Tuesday, 12 October 2010

How do you solve a problem like Felipe?

An intriguing development of the past few days is the thickening plot surrounding Felipe Massa and his relationship with Ferrari.

It all kicked off, publically at least, in the build up to the Japanese race when Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo said: 'I have waited for Felipe with great perseverance in the last four races. I want a strong Massa who will shave points off the rivals...Those who race for Ferrari don't race for themselves, but for the Ferrari team colours. One who wants to race for himself will have to face the team'.

Curious stuff. Particularly given that, on the track at least, Felipe hadn't done an awful lot wrong in those four races. He scored a 3rd and two 4th places (in two of those races indeed taking points off championship rivals) and also came in 8th in Singapore after a mechanical failure in qualifying, absolutely not his fault, consigned him to start at the back. The inference could be taken that Massa's off track relationship with his team, particularity in regard to his his willingness to assist team mate Fernando Alonso's title bid, has become severely strained. We can also infer, going by di Montezemolo's stated chronology, that the problems are traced back to Hockenheim in July, the scene of 'team order gate' of course, wherein Felipe was required to cede a likely win to Alonso.

From Massa's point of view this dissatisfaction is perhaps understandable. To ask a racing driver, particularly one who is an established front runner and has fought for the world championship right up to the last race, to just hand over a win to another must be the ultimate affront.

There is further background noise to Massa's gall. This is a season in which, returning from a near fatal accident last year, Massa has consistently struggled to match his team mate's pace, and also has a team mate who is a master at building a team around him off the track. After all of this, Massa may have been entitled to think that Hockenheim could be the turning point for him, the race in which it came right. And, possibly of greater importance, a 'fillip' (as Murray Walker would say) for improved performance for the remainder of the season and beyond. And all this on the anniversary of his 2009 accident.

Yet, if Massa has grounds for grievance, if his reaction has been to complain behind the scenes and act as an obtrusive force to Alonso's title challenge (a big 'if,' given I don't have inside knowledge) you have to ask if this really is the best way of expressing his grievance. The better way, surely, would have been to take a leaf out of Mark Webber's book, which is to take a breath and find renewed motivation, going on to prove the team wrong with your results on the track?

Another book he could take a leaf from is that of Gerhard Berger. When Berger joined McLaren he was initially incredibly taken aback by his team mate Ayrton Senna's pace and relentlessness, much as Massa has been with Alonso this year. Yet, Berger rapidly came to the conclusion that learning from his team mate at close quarters was the best option. He reckons he became a much more complete performer as a consequence of this. As far as we can tell Massa hasn't reached this conclusion. Indeed, his comments prior to the Japanese race indicate that he is somewhat in denial about Alonso's abilities: 'Fernando is very good, definitely. But, he is not better than my other team mates. It's just myself not being as good as usual'. Yet, this is the same Massa who was very open about learning from Michael Schumacher when he was his team mate in 2006 - has the subsequent water under the bridge meant that he doesn't believe he needs to learn now?

There is also the consideration that Massa's approach is unwise: he currently seems to be doing his best to talk himself out of a Ferrari drive. If he does leave Ferrari none of the other 'big four' teams are likely to have a seat for him (that's if they're even interested in signing him). It's more likely that he'll end up in the middle of the grid, somewhere like Force India. So, while this may appease Felipe's conscience it's not likely to achieve many more race wins. But the problem is now that it could be that his relationship with Ferrari is in such an irreparable state that there is no way back. I hope for Felipe's sake that this is not the case.

It's also tempting to ask whether Felipe is being rather naive about the whole Hockenheim case. Yes, team orders are expressly against the rules, but they continue to enacted one way or another throughout the grid. Felipe should have known this having benefited from them in the past, most notably towards the end of the 2008 season when he was battling for the title. It was reasonably clear, even at Hockenheim, that only Alonso of the Ferrari drivers had a realistic chance at winning the drivers' title that year, and Alonso had been half a second quicker than Massa in qualifying there, much as he'd been quicker for most of the season. Many onlookers, including Martin Brundle on the live BBC commentary, openly speculated during the Hockenheim race about Ferrari performing a 'switch' prior to it happening. Further, if you scan back to Massa's first win ever win in Turkey 2006, not that much further into that season and when team orders were just as 'banned', Felipe commented that he would have given up his win to team mate Schumacher, even on the last lap, had Schumi made it up to second place (though, again, there's been plenty of water under the bridge since). Could he at Hockenheim not have reasonably foreseen that he would be required to give up the win?

As I said, let's hope for Felipe's sake that it's not too late to save this situation, and to save his Ferrari seat. Luca di Montezemolo's comments were explicitly supportive after the Japanese race, one in which Massa had qualified poorly and crashed at the first corner of the race in what seemed like a major misjudgment (it's perhaps understandable that he was distracted after everything that had gone on). However, one writer reckoned that the words were loaded more as an ultimatum a la italiana. Still, even if it is an ultimatum there remains an opportunity for him to retrieve himself in the remaining races this year.

And let's hope that at Interlagos he drives as well as he usually does there, shows everyone what he can do, takes points off Alonso's championship rivals, and does everything he can to help his team mate's championship bid. That'll go a long way to rebuilding bridges. Go on Felipe, you know you can.

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