Felipe Massa: F1's Most Improved Driver?

Chris BurnsCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2008

As a Ferrari fan, I (like many others) have very fond memories of the days in the mid-90's when Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger drove for the Scuderia. 

For me, Jean Alesi's aggressive, never say die attitude was one of the main attractions to the sport when I first stumbled across it as a 10 year old boy in 1994.  He was a true fan favorite, a great entertainer if nothing else.  A driver with such an abundance of natural ability it was only matched by his endless string of bad luck and bad choices.

With these fond memories still intact, there was a hint of deja vu at the opening race of 2002 when a young Brazilian named Felipe Massa set out for first practice in Melbourne.  Blisteringly quick one lap, flying off the road the next. Reminiscent of Alesi at his most mercurial.

This was a trend that continued throughout that first season and eventually resulted in Peter Sauber dropping him from the team for the following season.

From a brief F1 career seemingly over after being overlooked for a Jordan drive in favor of Ralph Firman, he signed as a Ferrari test driver for the 2003 season in a move that seemed to be based entirely on his manager being the son of the boss at Ferrari. 

However, it was at this point he was able to learn his craft out of the limelight, working with the "dream team" at Ferrari at the time and learning countless things from race drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. 

He obviously showed enough talent during this time that Jean Todt thought he warranted a second chance at a race seat in F1. Via a quick reminder to Peter Sauber about who supplied his team's engines, Massa was back in F1 alongside the highly rated Fisichella at Sauber.

Massa by no means had the better of Fisichella that season, but the errors were less frequent and Fisichella himself had such a great season that he was snapped up to be Alonso's teammate at Renault and finally earned himself the big break he had been striving for. 

Massa had proved himself enough to be kept in the team alongside incoming driver Jacques Villeneuve, a world champion no less.  By all accounts Felipe destroyed what remained of Villeneuve's reputation that season. 

Still the odd mistake occurred, but more often than not Massa's raw speed was in evidence when compared to Villeneuve.

Despite the obvious improvement Massa had shown since his first stint at Sauber at this mid table team, the news that he had been chosen as the new Ferrari number two for the 2006 season was greeted much protestation.  He was clearly not ready to aid the most successful driver of all time in his efforts for an eighth world title. 

The first race of the season confirmed this, an error ridden race resulting in a ninth place finish in Bahrain, when a podium should have been possible.  For the first half of the season a trend emerged of Schumacher winning races or harrying Alonso, with Massa trailing in 20 or 30 seconds behind. 

No worse than say, Eddie Irvine had compared to Schumacher, but proof for the doubters that Massa was not good enough for this level.  At the European Grand Prix Massa scored his first podium finish in F1 behind Schumacher and Alonso, and this seemingly marked a turning point for him. 

After that he was regularly within two or three tenths of Schumacher in qualifying, and followed him home closely in convincing one-two’s for the team at Indianapolis and Hockenheim.  At Turkey he claimed his first pole position and then drove a flawless race the following day to take his maiden victory, on a day when the Schumacher had an off track excursion himself and trailed home in third place behind Alonso. 

The rest of season was much improved and he was often a match for Schumacher, ably assisting his challenge for the title.  Already here was a much improved driver from that even at the start of the year.

Once Kimi Raikkonen joined Ferrari, he was soon expected to stamp his authority on the team, but again Massa raised his game and for the first half of the season at least he had the better of the man regarded as the man with the quickest raw pace in Formula One. 

People seem to forget in the excitement of the three way title battle of 2007 that until three races from the end of the season, Massa was still in the hunt for the title, only seven points behind Raikkonen. 

Admittedly, Raikkonen had the edge on him over the second half of the season and this was expected to carry on into the 2008 season, especially as Massa had struggled so much without the aid of traction control. 

Once again, this seemed the case after the first two races of the season, both of which featured Massa spinning during the race.  But, once again faced with a barrage of criticism from the motor sport media, he dusted himself off and dominated the next race at Bahrain. 

However, surely the most telling sign of his continued improvement came at Monaco, a place he had never seemingly got the hang of and up against two men regarded as Monaco specialists, he took a magnificent pole position for the race, before coming home third in the rain on race day.  Again, conditions he had never previously been particularly well in. 

I am aware of the unfortunate timing of this article, coming just a week after his Silverstone ‘spinfest’.  But if his previous qualities show through again he will again put all of the pressure to the back of his mind and produce another great drive at Hockenheim and all will be forgotten again. 

And then who knows, maybe even the world championship beckons…..