IT MIGHT only be the second round of the championship this weekend in Malaysia but already, Felipe Massa is under a pile of huge pressure to deliver. The Brazilian’s shambolic performance in last week’s season opener in Melbourne has left his future prospects of staying with Ferrari hanging even more by a thread. On Tuesday, the Italian team announced that a new chassis will be flown to Kuala Lumpur, but is that enough to save the charming Ferrari no.2 from the sack.
From the moment Felipe spun off in the opening practice session, his fate in Albert Park of a mediocre performance was sealed. He never looked comfortable with the F2012, which it has to be said, is proving to be a real handful anyways. Qualifying saw him a distant 16th, four places behind Fernando Alonso. That was despite Alonso spinning out early on in Q2. Although he made an excellent start which saw him upto tenth, Massa quickly fell away from the leading group and spent the majority of the afternoon battling a poor chassis, high tyre wear and probably, his demons on a mental basis.
He was overwhelmed by the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Kamui Kobayashi and the race ended with an unsavoury tangle involving the Williams of Bruno Senna. When you consider Alonso saved fifth place for the team and was lapping 2-3 seconds a lap quicker on a regular basis, it highlights Massa’s nightmare Down Under. I described his driving performance as akin to a pig on rollerskates! It is a sad and sorry decline for one of F1’s nice guys. Team principal Stefano Domenicalli is still backing his driver though, telling JAonF1; “We need to stay close to Felipe because it’s clear that he’s under pressure. I’ve asked his engineers to analyse the data on the car, also to reassure him.” It means that there can be no excuses this weekend.
Mentally, Massa is driving like Damon Hill did in his final, troubled season in the sport in 1999. The former golden boy of Ferrari has been cast adrift by Alonso’s arrival and moulding the team around the Spaniard’s comforts. The days of Felipe outpacing Raikkonen in their three years together are a distant memory. Has he ever recovered from the radio message below (using clever F1 2010 graphics) whilst leading the German Grand Prix by merit in 2010;
I don’t think he has and Shanghai aside last season, I don’t think he has driven as well as he did that day at Hockenheim. Immediately afterwards, he said he would walkaway from F1 if he was a no.2, having experienced a similar order at Sauber in his debut season, ironically at the same circuit.
Now I don’t know what Felipe Massa thinks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mental note saying ‘it is wrong to beat Alonso.’ It is frustrating, as he can match the best on his day. Since Hockenheim 2010, it has led to those basic errors that littered his first season in 2002 reappearing far too regularly. Don’t forget his attempt to pass cars on the grass on the approach to turn one of the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix? Of course, his high profile incidents with Lewis Hamilton last year have been well documented.
Then, there’s the factor of the crash during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when Massa was knocked out by a loose spring that had bounced down the road off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car. He might have scars for the incident, but big knocks can affect a driver. Ralf Schumacher had a similar experience after a testing shunt in 2003 and he never recovered from this shunt, while it took Mika Hakkinen the best part of 18 months to fully recover from his near fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995. Only Massa will know how much the Budapest shunt has affected him.
I do hope that the driver who came within seconds of the 2008 world championship does find some of his old form again. The bare facts are he hasn’t scored a podium since Korea 2010, the longest run a Maranello driver has gone without a podium since Eddie Irvine, 17 races between (1996-1997). We will see whether a new chassis is the solution to Massa’s problems. However, more races like Melbourne and Felipe will be lucky to see the season out, let alone hope for a contract extension.
A STRUGGLE AWAITS
FERRARI struggled to meet expectations in 2011, only managing one victory. For a team with its heritage, history and success – it was simply not good enough. Sadly the Italian team seem to be in the doldrums and testing form indicates that 2012 could be even worse. Not since 1993 has Ferrari not won a Grand Prix in a season. This year, this stat could well be thrown up regularly if their struggle continues.
The sacking of technical director Aldo Costa after Fernando Alonso’s alarming lack of pace in last year’s Spanish Grand Prix highlighted the desperation in the Ferrari hierarchy. Generally they have struggled to recover from the strategical blunder that cost Alonso the championship in Abu Dhabi 2010. In testing, media conferences have been cancelled, Pat Fry and the drivers have admitted that the team is not in the best shape heading into the season and the car has looked slow, unreliable and at times, almost undriveable. Alonso and his team-mate Felipe Massa face a long season ahead on this evidence.
There is bound to be a lot of pressure on team principal Stefano Domenicalli, especially if they are found wanting in the early stages of the season. Domenicalli won the constructors championship in his first season as the main man at Maranello in 2008, but precious success has followed since. No one can doubt Alonso’s quality and by being a double world champion, he is certainly capable of anything. It has been six years now since his last title and the Spaniard will be desperate for Ferrari to give him a championship challenging car. It could be a frustrating season for a driver who deserves more success and drives his heart out every time he gets in the car.
Felipe Massa is also under pressure and he even has said so. His series of run-ins with Lewis Hamilton last season was petty to say the least and covered neither driver in any glory. Psychologically and mentally, the Brazilian looks damaged goods. On his day, he can still outperform Alonso as shown by outqualifying him four times in the last nine races and outracing him comprehensively in Malaysia and China last season. However he lacks the consistency required and with no podium since Korea 2010, the stats don’t lie. If he wants to prolong his career with Ferrari, he needs a massive improvement in 2012.
It is always very dangerous to write Ferrari off, but they simply don’t seem to have the car to deliver the results. I hope I’m wrong but heads will roll if it turns into a nightmare. Australia will answer a lot of potential questions about their true place in the current pecking order.
SAUBER continued the trend of confusing the formbook, as Kamui Kobayashi ended up fastest on the final day of testing this week in Barcelona. Although the Swiss team admitted afterwards that his fastest run was as a qualifying demo, it leaves many fans and experts still confused about a potential running order going into the Australia season opener.
Gary Anderson, the new Technical Analyst for BBC F1 said on their website; “This was one of the most confusing pre-season tests I can remember in terms of trying to work out what was going on. The big teams have been keeping their powder dry. They look like they’re confident enough to not need to go out there and see what the car can do on a big one-off lap.”
Anderson went on to predict that he still thinks the Red Bull is going to be the car to beat. Kobayashi set a 1.22.312 today, not only ending quickest, but setting the fastest lap time of the week. It was slightly better than Pastor Maldonado’s metoric effort yesterday, but the Venezuelan continued his purple patch by going second fastest. Paul di Resta completed a very surprising top three in the consistent Force India, as Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Felipe Massa spent another day gaining more mileage and not end up being too concerned about setting a fast time.
Six drivers did over 100 laps today, but Marussia never left the garage. Charles Pic was sidelined for the day after an early discovery of a damaged suspension component. The team will launch their 2012 model next week. Meantime, it seems to have emerged that HRT have some issues with their 2012 car. Their non-appearance this week indicates that the new car has failed the mandatory FIA crash test.
The final pre-season test will be held again at the Circuit de Catalunya, beginning next Thursday.
BARCELONA DAY 4 TESTING TIMES
1. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari) 1.22.312 – 144 laps
2. Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault) 1.22.561 – 134 laps
3. Paul di Resta (Force India Mercedes) 1.23.119 – 101 laps
4. Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1.23.200 – 115 laps
5. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1.23.563 – 103 laps
6. Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.23.774 – 85 laps
7. Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.23.792 – 92 laps
8. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) 1.23.843 – 139 laps
9. Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham Renault) 1.26.968 – 70 laps
MICHAEL Schumacher rolled back the years as he was the man to beat in the second day of F1’s first winter test in Jerez. The German, running a revised 2011-spec Mercedes GP was quickest, setting a time of 1.18.651 this morning, which no-one could match in the afternoon segment of running.
However, Red Bull’s new challenger looks ominous as Mark Webber bounced back from limited running yesterday to set a competitive 1.19.184. Webber was the fastest driving a 2012 car and over 0.4 secs quicker than the next 2012 runner, Daniel Ricciardo, in a Toro Rosso. Testing times are always difficult to judge, due to various set-ups, fuel loads and the need to attract sponsors in a gloomy economic era. However, the new Red Bull is looking like an early pacesetter, as we await Sebastian Vettel’s first run in the car.
Lewis Hamilton has not been seen in his new McLaren yet and once again, his name is being mentioned in other areas of the press. American journalists are speculating that the 2008 world champion has got back together with pop singer Nicole Scherzinger. This is after a video was uploaded of the pair holding hands and walking down the street, both looking reluctant to talk to the paparazzi. On a legal side, Hamilton might be asked to testify in Germany, as Adrian Sutil has launched an appeal against his 18-month suspended sentence he received last week for GBH.
Whilst Hamilton makes headlines off-track, the new McLaren continues to make little impact on the testing timesheets in the hands of Jenson Button. Ferrari have also made a quiet start, working more on set-up components with Felipe Massa rather than set blistering lap times. Despite an off-track excursion this morning, Kimi Raikkonen did another 117 laps today and ended up in the top five on his comeback to the sport. Lastly, Heikki Kovalainen produced a consistent day for Team Caterham, as technical director Mike Gascoyne said on Twitter; “Really good day of testing today, 139 laps and lots of long runs on the tyres. Also very succesful first day with KERS on the car.” 11th fastest might not suggest much, but the Caterham sounds like it has a good baseline for the upcoming campaign. Testing continues tomorrow.
TESTING TIMES FROM DAY 2 IN JEREZ
1. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.18.561 – 132 laps
2. Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.19.184 – 97 laps
3. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.19.587 – 100 laps
4. Jules Bianchi (Force India Mercedes) 1.20.221 – 46 laps
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus Renault) 1.20.239 – 117 laps
6. Paul di Resta (Force India Mercedes) 1.20.272 – 69 laps
7. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1.20.454 – 95 laps
8. Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1.20.688 – 85 laps
9. Sergio Perez (Sauber Ferrari) 1.20.711 – 68 laps
10. Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault) 1.21.197 – 97 laps
11. Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham Renault) 1.21.518 – 139 laps
12. Pedro de la Rosa (HRT Cosworth) 1.22.128 – 64 laps