Felipe Massa, in the course of a few races, has gone from sulking about being relegated to de facto number two driver at Ferrari to praising Fiat/Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo for his public expression of faith in the diminutive Brazilian driver.
You’ll recall that it wasn’t long ago, in the wake of Ferrari’s none too subtly giving Massa the order to move over for Fernando Alonso during the German Grand Prix, that Massa was telling anyone who would listen that if we were relegated to official number two status he would walk, preferring to be an ex-Ferrari driver rather than Alonso’s water carrier.
But what a difference a few races will make. Massa’s form has gone off the boil recently, and when Massa faced criticism in the Italian press the ever-political di Montezemolo quickly responded, professing his faith that Massa would be back to his old self in no time. It didn’t take much to read between the lines. Although di Montezemolo insisted that Massa would be winning races again, the entire F1 community is well aware that the Scuderia is backing a single horse for this contest, and the horse’s name is Alonso.
Di Montezemolo’s comments can only be read as a quid pro quo offer: Be a team player, and your place with the team is secure, never mind what those mad dog journalists say about you. Furthermore, 2011 is a new season. If you play your cards right, we’ll allow you to win races occasionally next year… unless, of course, it upsets Fernando too much.
For his part, Massa fell in with the party line quickly enough. As he told Ferrari’s official website, “Even though I am going through a particularly difficult time right now with a lack of results in the last couple of races, I know I can count on the support of the team, who have always been behind me one hundred percent, especially in the difficult times. I was very pleased to read what our president Montezemolo said after the Japanese Grand Prix. Knowing he has faith in me is something I truly appreciate: he has an excellent understanding of the sport and he knows that you can sometimes go through tough times. The fact his support is always there is very important.”
As if that public grovelling weren’t enough, Massa went on to leave no doubts about his willingness follow the team’s playbook: “My desire to do as well as possible for me and for the team is the same as ever and that has been my approach to the sport ever since I started in Formula 1…Everyone must put in 110 percent effort in order to succeed and that is definitely what I’ll be doing for the remaining weeks of the season.”
I’ve always thought that Massa made a strong number two driver. He’s quick enough to win races, and to keep the number one honest. Ideally, there should be only a marginal gap between the performance of the number one and the number two, just enough to justify the pecking order, but not so much as to make the number two useless for picking up points from rivals, or winning races should the number one be sidelined.
Massa has fit that role well since he played second fiddle to Michael Schumacher in the latter’s final year at that team. It was widely assumed he’d continue as number two once Kimi Raikkonen joined Ferrari, but Raikkonen’s performance was so inconsistent that it began to look, not as though the team had two number one drivers, as some asserted, but, rather, that they had a pair of number twos.
Obviously, this was an intolerable situation, and Ferrari solved it by encouraging the Kimster to explore his growing fascination with rally driving, and hiring Alonso as the laconic Finn’s replacement. The Spaniard has melded with the team as though he’d been there for years. No doubt this hasn’t been lost on Massa, and in his more reasonable moments he probably realizes that it’s better to serve at Ferrari than reign at Toro Rosso.