrian GP Proves He Is Past His Peak

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2014

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 22:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives during the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix at Red Bull Ring on June 22, 2014 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Felipe Massa has never viewed the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2008, the race which saw Lewis Hamilton claim the world championship at the last corner of the last lap of the season, as the day he lost the title.

Instead, the Brazilian cites that year's Singapore Grand Prix, the fourth-from-last race of 2008, as the day when the tide turned in Hamilton's favour.

That particular grand prix—the inaugural race in Singapore—was the stage of the infamous Crashgate scandal, which involved Nelson Piquet Jr., the Renault driver, deliberately crashing in to the wall to cause a safety car period and therefore presenting a race-winning opportunity for Fernando Alonso, his teammate.

That safety car period led to Massa, who had led from pole position, streaming into the pit lane for a fresh set of tyres and a top up of fuel—but a misunderstanding led to the Ferrari driver departing his pit box with the fuel hose still attached to his car, leaving him stranded at the end of the pit lane.

By the time his Ferrari mechanics had dragged the fuel hose from his car, Massa had dropped from first place to the last of the existing runners.

As recently as last October, Massa continued to air his grievances, telling Byron Young of the Mirror:

What happened in Singapore is unacceptable. It cannot happen. I lost the championship there. Unfortunate—but it is like that.

What happened there is like in football when you have a match where they pay the referee. It is the same.

We see so many matches in football that they pay the referee and the team that loses goes to the courts.

But in Formula One nothing happens.

Yet despite Massa's right to remain bitter over the dark arts used by the Renault team, one crucial aspect of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix is often overlooked.

When Massa, who soon after was forced to serve a drive-through penalty, rejoined the circuit hose-free, there were still 45 of the race's 61 laps—over two-thirds of the race distance—left to run.

The undamaged Ferrari trundling at the back was the very same car that had set a comfortable pole position less than 24 hours earlier.

It was an opportunity for Massa to put in a champion's drive, to put his anger to good use and prove why he deserved to join the immortals, to claim the world-championship point or two that would ultimately prove decisive at Interlagos little more than a month later.

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 28:  Felipe Massa (L) of Brazil and Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen (R) of Finland and Ferrari are seen in parc ferme following the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix at the Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 28, 2008 in Singapore.  The
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

But he lost heart. He lost belief. He lost confidence.

And he finished in 13th position, five places from the last points-paying position and as the second-last of those who made the chequered flag.

It was a similar, sharp loss of momentum—going from a massive high to a disappointing low—which marked Massa's fall from pole position, and the lead of the race for the first stint, to a distant fourth place at the end of the Austrian Grand Prix.

Indeed, fourth place at the Red Bull Ring is clearly a less costly result for Massa in isolation and in terms of his finishing position against the backdrop of the drivers' championship than in Singapore almost six years ago, but the conclusion taken from the 33-year-old's limp display is arguably more damning this time. 

Massa's outstanding record of converting eight of his 15 pole positions into victories prior to this weekend would have been a source of confidence as the Brazilian lined up for his first start from the very front of the grid since he last won in his hometown in 2008.

Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

And although the pace of the No. 19 Williams—and that of Valtteri Bottas, Massa's teammate—was pleasantly surprising at the start of the race, what happened after the first round of stops was most concerning.

You could almost hear Massa's heart drop like a stone as he exited the pit lane on Lap 15 to meet the rear end of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes just slightly ahead on the long straight heading toward Turn 2.

Williams' strategic error in failing to respond immediately to the German's early stop had cost their driver dearly, and Massa seemed to be in a state of self pity by the time the second Mercedes of Hamilton dived down his inside under-braking for the second turn.

Contrast Massa's handling of the situation to the one which faced Bottas, who also emerged sandwiched between the Mercedes cars a lap later.

Bottas not only remembered to look in his rearview mirrors and defend from Hamilton at Turn 2 on his out lap, but he became an irritant for the duration of the second stint.

He held Hamilton behind with apparent ease while successfully applying pressure to Rosberg, forcing the German into running wide at Turn 1 on one occasion and even appearing to challenge for the lead before finally succumbing to Hamilton after the second round of stops.

By the time the field had been restored to a natural order after those second stops, Massa's period in the lead was a distant memory.

His younger peers were long gone, to the point where the Brazilian's focus in the closing stages was to resist the charge of Alonso, who, according to the official Formula One website, finished 1.2 seconds adrift of Massa, rather than to challenge Bottas, who finished almost 10 seconds up the road, for the final podium spot.

Among the reasons why Massa's pole position at the Red Bull Ring was so warmly received on Saturday was its human element.

This, after all, was a man who had suffered a life-threatening injury and a dramatic erosion of confidence in the six years since not only his last grand prix victory in 2008, but the last time he enjoyed driving a Formula One car.

And although that confidence and enjoyment has been restored with a move to Williams this season, his drab performance on race day in Austria after setting pole so convincingly means any upturn in results will be short-lived.  

They will be a mere diversion from the downward spiral than a sign of a resurgence.


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