No-one doubts that Felipe Massa can display brilliance. Yet it doesn’t happen at every race. Now the title is within reach, we ask whether he has gained the skills required to be champion
By David Tremayne
He won in Bahrain, Turkey and Magny-Cours, and for a while his consistency made him a hot tip in this year’s World Championship. Then came that embarrassing disaster – and five spins – in the rain at Silverstone, and a lukewarm run at Hockenheim, and all the old questions about Felipe Massa started to re-emerge. In Hungary, however, his stunning performance ended three laps too soon, thanks to a cruel engine failure in a race that he had covered from the start.So the question remains apposite: is Massa ready to be World Champion?
He has always been popular. In his Sauber Petronas days he was known affectionately within the team as Little Brazilian Bastard, the natural successor to another sunny boy, Johnny Herbert, who had been Little British Bastard.
Massa is a guy whom it is impossible to dislike. He has the sort of bouncy, jokey disposition that is rare by modern Formula 1 standards. Without question he is the most charismatic fellow on the grid, bursting with the sort of fire that made Pedro Rodriguez so beguiling.
But… In those far-off Sauber days people liked to joke that he never used the same line twice on consecutive laps. He was always quick, but he never seemed to know why. Where Kimi Räikkönen had been the inch-perfect Iceman rookie there the previous year, Massa was seen by some to have less ultimate potential.
But not by Rob Smedley, his Middlesbrough-born engineer at Ferrari who was back then working for Jordan. “He has always been extremely quick,” he says. “I told Eddie Jordan he should have a look at him. But he was obviously not complete.”
Massa himself puts forward what sounds like a reasonable explanation, for a guy who came up through the unconventional route of Euro F3000. “First of all I had a difficult car to drive, for my driving style. Second, I had zero experience. I was too young. It could have been much better to start as a Ferrari test driver than a race driver, because in one year at Ferrari I learned a lot. In 2002 I did not do many tests, and I started racing already. I always had the speed, but I didn’t have the other things, so [as a test driver in 2003] I learnt to keep up a good speed but also work on the other areas. I grew up a lot, and worked on what was missing.”
He impressed in 2006 as team-mate to Michael Schumacher and won well in Turkey and Brazil. Last year he was a title contender until Monza, when a revolutionary damper let him down. This year, as champion team-mate Räikkönen blows hot and cold, he has emerged as Ferrari’s de facto prime contender. The first two races were pointless, then his three victories boosted him to the title leadership prior to the fated British Grand Prix.
“Silverstone was Silverstone,” he says with a philosophical shrug. It was just one of those horrible days. The only positive is that it’s almost certain to be his worst weekend of the year.
Even after that debacle, he shared 48 points with Lewis Hamilton and Räikkönen, but refused to be over-impressed by that feat.
“You see that you are first,” he says with a smile, “but we are still barely in the middle of the championship. So we don’t win anything at the moment, we just win some races; we know that things change quickly.
“So the approach is the same as before; if you see that you are in a position to win a race, you need to do everything you can to win. But if you see that you are in the position to finish second or third, you need to take the best points you can. When you have a clear idea towards the end of the championship, two races, one race to go, or maybe just in the last stint of the last race, that is the way you need to think.”
He concedes that this approach has made him calmer in 2008.
“In a way, yes. But take Canada. I was last, but I needed the points so you need to race to get them. I managed to finish fifth so I brought some points home. It depends on how the race is going: if you are second and you see that you can pass the guy ahead if you take a massive risk, maybe you think about it. But is it necessary to risk that much for two points?”
His move on Rubens Barrichello and Heikki Kovalainen in the hairpin at Montréal was one of the passes of the season (together with passing Hamilton at the start in Hungary), a bit of naked opportunism that started a long way back and came off beautifully.
“Yeah, but I needed the points! To be honest, I didn’t expect to get them both. I saw Heikki trying with Rubens, but in that corner it was really dirty outside the line. So I said, ‘If they brake slightly later, they are going to the dirty side, and then maybe I can try.’ I see both getting to the corner but not completely inside the apex, so I try, and we see what’s happened.” He admits that he was laughing in the cockpit when he exited the corner.
He is also happy to admit that he learned a huge amount when he worked alongside Schumacher, and to be fair that showed often in 2006. “I learned in many areas. How to work with the team, with the engineers, how to be a leader and to say, ‘I want the car like that, because I am not comfortable.’ How to make sure the car is good straight away. If you do everything right, when you sit in the car you should have the pace to improve. But the base work you do before, in testing, to get the right set-up to start the weekend.
“Michael had the incredible view about the race, about what is happening lap by lap, corner by corner, so you need to work on that. Michael used to talk a lot on the radio. I don’t talk like him, but I ask my engineer to tell me what is happening. You can learn much more.”
The cynics might laugh, but he adds: “You need to think like that, you need to be consistent. Many things can happen. That’s why the approach should be what we did until now, but I will tell you at the end of the season whether it was right or not!”
He has analysed the highs and lows of 2008, but says: “Last year was pretty competitive too. But McLaren were very consistent. This year we both had some problems and made mistakes. So it is more open now. Consistency is the key for the championship.”
Some people have suggested that there has been a new Felipe Massa at Ferrari this year, but he disagrees.
“A new Felipe? No. Maybe with these years in F1 I am more experienced, more mature. Every year you learn different things. You learn by victories, you learn also with the mistakes. More mature for sure, but not a new Felipe.”
OK, but is he a better driver?
“I don’t think so. Last year I was the driver who did most pole positions, so I was very quick. I won three races, so I was competitive during the whole championship. But after Monza where I had a problem in the car and I didn’t finish, the championship was too far away.
“To be champion you need to be quick and consistent, you need to work well with the team, and you need to be lucky. If you are missing one of these parts maybe you cannot make it. Last year something was missing.
“The only changes I have made to the way I drive is for the rules, how to drive the car without traction control, the change in the electronics.”
Two keys to his current situation are his relationships with Räikkönen and Smedley. He has a reputation for always getting along with his team-mates: Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve at Sauber, Schumacher and Räikkönen at Ferrari.
“I get along very well with Kimi,” he says. “We respect each other and we work very well on the professional side. We are both correct and loyal, there is no playing games. And, of course, we both want to win.”
“Rob is like an older brother to me. We get along very well, even in personal life. He is good on psychology, to talk to me and give me the comfortable approach. And he knows me well as a driver, what I need to be quick, how I like the car. My data guy, Guiliano Salvi, is great too.”
Smedley reciprocates, and you don’t talk with him for long before it becomes obvious that the mutual appreciation is wholly genuine.
“Felipe has matured. He can cope with more diverse situations. At Sauber he was young and prone to accidents. He just wasn’t experienced enough, but step by step he has moulded himself and he is now very, very competent.”
Can he be Latin in temperament?
“A little, and that’s why we try to manage the car and take away everything but the driving from him. We make all the major decisions on the car to open him up to dealing just with the pressures of driving.
“Mentally he is very strong. It’s easy for a driver to let his head go down, when there is self doubt. But he’s not done that. A great example was after the first two races. He was strong, he knew he was quick and he won in Bahrain.”
After Hungary, Massa said: “The confidence is there. After the race, even with the bad result, what we did still counts. We showed great performance, great pace and great teamwork. That is good for the next races. But when things look finished and then you hear something and have a strange feeling in the car as the engine breaks down, for sure it is not a great feeling. I feel really bad for what has happened.”
When things go wrong for him Massa is rarely down for long, and that alone is a major strength in a potential champion. He and Smedley have long adopted the philosophy that you cannot win every race. “We are here to win the title,” the Englishman says. “That’s our target, and to win that you don’t have to win every race. We understand that Lewis and Kimi can be quick, and on those days we have to be consistent. On other days Felipe can be untouchable. So we just have to keep scoring points.”
“The Make it Happen moment of the race – maybe of the entire championship – was Massa’s engine failure,” Jackie Stewart says. “He’d made a great start and run a good race, and he was three laps from winning when it happened. He’ll put it behind him, though. Every top racing driver has been disappointed by a mechanical failure at one time or another. You just have to take it philosophically. Massa will be upset for a day or so, but he knows an F1 car is a mechanical device with around 5000 components, and failures are not unknown. You just have to say, ‘That was not a good day.’ There’s no point screaming and shouting.”
The latter, as anyone who has worked with him will attest, isn’t Massa’s style.
“I enjoy working with him immensely,” Smedley says. “We complement each other. He’s easy to work with, a good lad, he has no airs and graces and he does his job.”
Massa has his feet firmly on the ground in his private life, too.
“I have not won anything yet,” he says. “I’ve won some races, but there’s a long way to go. First of all in life you have to be happy in what you do. I love to race, I love what I do.
“I still have the same friends, I still go to the same places, I’m the same guy.
“You have to target what you want, and I want to win. But you need an open mind and to put it together step by step.”
So is he ready to be champion? More people in the paddock are coming round to the view that he is, especially after Hungary, and Räikkönen’s often lacklustre runs. But Massa simply flashes his dark smile.
“I think I have the characteristics, but you need to put everything together to be World Champion. If I do that, I can make it. But that is a long way in front of us.”