Massa’s intransigence shows up wider woes at Williams

Yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix was won in sterling fashion by Lewis Hamilton, a real return to form. The racing did not have a great deal of spice, however, and the meat on which to chew was to be found in seventh and eighth places in the form of the Williams duo Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas respectively.

The issue was as follows. Early on in the race they were line astern, Massa followed by his Finnish junior. Then Bottas apparently made an unseemly attempt to purloin the position from Massa, unseen by the TV cameras. Massa’s ire which followed was caught on the team radio – ‘Did you see what he did? He tried to attack me!’ Williams promptly radioed Bottas to request that he hold position. ‘Tell him to go faster then,’ riposted Bottas.

Onto the denouement of the afternoon. The two gorgeous Martini-liveried machines again find themselves in close proximity, the order as before. This time the magisterial stick insect Jenson Button is pootling round in front, apparently on ailing tyres and attempting to conserve fuel. Though Massa in the foremost machine cannot mount a sortie, for his tyres are similarly worn, the team reckon that Bottas might. The Finn is on tyres two laps younger than his team mate. ‘Felipe, Valtteri is faster than you,’ comes the message. Yield please, Felipe. There is no audible or physical response. Again, Massa is asked to let his team mate have a go at Button. Again, he does not. They finish in the same order.

Post-race, Felipe is combative – full of adrenaline and ready to argue his case. ‘I’m sure the result would not have changed even if I had let him by,’ he asserts. Bottas is unwilling to get into a war of words. On Sky, to Ted Kravitz, Claire Williams makes a somewhat mealy-mouthed attempt to deny Massa had ignored a direct team order. Everyone else is sure he did. A lot of pundits (mainly ex-drivers, for there are precious few of the other sort these days) immediately side with Massa and trot out the line that he’s a racing driver and will not give up a position just like that. It transpires that Williams had a switch-back plan to ask Bottas to let Massa back past in the event that the Finn couldn’t pass Button.

Well. Two things. Firstly, it’s clear that 2014-spec Massa has evolved a personal selfishness behind the wheel that although long overdue, cannot be justified by his talent. Despite being lauded in some quarters for making the decision unilaterally that Bottas wouldn’t have been able to pass Button, this call is of no merit because the driver is simply not in possession of the full facts. The team are. They know that Bottas is on fresher tyres, that he is going faster, that he might be able to have a good go at Button. Massa doesn’t and can’t know those things.

The team’s mistake was to be insensitive with the wording of their message, which were an unfortunate echo of the Ferrari call for Massa to move over for Alonso at Hockenheim in 2010. But that doesn’t mean Massa should ignore it. He has to do what they ask. He’s an employee of the team, just like any other, and if there’s a chance the team can do better by his surrender of a seventh place, then he must make that sacrifice.

This leads onto why the team later backtrack and bemuse by denying there was a problem. Obviously it’s hugely embarrassing that a driver would publicly fly in the face of the team’s wishes, so the line should be: ‘this will be dealt with behind closed doors, and it won’t happen again’ (which seems to be more the tone deployed this morning by press releases). But that wasn’t what happened in Claire Williams’ interview, where we all squirmed as she denied Massa had ignored the message.

So what is going on? This, I think. Massa is at Williams partly because of a sponsorship deal or two that brought much-needed cash to the Grove purse. Rumours swirl of the historic team’s pecuniary difficulties, and whatever the truth of the matter, empty side pods don’t get balanced out even when there’s a legendary title sponsor. So Massa must be kept happy, to an extent. The trouble is, this is a false economy, because they might, just might, have nicked sixth place yesterday. They’ve built a nippy car and should do well this season.

But it would be deleterious to the sport if lacklustre drivers, unable to overtake because of their own shortcomings, could brazenly ignore inter-team stipulations because they knew the team would bow to them. Selfishness? Blackmail? Call it what you will, but it ain’t racing.