It seems that you can't become a F1 legend in a season, but you can be condemned for life as a mediocre driver. Indeed this was the reputation of Felipe Massa who after his debut season in 2002, was seen as an aggressive erratic racer, who wrestled the hell out of each car he drove and reaped very little reward.
However as time has progressed Massa has become a very well-rounded individual, challenging for this year's championship, racing for the most successful team in F1 history, and soundly beating his rated team mate. The question is though has Felipe Massa dispelled his rather bleak reputation...
Felipe Massa left his first season with four points and 13th in the drivers championship. What he also took away was a reputation for being a 'wild-boy' which has stuck with him ever since. In that year he had five incidents, which included collisions with other drivers, spins and constant examples of over driving. Sure he was quick but many criticised how he over drove the Sauber, in stark contrast to Nick Heidfeld who was not only a much smoother driver but also seemed to get results.
He was expected to push Heidfeld like Raikkonen had done in 2001, but was unable to do so. Heidfeld scored on four occassions netting a best finish of fourth while Massa scored on just three occasions with a best result of fifth in Spain.
It seems harsh to compare Heidfeld and Massa, after all Heidfeld was entering his third full season, his second for Sauber, but at the time Heidfeld was not perceived to be a particularly great driver (he himself had a wild reputation after 2000), and Felipe was inevitably seen by the Brazilian public as the next Senna. Yet he could not deliver and was chucked out of Sauber to gain more experience.
To an impartial observer Massa was at best a rough diamond, at worst an average driver who couldn't cut it at the top level. However there were flashes of speed.
In his debut weekend, Australia, he out qualified Heidfeld by 0.3 tenths of a second sitting ninth on the grid. He never finished a race outside the top 10 and in two or three occasions he did finish in the points, Massa finished higher than Heidfeld.
Yet few saw the little crumbs of speed and Massa spent 2003 testing, trying to banish his tendency to overdrive. Luckily one team did see the potential...Ferrari.
Massa himself says this was the turning point of his career as Ferrari began to show a keen interest in this erratic young talent:
"A big part of the learning (for me was) as a Ferrari test driver. That year was like a university for me. Michael (Schumacher) was like the professor and I learned a lot from him, about how to grow inside the team and work with them better." (Autosport.com)
Whatever Massa did however, his reputation seemed to follow him. Even into 2005 when Ferrari announced that Massa would replace the dependable Barichello for the 2006 season, this was seen as a huge suprise.
Why would Ferrari choose the erratic Massa over somebody more reliable or successful? Drivers such as Fisichella or Button where bandied around at the time, but it was Massa who was chosen, and time has shown Ferrari to be wise.
Massa himself admits that had he started as a Ferrari driver his reputation would have markedly changed:
"I'm sure if I started my career as a Ferrari test driver my reputation would have been completely different. Because of the first year, which was bad, my reputation was bad for so many years." (Autosport.com)
However this year Massa has finally shown the racing world that he has 'the right stuff'. After 17 races he still has a chance in the championship and has out driven Raikkonen in almost ever department, a man who he was compared to so ill-favourably in his first year at Sauber.
It is pretty obvious that Felipe has felt the heat of the critics for a long time and is immensely satisfied to finally being praised for his driving:
"I think when you show people something that they don't believe, it's even more nice for you," (Autosport.com)
But most importantly of all he has been able to squash his reputation as an over aggressive driver who can only perform on a set number of tracks. His performances in Monaco, France and Hungary surely attest to the fact that Felipe is more of an all-rounded racer and not just a flash in the pan.
But surely where he has impressed the most is his qualifying this season. In an area where a driver must be fast but also smooth and consistent over one lap, Massa has excelled, taking five pole positions, and 4 further front row spots. Surely this shows how far Felipe has come as now he is not only the smoothest driver on the grid but also one of the most consistent in a discipline that was in stark contrast to his driving style.
The reputation of a driver is always important, as like media image, it will spread much faster than any racing accomplishments. Ultimately Felipe Massa has had a F1 career of turmoil, having to race with the 'wild boy' reputation above his head. Finally however he has been able to remove this weight and has become the driver many hoped he would become. As Felipe himself says:
"People always put me completely out of the game. Nobody expects you to do a good job and then you do a better job than everyone thinks and it's even nicer..." (Autosport.com)