There’s been a lot of talk recently about the driver situation at Ferrari. After a season in which Fernando Alonso dominated team-mate Felipe Massa the natural questions of the journalistic world are towards Felipe, and whether the Ferrari management are really happy with his performances this year.
The season looked promising for the Brazilian in Bahrain qualifying, when he put his Ferrari on the front row alongside Vettel. However, this turned sour when he was promply passed at the first corner by Alonso, who went on to win. At Melbourne things didn’t look much better for Felipe, when Fernando, having started third, was knocked into a spin by Button at turn one. His resultant charge through the field, back from last place at the end of lap one, saw him right behind Massa at the flag, and pushing his team mate hard.
A series of lacklustre races followed, with Malaysia, China and Spain all being performances to forget. Alonso’s crash on Saturday in Monte Carlo allowed Massa to once again outqualify him (Alonso did not take part in qualifying at all as his F10 chassis had been wrecked on Saturday morning) and take home fourth place. Anyone that saw Alonso’s speed in the principality on Thursday could not be in any doubt as to which of the Ferrari drivers would have beaten the other in a “normal” race, but Alonso bringing it home only two places behind Massa after starting dead last should be answer enough for Domenicali.
When the two Ferrari’s arrived at Turkey, possibly the worst race of the year, on performance, for the red cars, neither driver had had the greatest of sessions. As it was, it was Turkey expert Massa that out-performed Alonso, as he had done Michael Schumacher in 2006. Alas, instead of a superb win, Massa brought the car home 7th.
Updates to the F10 brought an upturn in performance for the Scuderia, and Alonso’s combative podium at Montreal was a stark contrast to Massa’s beleagered 15th place. When both cars were subject to a difficult safety car situation in Valencia, it was Fernando that scrabbled some points, Massa ended up coming in 11th. In Silverstone another awful weekend for Ferrari saw Massa once again outside of the points. Things were not looking good.
Then came Hockenheim. It’s been noted around and about the internet in various columns that this was the point that Massa’s mood inside the team changed. Debatably, reading back his words after the previous three zero score races, it seemed like he was in quite a funk already. As it was Hockenheim looked like the only race of the year that Massa might have won, albeit fortuitously. Alonso had outqualified Massa by half a second, and when Vettel spent all his time off the line defending from the Spaniard, it was Massa that snuck through into the lead. As we all know, throughout the race distance Alonso was much faster, and Ferrari as it is, he was not allowed to pass his team mate without permission, so in the event, Massa was asked to move over. Looking back over their respective seasons so far at that point, it did not take a great leap to understand which of the two Ferrari drivers would be the most likely to take a shot at the championship. Ironically, taking second place in Hockenheim would match Bahrain as Massa’s best result of the year.
The rest of the season was not always so unsuccessful, but often it was difficult to remember that Felipe was even in the race. Spa aside, he would not finish ahead of Alonso again. Going backwards in Interlagos to an eventual 15th place finish came as quite a surprise to me, and many others, on a track where Massa is usually so magnificent. By the last lap of Abu Dhabi Alonso had outscored Massa 252 points to 144, and outqualified the Brazilian 15 times to 4. Massa had not faired so poorly against a team-mate since his time alongside Schumacher in 2006.
It is not unusual, in the fickle world of Formula one, that a driver’s position in a top team would be challenged after such a season. The press have linked various names to the second Ferrari seat, including Robert Kubica and Mark Webber, but is this really going to happen? From Alonso’s point of view Massa is not so bad as a team mate, having a team mate that is, on average, half a second a lap slower, is perfect for being able to sculpt a team to your liking, just ask Old Mike Schuey. However, Ferrari must be unimpressed with third place in the constructors championship, losing out to McLaren. Fundamentally, McLaren ran two very fast drivers alongside eachother, in their case, both would regularly score points. All too often Felipe’s bad races were very bad, and the points were not coming through. As such, you have to think that the Ferrari management are thinking about replacements.
To my knowledge, Felipe’s contract is in place till the end of 2011, and as his manager, Nicolas Todt is not known for making weak contracts. So, personally, I think the chances of him being replaced for next season, at this late stage, to be extremely small, meaning he very probably has another season to try to turn around his recent fortunes. If he cannot pull this off, however, the signs suggest he will be looking for a seat in 2012.
It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that Ferrari announced a new test and reserve driver for 2011, in the form of 2009 Formula 3 Euroseries champion Jules Bianchi. Also managed by Nicolas Todt, this young Frenchman has shown impressive speed across only four seasons of single seater racing, finishing third only to Formula One migrants Pastor Maldonado and and Sergio Perez in the GP2 series this year, he has proved a solid performer who rarely makes the same mistake twice. Whilst Bianchi did not win any races in GP2 this season, he ran at the front in most of the races, started from pole three times (Including the season opener) and stood on four podiums. Smart money would be on Bianchi for next year’s GP2 title, and with enough mileage in pre-season testing there could be a strong argument from Mr N. Todt that he deserves a Ferrari seat in 2012 alongside Alonso.
The same could be said of Sergio Perez, he too has become a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy since being granted a race seat at the Sauber-Ferrari team for next year. His performances this year in GP2 were erratic and he needs to calm his driving down to reduce errors, but his speed is in no doubt. Meaning Ferrari could be spoilt for young talent in 2012. It’s very rare that Ferrari hire a rookie driver, so Perez’s performance in 2011 against the highly rated Kobayashi could make a very big difference to the Mexican’s career. At the same time, you have to wonder which of the established drivers that you feel, on pace, could hold a candle to Fernando Alonso, would want to join Ferrari after he has spent two solid seasons becoming more and more ensconced in the fabric of the team.
With that in mind, perhaps Felipe will be looking for alternatives anyway. After all, no one ever wants to be “the other guy” in a team, and 2008 aside, this is what Felipe has always been at Ferrari. It’s an odd part of the man’s psyche that he never seems to be taken too seriously, despite often showing world beating pace. In 2005, alongside 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve at Sauber, the press would explain Massa’s pace merely as a reflection of how poor they had perceived that Jacques had become, rather than recognising the diminutive Brazilian’s talent.
Perhaps it is time that Felipe moved to a team that appreciate his ability, nurture his needs and support his apparent emotional requirements. On his day, in a car that is working for him, Massa can be as fast as anyone out there. In the right place this talent could truly flourish.