Mexico’s Sergio Perez finished a redoubtable second in yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix. He could so nearly have won the whole thing. The latest bloom of the youngster’s flowering talent has made deafening the calls for him to replace the struggling Felipe Massa at Ferrari, and such a move could even come sooner than the end of the season. Here, forumula1.com analyse the pros and cons of putting F1′s newest star into one of its hottest seats.
The naysayers have had it in for Felipe Massa for some time. Arguably, he never really had many fans. For a generation of Brazilians bored of seeing Barrichello lose out to team mates and desperate for a new Senna, Felipe Pasta – as his name unfortunately translates – was not the answer. A brief renaissance followed when he looked like he had the measure of Kimi Raikkonen in the latter half of 2007, but ever since losing out by a whisker to Lewis Hamilton in 2008, Massa’s performances have seemed to fade. No doubt the horrible accident that befell him in ’09 was a hindrance to all sorts of aspects of driving an F1 car, but F1 is a cruel business in which job security is often decided by the stopwatch.
And, of course, what lullabies your team mate manages to sing to the car. In Alonso, Massa has one of the most fearsome opponents of all time, capable of grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck and forcing it to lap circuits competitively. For the vast majority of the time last year Alonso had the upper hand distinct. This year is no different, it appears; even worse. The Spaniard finished no less than 1 minute and 39 seconds ahead of the Brazilian, who might have had the indignity of being lapped if the race had been ten laps longer. Such margins are vast and not easily defensible.
Then there is Perez. He too has had a big smash – last year in Monaco – which caused him to miss a couple of races on the grounds that his head wasn’t right. Maturity there, and in the cockpit of a steaming Sauber yesterday, impresses hugely. The Mexican is fast and has showed himself capable of learning. In an era when Vettel, king of kings, is still only 24 years old, Perez’s youth seems only to recommend him.
But and but. This Ferrari was flattered by its result yesterday, and to a certain extent Alonso was too. He got a little lucky where Massa didn’t, and with bad F1 luck, just like the weather in Sepang, it never rains but it pours. Although Felipe has shown himself practically incapable of driving the car competitively in its present incarnation, there is no wisdom in writing him off for the whole season – when Ferrari make their updates, the car could suddenly play to Massa’s strengths. No one knows.
Then, who is to say that Perez is better than Massa? A lot of F1 folk, prior to yesterday, would have backed his team mate Kobayashi over him to have a result like second in a rain-soaked Malaysian Grand Prix. Some suspicion still lingers that Perez is a pay driver backed by Carlos Slim’s millions and that in a dynamic like that, it is sometimes unclear whether the talent or the money opened doors first.
Quite apart from that, was Perez’s drive yesterday really that good? The calls from the Sauber team were outstanding, if fortuitous in part, and great teamwork always magnifies a driver’s achievement. Perez’s contribution was significant, but the eagle-eyed amongst F1 viewers will have noticed a couple of seriously sideways moments from the white car that were very nearly gravel-trap game over. (Yes, they were visible on the Beeb, even if the commentators missed them). And then there was the big moment in the closing stages when wincing, we all urged him to keep it on the black stuff. So close to throwing it away. Remind you of anyone? Perhaps a certain Mr Massa.
The upshot is that Ferrari can afford to take their time with the execution of Felipe Massa. All the conjecture over Perez vs Massa is mostly irrelevant because the Italian marque are firmly of the belief that one cannot have two equally rapid team mates competing on the same level, a philosophy which you suspect suits Fernando Alonso very well. 2012 probably won’t be a championship year for Maranello and if it is, it’ll be down to Fernando Alonso’s individual brilliance. He doesn’t need a headline-grabbing Mexican in the other car. And Felipe Massa has done enough in his career to warrant half a season more of a chance.