July 19th, 2012 (F1pluss / Ewan Marshall).- A week on from Mark Webber’s decision to remain at Red Bull and already the makeup of next season’s driver market is beginning to take shape.
Naturally, the news led many to conclude that Felipe Massa would now be given the nod to remain with Ferrari, but this was quickly retorted by the Scuderia through its Horse Whisperer column which stated that it would take time to make a decision on its future line-up.
But while the Italian manufacturer appears in no rush to make its decision, the Brazilian cannot afford to rest on his laurels. Though Sauber’s Sergio Perez appears too inexperienced to take the reins at Maranello events can change quickly in this business, with security soon plunged into jeopardy.
No wonder then that Massa has set himself the ambitious target of finishing fifth in this year’s drivers’ standings and is bullish about his chances. The Brazilian has not shied away from his slow start to the campaign, knowing fine well that should he manage to claw back the current sixty-point deficit to Kimi Raikkonen then he will undoubtedly be in a strong bargaining position. Ultimately, few will expect him to meet this objective; nevertheless the 31-year-old has shown glimpses of form lately which indicate that he now has the ability to finish higher up the order and extract similar levels of speed from the F2012 as his illustrious team-mate.
The roots of this upturn appear to have stemmed from May’s Monaco Grand Prix, where Ferrari’s development programme really began to take shape. Despite a difficult showing in Spain, Massa was only a tenth off his team-mate in qualifying before finishing a mere six seconds off the lead in the tightly-knit battle at the front. Though the gap in performance to Alonso would stretch to roughly three-tenths in Canada, again Massa was still a solid contender for points – only for his early spin putting him out of contention for serious running.
Similarly Massa ran well in Valencia, only to drop back through his collision with Kobayashi, while last time out he could well have battled with Vettel for the podium had he not found himself trapped behind Michael Schumacher in the opening stages.
Clearly Ferrari’s updates have paid dividends, allowing the Brazilian to gain more performance with the likes of the Pirelli tyres, but this in turn has only strengthened Massa’s resolve of late and gave the aura of a much more settled man. Of course he could merely be the yardstick demonstrating his team’s true pace - and if so this says a lot about Alonso’s ability - yet having a rejuvenated Massa firing bodes well for the Prancing Horse in both championships, as long as he can be on hand to play a supporting role or maximise his haul when given the opportunity.
Of course the next few rounds will provide the acid test for this notion; all races where Massa has gone strongly in the past. Although the Hungaroring will always be synonymous with his life-threatening incident, many will recall the engine expiration which robbed him of victory, the previous year. Controversy aside, Massa has also tasted victory at Spa, along with several noticeable finishes at the Belgian circuit and in Ferrari’s backyard of Monza.
If in position, there is no doubt that the Brazilian will be forced to play the team-game – starting this weekend at another circuit where he has ran well at. Obviously much the 2010 affair will be retraced this weekend, but such memories will do little to deter Ferrari from employing the same tactics again or come as anything new to Massa (if you recall he was asked to move over for Nick Heidfeld in similar fashion during the 2002 event whilst at Sauber.)
If Massa is asked to unselfishly play the team game again this weekend or elsewhere then so be it; this is how Ferrari goes racing and, though it may not be to everyone’s taste, it should be respected. Instead, should the Brazilian even find himself in this position then this will be viewed as a success and a clear sign that he is the man to remain with the team for next season.
There’s still a long way to go before any decision is made, but Massa holds enough cards to have some say on the matter.