Massa in make or break season with Ferrari

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F10. Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, Friday 8 October 2010.

Felipe Massa in the cockpit of the Ferrari F10

Jan.24 (Daniel Chalmers) The 2011 Formula 1 season is going to be the most critical year of Felipe Massa’s career, but the introduction of Pirelli tyres could stop his career from sliding backwards.

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari on the podium.  Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Italian Grand Prix, Race Day, Monza, Italy, Sunday 12 September 2010.

Felipe on the podium at Monza with Fernando Alonso a step higher behind him

This season is make or break for Massa because it may decide the direction the rest of his F1 career takes.

If he delivers a considerably improved performance he will stay at the front of the grid, and still have the possibility to be a world champion. On the other hand a repeat of 2010 would probably see Massa being relegated to a midfield team and his career potentially fading away.

After a poor couple of seasons with McLaren in 2008 and 2009, Heikki Kovalainen dropped a long way down the pecking order to the new Lotus team. This is the same risk Massa faces. From there it’s very hard to make it a comeback to a front running team.

For Massa it would be particularly hard considering he turns 30 in April. Therefore it may be too late in his career to work his way back to the front, particularly as younger drivers are favoured these days.

There have never been so many high calibre drivers in Formula 1, and there isn’t enough room at the front for them all.

Last year Massa finished just sixth in the championship, having only scored 57% of the points that team mate Fernando Alonso managed to rack up.

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F10 makes a pit stop.  Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Italian Grand Prix, Race Day, Monza, Italy, Sunday 12 September 2010.

Felipe makes a pitstop during the Italian GP

Whilst Ferrari was competing for the driver’s championship courtesy of Alonso, Massa’s lack of form cost Ferrari dearly in the constructor’s championship.

Had Massa scored the same amount of points that Alonso did, Ferrari would have won the constructors championship six points ahead of Red Bull.

To be able to win the constructors championship both drivers have to be scoring big points. Another problem from Ferrari’s point of view is that Massa rarely took points off Alonso’s key championship rivals.

For Massa to have a chance of remaining with Ferrari he has to score a bigger percentage of the points that Alonso scores at the very least. He will of course hope that he can do more than that and challenge for the title.

On his day Massa is as fast as anybody on the grid. He delivered some fantastic drives during his 2008 title battle with Lewis Hamilton.

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari is airlifted to hospital after a big crash. Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Budapest, Hungary, Saturday 25 July 2009.

Felipe is stretchered to hospital after his Hungary qualifying crash

In 2009 when Ferrari failed to adapt to the new rules Massa regularly out-drove the car, and was a driver who was coming of age. On the weekend of his horrific accident his practice pace was a match to race winner Hamilton. We will never know whether he could have won that race or not.

Since the accident the same Felipe Massa from 2008 and 2009 hasn’t shown up at the race track.

The key reason for Massa’s lack of form was he simply couldn’t adapt to the 2010 spec Bridgestone tyres.

Massa says: “I was never comfortable with the tyres, in particular the front ones. I didn’t manage to adapt my driving style to those tyres, which were very different to the ones from 2009.”

He had to constantly change to a setup which was less optimal to compensate for this.  So effectively you could say that Massa was racing with one hand tied behind his back.

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F10. Formula One Testing, Day Three, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Friday 19 November 2010.

Felipe running on Pirelli tyres for the first time in Abu Dhabi last November

Massa is pinning his hopes on the fact that the Pirelli tyres are more suited to him. Switching to a different tyre manufacturer can dramatically alter a driver’s fortunes. For example Kimi Raikkonen was never the same driver on Bridgestones as he was on Michelins

At the moment it’s looking like there is a strong chance of Felipe’s wish coming true, as Pirelli have been working on making their front tyres stronger than the 2010 Bridgestones which is key to Massa’s driving style.

Massa had already felt postive about the tyres after his first test on them in Abu Dhabi: “The first [test] that we did with the Pirelli’s was positive. The way of driving the car was better, in terms of the tyre’s front grip, which was different in 2010. I think it was positive to my driving style.”

Another positive for Massa is that Pirelli are making their tyres softer and more aggressive than Bridgestone. Last season we saw how Massa’s struggle deepened on race weekends, when Bridgestone brought the hardest tyres in their range.

Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Korean Grand Prix, Race, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Sunday 24 October 2010. Felipe Massa and Rob Smedley

Felipe with his race engineer Rob Smedley

His main issue was getting heat into them. This really hurt him in qualifying, where getting heat into the tyres on the out-lap is critical to a good flying lap.

In the past Massa’s qualifying speed was always his strength, and this put him in a good position in races where he was often able to waltz away into the distance and win.

In 2010 it became his weakness, which cost him dearly as overtaking is so tough in F1 these days, and with the re-fuelling ban you can’t rely on strategy to make up places.

Softer tyres from Pirelli should mean that Massa shouldn’t have the same problem with warming up the tyres as he did with Bridgestone.

In 2011 qualifying could become his strength again, and change his fortunes. If he can start more races from the sharp end he will surely have a much stronger season.

It’s also worth remembering that in low fuel qualifying he can compete evenly with Alonso. This unlike the days when drivers took race fuel into the qualifying session, and the teams could favour their number one driver by giving them less fuel.

(L to R): Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari with team mate Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari in parc ferme. Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, German Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Hockenheim, Germany, Saturday 24 July 2010.

Felipe with Fernando Alonso

The other aspect of Pirelli tyres which could help Massa is how well Alonso adapts to them. Back in 2007 when Alonso switched from Michelin to Bridgestone tyres he initially struggled. It took him half a season to fully adapt to them.

Fernando has already admitted that he will have to alter his driving style slightly to adapt to Pirelli tyres.

If Alonso is not quite adapted to Pirelli in the early stages of the season, then Massa has to ensure he is quick out of the blocks and capitalises.

It is critical Massa starts the season well, and doesn’t let Alonso quickly build up a gap over him.

Overall Massa should be in much better form in 2011 mainly due to the new Pirelli tyres. There’s a good chance he will feature at the front more, and generally have a better season than 2010.

Stefano Domenicali with Felipe Massa

Felipe with Stefano Domenicali

Stefano Domenicali is confident that the Brazilian will bounce back: “Felipe had a difficult season, but I am totally convinced that he will know how to react in just the right way, as he is capable of doing.”

He added: “In fact, he has often been under pressure and in these situations, he has delivered in a way that surprised many people.”

We know that when Massa is happy with the car that he is a very quick driver. Whether this is enough for him to challenge Alonso is an entirely different matter.

Massa says: “In the past I’ve always had very strong teammates, like Michael (Schumacher) and Kimi (Räikkönen), but I’d never found myself in a situation of not being comfortable with the car, as I had in 2010.”

It’s never easy to rise against a driver who you were forced to concede a race win to, as David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello will testify. In Coulthard’s case though he was much closer in pace to Mika Hakkinen later on in their partnership.

When both Ferrari drivers are on top form it would be fair to say that Alonso has something extra over Massa. His ultimate peak performance is extremely high as the second half of last season demonstrated

Despite that there would be no shame in losing out to Alonso narrowly, and would show the F1 paddock that Massa can still perform at a very high level.

This would probably be enough to keep him in a race winning car, which has to be his realistic aim for 2011.

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  • Twiinz

    @ Editor: Great article! I also think you could interchange another name with Massa’s( Micheal Schumacher)
    I think the new tires will make a big difference in several drivers fortunes this year, :) It should get very busy at the front.

  • Arthur

    @ twiinz
    while reading the article, I was also thinking of the same person you were thinking (Michael Shumacher)

    If the two could adapt properly, maybe we could see a both drivers fighting for the win…

  • Malcolm

    initial Pirelli testing after the GP at Abu Dahbi had Felipe faster times than both Alonso and Vettel.