Competing at the highest level of any sport is not an easy thing to do. Athletes the world over are placed under enormous pressure, forced to make split second decisions, and are regularly pushed to the limit. However little of this is taken into consideration by an army of armchair enthusiasts watching on television, ready and willing to criticise every mistake and offer their own ‘expert’ advice at any given opportunity. It’s very easy to denigrate sporting stars from the safety of a couch and with the benefit of slow motion replays.
I say this because it is exactly what I found myself doing during the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Felipe Massa’s performance at Sepang was mediocre at best. He let Fernando Alonso past him at turn one, and let the sister McLaren of Hamilton past at turn two. By lap 6 he had managed to run off the road and he eventually trailed home fifth behind his team-mate and Nick Heidfeld.
It was extremely disappointing for Massa who entered this race with very high expectations. He was in the fastest car and he was starting from pole position. After the poor result in Melbourne things were beginning to look good for Massa. Very good.
Then he blew it.
He made a poor getaway and was immediately under pressure from Fernando Alonso. As soon as the lights went out he knew he was in trouble and starting moving right to protect his position. When Massa and Alonso entered the first braking zone, Felipe was just ahead and had Alonso squeezed onto the dirty inside line. In spite of this, Massa thought he would be better off out wide and pulled quickly to the left hand side of the track. In doing so he gave Alonso way too much room and the McLaren glided past into the lead.
If Michael Schumacher had been in the Ferrari he would have pushed Alonso towards the pitwall long before they even arrived at the first corner. He certainly wouldn’t have given Fernando that much room, and probably would have kept the lead.
Perhaps panicking, Massa made another error of judgement at turn two. He decided not to tuck in behind Fernando and stayed wide throughout the first right-hander. This allowed Hamilton to pull alongside at the second corner and Massa did little to stop the English rookie from driving right around the outside of him. Felipe would have been better off turning in later giving Hamilton no chance to squeeze him like he did at the apex.
It was far from a good start for the main Ferrari challenger, and it wasn’t about to get any better. The Grand Prix blew up in his face when he started racing wheel to wheel with Hamilton.
His first attempt at passing the McLaren came on lap four but Massa couldn’t make the move stick around the outside of turn one. He tried again within 15 seconds and passed Hamilton for second place at the fourth corner. However, he braked too late and drifted to the outside giving Hamilton the position back immediately.
Former Grand Prix driver Martin Brundle pointed out that Massa didn’t need to brake as late as he did because he was already on the inside of the corner. Hamilton would have been left with nowhere to go if Massa had kept his head.
What’s worse for the Ferrari driver is that he didn’t learn from his mistake.
He was in exactly the same position two laps afterwards and this time he braked later still. The move was never going to work and the Ferrari slid onto the grass. It was a poor display of racecraft and certainly not fitting of someone fighting for race victories. Hamilton later admitted that he had tricked the Ferrari driver into braking too late, and seemed a little embarrassed that the Brazilian had fallen for it.
Massa was outsmarted and outraced by a rookie.
It is a huge shame for Felipe Massa because he is incredibly gifted. Very few people on the planet have the ability to drive a grand prix car as fast as he does and he has been brilliantly quick from moment he set foot in F1 machinery.
From the very start of his career though he has always been regarded as wild and mistake prone, and has rarely been considered a solid challenger.
He managed countless spins and mistakes throughout his debut season and did little to endear himself to his mechanics who regularly repaired broken bits of Sauber. The 2002 British Grand Prix summed up his early efforts perfectly. He was blindingly quick and much faster than team-mate Heidfeld, although he finished behind the German because he spun at the start and did so again several times during the Grand Prix. It was a fairly typical mistake ridden performance.
His first season finished on a bad note when he drove into Pedro De La Rosa at the Italian Grand Prix. The FIA deemed that Massa should start the next race with a 10 place grid penalty, and he is the only driver to receive such a punishment for dangerous driving. No-one was surprised when Sauber dropped him for 2003.
It looked like Massa’s career was over but his connections with Rubens Barrichello secured him a testing role at Ferrari. It was a great chance to rebuild his reputation and that’s exactly what he did. The long hours pounding around Ferrari’s test track gave Massa’s driving some consistency and the interaction with a winning team taught him about success at the highest level. It was a great experience for Felipe and he was given a second chance at Sauber in 2004.
Although he was outpaced by his team-mate in 2004 he made fewer mistakes and stayed with Sauber for another year 2005. This time he was partnered with Jacques Villeneuve and impressively thrashed the Canadian at the start of the season.
It was still a controversial year for Felipe. At the San Marino Grand Prix he got into a scuffle after the race with David Coulthard who was furious when Massa had barged him off the track. Coulthard apparently grabbed the small Brazilian by the neck and only let go when he realised Massa’s parents were watching. The incident kept Felipe’s erratic driving in the headlines and his reputation was stained once again.
By the end of the year he was being outpaced by Villeneuve, and there were plenty of surprised faces when he was announced as a Ferrari driver for 2006. Massa’s critics believed he was unworthy of a seat with the prancing horse and argued he was only given the drive because his manager is the son of Ferrari boss Jean Todt.
Felipe Massa had a lot of people to prove wrong in 2006, and it didn’t go according to plan.
On lap 8 of his Ferrari debut he somehow arrived at the first corner backwards and cost the team valuable points. Three weeks later in Melbourne he destroyed two Ferrari chassis and had done little to suggest he belonged at Maranello.
Ferrari gave Felipe a new race engineer and things got better as the season went on. He raced closer to Schumacher and started scoring regular podiums. Then he took wins at and and by the end of the year his reputation was restored. Bernie Ecclestone even tipped Massa for title glory in 2007.
Perhaps Bernie was jumping the gun. Massa’s driving at the end of 2006 was still not worthy of a champion. He made plenty of mistakes at the Hungarian Grand Prix and his two wins were fairly easy. He benefited massively from a Safety Car at the Turkish Grand Prix and his Ferrari had a phenomenal advantage at Brazil . Nobody could match the red cars at Interlagos.
With all that history in mind 2007 is finally crunch time for Felipe Massa, especially given that he now has the best seat in Formula One. He must take a step up this year or he will always be someone else’s number two.
He didn’t get a chance to shine in Melbourne, so the Malaysian Grand Prix was the first opportunity to find out if Massa has what it takes. Raikkonen had a few reliability concerns and raced at Sepang with a detuned engine. This left Massa as the main Ferrari charge all weekend and it was up to him to deliver.
He didn’t. Even with a car advantage over the whole field he finished fifth after a typical fast but flawed Massa race. He has driven like that his entire career and if he doesn’t change soon it will be his undoing. He will not win a world championship if the big teams only want him to support their lead driver.
Felipe Massa is capable of stepping up and I honestly hope he does. He seems like a lovely guy and it would be great to have another consistent challenger for race wins. He better turn his performance around quickly though, because I am not the only person criticising him from the safety of my armchair.