x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Felipe Massa may soon reap his reward at Ferrari

The Brazilian has reiterated his willingness to be the team player while also taking a further step in proving he has rediscovered the pace that saw him fighting for victories after he first joined the Italian manufacturers in 2006.

Felipe Massa's recent return of form may have just been enough to have earned him a one-year contract extension with Ferrari.
Felipe Massa's recent return of form may have just been enough to have earned him a one-year contract extension with Ferrari.

"Felipe, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?"

Anyone watching the 2010 German Grand Prix understood the message Rob Smedley, Felipe Massa's race engineer at Ferrari, was relaying to the Brazilian.

Massa was leading the race ahead of his teammate, Fernando Alonso, yet on the 49th lap he moved aside to gift the Spaniard maximum points.

That controversial afternoon at Hockenheim appeared to spell the end of Massa's championship-challenging career.

It certainly drove a nail straight thought the heart of any lingering hopes he had for 2010.

The 31 year old has never come close to winning a race since, an assertion encapsulated by the fact his second-place finish in Japan last week - he still finished 20 seconds off the lead - was only his third podium since Germany and his first in two years.

Indeed, before his second-place at Suzuka, his previous best finish was third in South Korea, so it was timely that Smedley should find himself having to relay messages once again on Sunday.

"You're a bit too close to Fernando," the Englishman said, as fourth-placed Massa hunted a second successive podium. "I think you could back off at least another second."

Team orders have been legalised since Hockenheim, so the controversy that led to Ferrari being fined US$100,000 (Dh367,000) that year is largely removed. It does not, however, make the message any more palatable: Massa was quicker than Alonso, yet was constricted in what he could do with the pace.

The Brazilian is unlikely to be overly perturbed, however.

By complying to Smedley's orders, Massa reiterated his willingness to be the team player while also taking a further step in proving he has rediscovered the pace that saw him fighting for victories after he first joined the Italian manufacturers in 2006.

Those two attributes combined made team principal Stefano Domenicali's confirmation that Massa's contract extension will be announced today as little surprise.

Massa has now collected more points in the previous two races than he did in the entire first half of the season.

Between Australia and Hungary, the former Sauber driver pocketed just 25 points from 11 grands prix; since the August break, he has finished in the points at all five races to add 56 points to his tally, 27 of which have come from the last two races, and rise to ninth in the championship standings.

In Yeongam, Ferrari also leapfrogged McLaren-Mercedes in the constructors' standings.

Firing the Brazilian after such a turnaround would have been mightily harsh, especially when the viable replacements were not guaranteed upgrades.

With Sergio Perez, the Mexican who came though Ferrari's driver academy, opting to defect to McLaren, the names in the hat for Massa's seat were limited largely to the Force India pair of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta.

Both are untested at a top team and thus marked as risky.

As Perez said in Japan: "Felipe is a proven driver."

Hulkenberg is due to be announced as Perez's replacement at Sauber, and when Massa's future is revealed this afternoon it is expected he will have signed a one-year extension to take his career at Maranello into its eighth year.

No current driver has remained at their team longer than the 31 year old and, the fact is, it would not be a surprise if we learnt Massa was informed of his fate a few weeks ago. While racing for his future in September at Ferrari's home race in Monza, he finished fourth again after letting Alonso past.

The compliance that resulted in the Spaniard finishing on the podium did not go unnoticed by Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, who immediately ruled out a move for Perez, despite the Sauber driver finishing second.

Since that afternoon in the Italian sun, Massa has appeared much more at ease.

The pressure has been lifted from his shoulders and he has been able to race without it weighing him down.

The result is he is faster - faster, at times, than even his teammate.

Having found the right balance and apparently having finally got to grips with the tyres, Massa is well placed to play a vital role in his teammate's battle for a third drivers' championship, something the likes of Jenson Button at McLaren and Mark Webber at Red Bull are not comfortable in doing.

If Ferrari can squeeze two drivers ahead of Sebastian Vettel in India, Alonso will almost certainly regain the lead in the standings.

At this stage such an occurrence appears unlikely, yet only a few months ago, the suggestion Massa would have to be warned to "back off" his teammate would have been ridiculed.

Things change quickly in F1.

Massa, who won and then lost the 2008 championship in a matter of seconds on the last day of the season in Brazil, knows this only too well.

With a new, signed contract in hand though, a new chapter beckons for him.

He will be determined to make it count.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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