Throughout 2007 Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso built up a very strong and bitter rivalry. It was surprising just how much their enmity developed since Formula One teams do everything they can to remain PR-friendly. Now that Alonso has left McLaren to join Renault it seems the biggest battle between teammates in 2008 will be fought elsewhere.
Look no further than Ferrari.
Kimi Raikkonen is the top dog at the Scuderia and has the number on his car to prove it. On paper he should comfortably beat Felipe Massa this year and make himself Ferrari’s main charge for the title.
However Formula One is a sport where things don’t always work out as they should, and Felipe Massa will be trying his damned best to make life difficult for the reigning World Champion.
The exceptionally close three way battle for last year’s title made it very easy to forget that Massa finished just sixteen points behind Kimi Raikkonen. It would have been closer had he not helped his teammate to victory in Brazil.
Massa was brilliant over the past twelve months. He scored dominant wins in Bahrain, Spain and Turkey, and almost landed two more in France and Brazil. It was by far the most impressive year of his career. At the start of 2007 very few people predicted that Felipe would push Raikkonen, but that’s exactly what he did.
A few years ago it would have been hard to suggest Felipe Massa would end up driving for a top team let alone winning races. Although the Brazilian is deserving of his drive at Ferrari he was also quite lucky to have landed it.
His manager is the son of Ferrari’s (now former) team boss, Jean Todt. If it wasn’t for that connection, or Ferrari’s policy of hiring solid ‘number two’ drivers alongside Michael Schumacher, Massa would never have found himself in a Grand Prix winning car.
His performances at Sauber were not great and Massa was dropped by the team at the end of 2002. Ferrari did enough to convince the Swiss outfit that Felipe should be given another run in 2004 but he was totally outclassed by Giancarlo Fisichella. Massa compared more favourably to Jacques Villeneuve a year later, but was that down to the Canadian’s poor recovery from a sabbatical as much as it was down to Felipe’s outright speed.
He improved a lot during his time at Sauber but still appeared to be a journeyman. His mistakes were all too common and they continued when he started with Ferrari. In the first three races of 2006 he made three big mistakes and bent a lot of red bodywork. Massa’s reputation as a quick and wild Brazilian was cemented.
However those early problems at Ferrari are what helped shape Felipe Massa into the race winner he is today. The team went to a lot of effort to make the Brazilian feel comfortable and shuffled his mechanics to suit. The result was that Felipe scored three poles and two victories in the final five races of 2006. It was year that Massa turned into a race winner.
2007 was the year he turned into a championship contender.
Kimi Raikkonen better watch out if Massa improves by a similar margin again. McLaren have recently been poor at building quick cars for two consecutive years so the Ferrari duo might end up locked in a battle for the championship.
It has been a long time since two Ferrari drivers have gone head-to-head for the championship by themselves. The last time that occurred was almost thirty years ago.
In 1979 Ferrari won the Constructors title quite easily leaving Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter to fight for the Drivers Championship. Interestingly there are many similarities between those two men and the current Ferrari paring.
Gilles Villeneuve was the superfast introverted star who had a passion for fast machines away from the racetrack, especially snowmobiles. He often kept to himself and never spoke poorly of others. Sound familiar?
The comparisons between Villeneuve and Raikkonen don’t finish there. Gilles had a very aggressive style and was a well known risk taker. Those who watched Kimi Raikkonen drive flat out through Eau Rouge whilst blinded by a cloud of smoke a few years ago might suggest the two share the same characteristic.
Gilles was phenomenally quick and it is safe to argue he was the fastest driver of all time never to have won the World Championship. In terms of outright pace he was unmatchable. The only way Jody Scheckter could beat him in the same car was to be more consistent.
As the 1979 season got underway it became clear that both Ferrari drivers would be fighting for the title. Alan Jones was closest to them in the final championship standings although he had scored just seven points from the first nine races.
The Ferrari 312T4 was a regular race winner early in the season and Villeneuve was making the most of it. Despite the Canadian’s advantage Scheckter keeping in touch him due to a bit of good luck. Villeneuve had a collision at the Belgian Grand Prix and a mechanical problem at Monaco. They were both races he could have won but victory went to Scheckter on those occasions instead.
Villeneuve was hampered by more bad luck throughout the season and it was enough to give Scheckter the 1979 championship but just a few points.
Massa can beat Raikkonen if he adopts the same strategy and almost did so this year. He cannot match Kimi for speed but can better him on consistency. The Finnish superstar has a tendency to make mistakes and if Felipe uses this to his advantage could end up pushing Raikkonen hard for the title.
At least Felipe knows that Kimi won’t stand in his way because the two drivers work very well together. Massa was more than willing to help Raikkonen win the last Grand Prix in Brazil and can rely on the same support from his teammate should the roles be reversed.
The same was true in 1979. Scheckter and Villeneuve were fierce rivals on the track but had a strong relationship off it. The South African won the championship with two races to go and only did so because Villeneuve obeyed team orders at Monza not to pass him. Had Gilles disobeyed those orders he would have won the title himself, but had no qualms helping Scheckter instead. They were genuine team players and had a real respect for one another.
This respect was evident at the final race of 1979 in the USA. During a rain soaked practice session Gilles Villeneuve was a full eleven seconds per lap quicker than his nearest challenger. Incredible! Scheckter was nowhere near as fast and said “”I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and I still don’t really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds!”.
Massa is unlikely to speak so glowingly about Raikkonen next time he struggles in wet conditions, but certainly won’t begrudge the new World Champion any of his success.
The two Ferrari drivers will be fighting for victories again in 2008 and their battle will be one of the most fascinating because all of it will be on the track. Raikkonen should emerge the victor but Massa can stage a coup if he mixes a little luck with consistency.
It worked for Jody Scheckter.