Felipe Massa yesterday declared himself still in with a chance of winning this season’s world championship. Don’t laugh – it is easy to see why the Brazilian might believe in himself. He has in his pocket a new Ferrari contract, a reasonably fast car underneath him and a team-mate whose car development skills are second to none on the grid. But can he really do it this year? What stands in his way? Is the championship victory positive-thinking, overoptimistic or downright deluded?
Insofar as the 2010 points system is basically an Aussie V8 style free-for-all, with the winning driver taking 120 points and the second-placed man 118 (or something like that), Massa could theoretically recover the 42-point discrepancy to Lewis Hamilton in (I’m being serious now) as little as three or four races. All it would take was for the Brazilian to win a race or two, something he is perfectly capable of doing, and profit from a crash or mechanical unreliability from the dominant teams. With the new, blown-diffuser Ferrari F10 reportedly setting quick times as it went out for a “filming day” this week, such an eventuality is not impossible to imagine. And the championship is a long one. “Until you see from a mathematical point of view that you don’t have a chance anymore, the championship is definitely open,” said the man himself. “We saw that in two races many things changed. Many things can change quickly in another two races.”
But then you have to look at what, or more precisely who, stands in the 2008 runner-up’s way. People who are absolutely determined to take the championships for themselves, and arguably from much better starting situations. People like Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, the warring duo astride what is still the all-round best machine, the Red Bull RB6. Then there’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, the British pairing who are the most comfortable in themselves and their McLaren team. McLaren are of course renowned for their developmental scope and ability, as well, and Renault and the well-funded Mercedes outfit are not a million miles away.
And that is before you come to Massa’s biggest obstacle: his team-mate Fernando Alonso in the opposite garage. Alonso has taken to Ferrari like a duck to water, and is already admired within the team for his hard-charging nature and all-round skill. Most importantly, however, he already has the bragging rights over our Brazilian hero. China was a key point, when Alonso overtook him coming into the pits. This act could have ended both their races, but it didn’t, because Massa gave way. The team weren’t angry, either, because the Spaniard had still had the forethought to tell the team that he was coming in first in the seconds after the deed was done. Since then it is fair to say that Massa has not been able to touch Alonso. His laptimes have not been vastly different to Alonso’s, but in terms of end-product they are light years apart. If you are only as good as your last race, the argument stands. In Canada Alonso could have won if it had not been for a backmarker’s baulk, whereas Massa tripped over Vitantonio Liuzzi three times at the first corner and ended a sad 15th.
Certain onlookers frowned when Massa, with his lacklustre performances of 2010, was given a new Ferrari contract recently. But this move had all the hallmarks of an Alonso manoeuvre. Alonso, ever since he was paired with the fiery Hamilton in 2007, has desired nothing but a pliant team-mate. Pliant, malleable, submissive…none of these words mean slow, but they do translate to second. Massa has given way once to Alonso, and paid the price. He may continue to do so, which would suit Alonso just fine. Not many people have any idea what goes on inside Maranello, but is it beyond the realms of possibility to guess that Alonso cast a shadow on Ferrari’s negotiations with Massa?
So it doesn’t look good for our man there. But perhaps the biggest problem for Massa lies in himself, and not from the outside factors. Massa has seemed this year to have returned somewhat to the Felipe Massa of old. His races in China, Turkey and Canada could safely be labelled ‘disappointing’; his Monaco race (he finished fourth) was nondescript; and only in Malaysia and at a push Australia did he impress. Gone is the Massa of early 2008, winning from pole and looking like a genuine Ferrari legend in the making. A lot of it is car-related, but people are beginning to ask whether a driver such as Felipe Massa can really mix it with the very cream of the crop – that ‘golden age’ of drivers that we are living through.
Is there a place for Massa? Yes, said Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, and while he’s there he still has the chance of winning races and the championship. It’s just not very likely, is all.