Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Curious Case of Felipe Massa

So did you stay awake through the Spanish Grand Prix? I did, but I must confess it was something of an effort. After the first lap, there was, by my counting, just one 'on track' pass through the whole race, when Jarno Trulli made a move on Adrian Sutil into turn one, early on. The Circuit di Catalunya has never been especially good for overtaking (memories of wheel to wheel battles in the early years of the circuit's existence notwithstanding, but both the 1991 and 1992 races were wet). The current F1 cars, with their combination of high downforce, aerodynamic instability and relatively low power, merely serve to emphasise the problem.

The Spanish Grand Prix was, thus, the dullest Grand Prix in some while. It was, though, a soporific race which provided a very interesting story. Namely, Felipe Massa is beginning to emerge as Ferrari's lead driver and, perhaps, the favourite for the World Championship. I think its safe to say that pretty well everyone assumed that Kimi Raikkonen would emerge as the de facto team leader at Ferrari. The team were, after all, paying him perhaps as much as six times what they pay Massa. The Finn had built up a reputation during his time at Mclaren for being the outright fastest driver in the world. It was simply assumed that Felipe Massa would pose no serious threat. Even when Massa went quicker in testing, many of us (certainly myself) thought that this was indicative only that Raikkonen was sand-bagging. At most, we thought, he was perhaps taking a little time to get used to the Ferrari and to the working methods of his new team.

And yet here we are, 4 races into the new season, and, except at Australia, where Massa was handicapped by a one-stop strategy and a pre-race engine change, he has looked the quicker of the two Ferrari drivers. Perhaps this is nothing more than an anomaly. Perhaps, come the season's end, we'll be musing about Kimi Raikkonen's strange, slow start at Ferrari. Maybe we'll even be wondering whether this was what let Alonso, or even Hamilton, through to the title. But perhaps not...

I was scouring through Felipe Massa's resume, trying to find any hints that he was a potential front runner in the way that Raikkonen is. Its far from obvious. When he came into Formula 1, in 2002, he was occasionally quick, but wild and erratic. He scored 4 points, which in a 2002 Sauber was a respectable enough haul for a newcomer, but he was outqualified 12-5 by team mate Heidfeld, and ended his season with a sadly characteristic error at the Degner Curves at Suzuka.

He spent a year testing with Ferrari, during which time it is claimed he matured considerably, but when he reappeared with Sauber in 2004, I well recall one Autosport journalist remarking along the lines that "He's so wild he looks like he's going to have an accident at every corner, but his car control is so incredible, he usually manages to keep it to one every race. Which is still not much use." In 2004, he was back at Sauber and paired with Giancarlo Fisichella. He had matured somewhat since his wild opening year but still, he was usually outpaced by the Italian and scored only half his number of points. If one was looking for a potential future world champion, then a man who, after a full season of F1, and another testing with Ferrari, was still being blown away by perpetual underachiever Giancarlo Fisichella surely wouldn't be the obvious bet.

The following season, his third and final at Sauber, saw him paired with a returning Jacques Villeneuve. It was here that perhaps, in retrospect, we began to see signs of what Massa might be capable of. Initially, he considerably outpaced his former world champion team mate, and as the season wore on, Villeneuve was eventually able to get on level terms with the Brazilian, but never really established superiority over him. Having said that, I've always thought Villeneuve one of the luckiest world champions there has ever been, and that by 2005, he was probably some way past his best. It must also be borne in mind that Nick Heidfeld, on balance, fared better against him the following year when they wered paired at BMW.

So, on balance, Massa's 3 year stint at Sauber did only enough to suggest that he was a decent racing driver - a good number 2 for a top team perhaps - and no more. When compared to what Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna were able to do in second rate machinery in their first season, it can't be said that Massa stood out as the kind of driver who might frighten Raikkonen and emerge as a serious title contender.

What, then, of his time at Ferrari, alongside Michael Schumacher? On paper, the qualifying performances at least, seem to suggest that he was really rather close to the 7 time world champion - much more so than anyone might have expected. However, Mark Hughes, a man who frankly knows his stuff, is pretty sure that, when corrected for fuel load, Massa was on average 0.4s a lap slower than Schumacher. By contrast, the fuel-corrected gap between Alonso and Fisichella was just 0.2s My own analysis of fastest race laps last year suggest a similar margin of superiority was enjoyed by Schumacher on Sunday afternoons, too. Perhaps the one thing that can be said is that a more nuanced analysis of their relative performances shows Schumacher way out ahead in the early part of the season, but Massa much closer to him later on in the year. I have seen this put down to a change of race engineer - with Rob Smedley seemingly able to understand what Massa wanted from a car in a way that his previous engineer could not.

And if there is an explanation, perhaps this is it. Rightly or wrongly, Massa has never struck me as the most technical of drivers. I could be wide of the mark, but he doesn't strike me as someone who would simply know what he wanted from a car. Perhaps in Smedley he has finally found someone who has been able to work it out for him - or at least work with him much more effectively. The two wins towards the end of 2006 have convinced Massa that he is capable of winning Grands Prix, and that confidence, combined with a car and team with which he is familiar, has enabled him to really raise his game this year.

I was trying to think of a precedent for what has happened at Ferrari. For sure, illustrious drivers have been matched or even outpaced by newcomers before. One thinks, for instance of Nelson Piquet against reigning champion Niki Lauda at Brabham in 1978. Or, with neat symmetry, of Michael Schumacher against three time champion Nelson Piquet at Benetton some 14 years later. Perhaps by the end of the year, we might be adding the names of Hamilton and Alonso to that list. Its something which happens from time to time. It might happen still more often if inexperienced drivers more regularly walked straight into front running teams.

But an established star being outpaced by a well established number 2, a known quantity? That is actually rather rarer, by my reckoning. In fact, Massa's performances remind me of a very different personality with a very similar reputation some 20 years earlier.

By 1986, Nigel Mansell had been knocking around F1 for several years. There was no doubt that he could be fast on his day, but he didn't seem to be really quick. He was, for instance, generally outpaced by Elio De Angelis, a good rather than great driver, at Lotus in 1984. He also had a reputation for bottling it when the really big opportunities came - most notably at Monaco in 1984. Towards the end of 1985, in his first season at Williams, however, he began to show real signs of promise. First came a mightily assured second place in treacherous conditions at Spa. Then there was his first win, at Brands Hatch. Two weeks later, he repeated the trick at Kyalami.

For 1986, though, he was paired with Nelson Piquet, a double world champion who had made the Brabham team his own over the past seven years. It was simply assumed that he would put the upstart Mansell in his place. Piquet had acquired a reputation for being the fastest driver in the world at that point, after all. Yet, that wasn't the way it played out. In the first part of the season, Mansell was generally comfortably quicker. And in the second half, Piquet succeeded only in closing the gap - he never established superiority. The following year, the gap between the two seemed even greater, and it is only sheer blind luck which gave Nelson his third and final title that year.

It is hard to think of two more disparate people than the sunny Massa and the perpetually sullen, chippy Mansell, but their remarkable similarities in their early careers. Neither was an instantly fast and consistent, natural. Both struggled to shake off a reputation for being fallible under pressure. And now I wonder if the comparison might be an omen. Because, of course, in 1986, Piquet eventually fought back against the upstart and began to take points of him. And that battle enabled a little Frenchman by the name of Alain Prost to sneak through and win the title. He, of course, drove a Mclaren....

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Anonymous Clive said...

Interesting analysis. But you didn't say which McLaren driver you see sneaking through at the end of the year... ;)

3:17 AM  
Blogger ProtoSpecs said...

On overtaking....Get away with to much down force and the overtaking, the wheel to wheel racing,the (Gilles Villeuve style) drifting will all come back.i am convinced!
But they would have to do it drasticly by 70% or even more.
Then fill a little of the traction loss up again by widening the (rear) tyres, and the car's "grip" will be given by its tyres again, for some 50% more then at current.
That will give the driver something to work with as tyre grip is something he controls and aerodynamical caused grip is a "race" done in the workshop influenced for a large part by avalibility of money
Also it will loose more then half of the unbalance effect when the car hits "dirty air" when trying to overtake
And finally it would allow for more driving lines trough a corner.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm posting here at the end of the 2007 season, which turned out to be a great nailbiter (and perhaps the greatest thing to happen to F1 competition-wise since the days when Prost, Senna, and Schumi were all racing each other). I personally have come to the conclusion from this season that Massa can and will be world champion someday if Ferrari allows him to do so. What I mean by this is that it is clear that he has the talent and skill to be the world champion, and the number of races he has had pole, fastest lap, and in general led laps on suggests this. However, as long as Ferrari treats other drivers as number one, he may not see such a day, but that is yet to be seen. Massa's contract has been extended with Scuderia Ferrari for 2008, and I'm hoping (doubtfully) that Massa will be given an honest shot at the title this upcoming year.

4:48 PM  

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