Felipe Massa's road back to competitiveness has been a long one but after three races in 2011 he looks prepared to shake off the label of "Ferrari's No 2" driver.
Road back has been a long one
With his dark eyes and olive skin, Felipe Massa could be mistaken for having Ottoman ancestry. In 2008, after winning his third successive Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park, the Brazilian joked that such was his dominance he could likely "get a passport here already".
The Ferrari driver, whose grandfather is fittingly of Italian descent, used Turkey as a catalyst that year to his best season to date, arriving at Interlagos for the final race firmly in the hunt for the world championship. Massa won his home event, but Lewis Hamilton passed Timo Glock on the final lap to secure the necessary points to take the title.
The McLaren-Mercedes' driver's jubilation was in direct contrast to the heartbreak of Massa. The Brazilian has never stood atop a podium since - a situation made all the more difficult when he was rendered unable to race for eight months following a life-threatening accident in Hungary in which he suffered a fractured skull.
"It made me value life much more than before, and I appreciate the ordinary things in life 10 times more," he told CNN a year after a loose spring smashed into his helmet.
Although Massa had fully recovered physically in time to start the 2010 season in Bahrain, analysts suggested that the psychological damage was proving more difficult for Massa to overcome. He finished sixth in the drivers' standings after placing 15th at the penultimate race in Brazil and 10th on his debut at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
But it was at the German Grand Prix four months earlier, when he was apparently ordered to let teammate Fernando Alonso pass, that proved most telling. The Maranello-based outfit were fined US$100,000 (Dh367,000) for implementing team orders and Massa was left to lament the label of "Ferrari's second driver".
This year, following a strong showing by both drivers in winter testing, expectations were higher than ever among the team's loyal tifosi.
Unsurprisingly it was Alonso, having led the drivers' championship ahead of the final race in the UAE last November, who was expected to be capable of providing Red Bull Racing with their sternest test once the action got under way.
Nonetheless, Stefano Domenicali, the Ferrari team principal, insisted "there is no hierarchy at the start of the season" and while the Italian manufacturer have struggled - they are yet to step foot on the podium - it is Massa who has outpaced Alonso in both Malaysia and China, where he finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
Having turned 30 last week - "it did feel significant", he said - the former Sauber driver was greeted by messages from Alonso, the Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and Domenicali, who alluded that his gift would be a better-equipped car.
Massa, who joined Ferrari in 2006, is well aware his car is inferior to that of McLaren-Mercedes and Red Bull, but he showed in Shanghai last month the sort of tenacity that took him so close to the title three years ago.
He ran in the top three for much of the race in China before falling to sixth, and with tactics and talent proving almost as critical as a car's pace, he may be returning to Istanbul at the perfect time, although he is not expecting miracles.
"It is true, I had great races here, winning three times in a row, and starting from pole position all three times, was a great feeling," he said. "The last two years were not great, but it is a circuit I enjoy. We have been working very hard during the break to understand things a little bit more compared to the first three races, but it is always difficult to say how big the step is going to be."
During yesterday's free practice, the new front and rear wings Ferrari had brought with them helped Alonso top the time sheets in the day's first session, while Massa finished seventh-quickest after complaining of braking problems. Pat Fry, Ferrari's assistant technical director, said that while the rear wing "immediately showed good results", the front wing needed "careful evaluation".
In the afternoon, Massa was sixth, while Alonso suffered a minor hydraulics issue to post the 11th-quickest time. "From what I could see, we have made a step forward in terms of performance," Massa said. "We are on the right road, but we are not yet close enough to the best."