This year people are talking about Michael Schumacher. They are talking about Lewis and Jenson at McLaren. They are talking about that Spanish chap, Alonso, winning for Ferrari. They are not talking so much about Felipe Massa.
Over the past few seasons Brazilian Felipe Massa has proven himself to be a consistent race winner and in 2008 was unlucky to be beaten to the championship by a single point. How he and Ferrari must rue the time he left the pits in Singapore with the fuel rig still attached? If Ferrari have produced a good car this year, and all pre-season indicators point to them having a very quick car, then Massa is surely a top contender for the title?
A combination of the arrival of Alonso to his team and the fact he is coming back from a horrific injury, where his skull was fractured by a Brawn spring during qualifying for last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, means that people are unsure about Massa. Even though he has confidence in himself, even he won’t really know if he still is as good he as was until he actually competes in Bahrain.
The signs are good. Very good. During pre-season testing he clearly demonstrated that he can drive quickly and with great skill. Experts watching him around the track at Jerez, for example, marvelled at his smoothness, consistency and ability to get on the power early.
He is an underestimated driver whose arrival into F1, with Sauber in 2002, did not send shock waves through the sport. He appeared to be quick, but prone to mistakes (he span off several times) and in his rookie year scored less points than his teammate Nick Heidfeld (4pts and 7 pts respectively). The following year Sauber replaced him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and he became the Ferrari test driver. Frentzen retired at the end of 2003 and Sauber rehired him to partner Giancarlo Fisichella, but he only scored 12 points compared to Fisichella’s 22 In 2005 he stayed at Sauber, this time with former world champion Jacques Villeneuve as his teammate. He only scored 11 points, but was quicker than Villeneuve and outscored him in the championship.
Massa was improving as a driver, being quick but making less and less mistakes. His big break was landing a seat with Ferrari in 2006, partnering Michael Schumacher in his final season (at least, we thought it would be his last!). This would be an extremely important season for Felipe, as for his career to continue, his driving would have to mature and develop.
Massa initially showed good speed but had a couple of spins and crashes. As the season went on he improved. He got his first podium at the Nurburgring, had the fastest lap in Barcelona and got his first pole position and win at the Turkish Grand Prix. He scored 80pts overall, 41pts less than Schumacher but had established a bond with Michael that since then has grown into a friendship. Schumacher stayed with Ferrari as a consultant and gave Massa great advice and support and this seems to have really helped Massa take his driving to the next level.
In 2007 he had Finnish driver and highly regarded Kimi Raikkonen as his teammate at Ferrari. Raikkonen would win the championship (110pts compared to Massa’s 94pts) but Felipe’s driving impressed everyone in the paddock and knew he was unlucky not to be in contention to win the title. He had some technical problems at the Australian GP and a bad start at Malaysia meant a 5th place was the only reward for achieving pole position. He was disqualified at the Canadian GP for leaving the pit lane with a red light showing. However, he did win the Grand Prix of Bahrain and Spain (both from pole position) and won again in Turkey. He would have won in Brazil, but let his teammate pass so Raikkonen could win the Championship from the McLaren’s of Hamilton and Alonso by a single point.
2008 was the season that Massa could have so easily been world champion. His first two races, however, were disastrous and he crashed out in Australia and then spun off in Malaysia (after achieving pole). He rectified the situation in Bahrain where he dominated the weekend and won easily from his teammate. Massa gradually reeled in the results and closed in on championship leader Hamilton.
As they went to the inaugural Singapore GP there was only one point separating them and Massa took pole by an impressive 0.6secs from Hamilton. During a pit stop he was given the all clear to leave but the refuelling rig was still attached and he drove the length of the pitlane with it still hanging on his car. Removing it and a consequential driver-through penalty meant he finished the race with no points.
He went into the final race at Brazil knowing if he won and Hamilton was only 6th or less he would be world champion. This so nearly came true as Massa won and as Lewis entered the last lap he was in 6th place, but sensationally managed to overtake a struggling Timo Glock on the second-to-last corner and so Hamilton won the championship. This must have been gutting for Massa but he had proved to everyone he was most definitely World Champion material.
In 2008 and in 2009, up until his terrible accident, he was quicker than Raikkonen. Make no mistake about it, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2010 championship and of the leading contenders certainly deserves it the most. Look for him to be good in Bahrain, he often does very well there.