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Talking Point: Will a new chassis save Massa from the sack?

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.

Massa struggled to hold off the Sauber cars in Melbourne on Sunday (Autoweek)

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.