Thursday, 8 August 2013

Massa in jeopardy at Ferrari: Who will win the game to grab his seat?

Musical chairs:  A game in which most of the time is spent agonising over whether you will get a seat and continue in the game, followed by a brief interlude of elation when you manage to grab yourself one, before the anxiety creeps in again with the recommencement of the music.   All to avoid being 'out'.  Over recent seasons Ferrari driver Felipe Massa has experienced the same feelings as a competitive child engrossed in this traditional party game. 

Massa is in his eighth season with the Maranello marque having initially joined in 2006 to replace Rubens Barrichello as Michael Schumacher's wingman.  With Michael replaced by Kimi Raikkonen for 2007, Massa started to score more victories, despite having to yield the win in his home race in Brazil in order to allow Kimi the victory to secure the World Championship.  From all seasons spent in scarlet, his best chance of major success came in 2008 when he fought Lewis Hamilton closely for the Championship; a title battle so close that he was celebrating being champion in one breath only for that elation to be displaced by utter disappointment the next.  He hasn't won a race since.   An uncompetitive F60 and a head injury in 2009 dissolved the thrill of fighting for the 2008 title and bought him crashing down to earth.  This was further compounded by the arrival of Fernando Alonso and a return to second driver status in 2010.   After coming out on top in last season's game of musical chairs, Massa had a worthy start to the 2013 campaign, troubling Alonso at times by out qualifying him, however mistakes were lurking just around the corner culminating at Monaco, when he crashed in qualifying at Ste Devote followed by another retirement in Germany after a spin in the opening laps.

Massa under strain.  Photo: 

Poor early form was a plight suffered in 2012 sending the rumour mill into overdrive about who would take his seat, however the affable Brazilian stared that pressure in the eye and raised his game. The subsequent improvement in results was rewarded with a renewal of his contract for a further year.  Now Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo has warned Felipe that he needs to repeat the improvement delivered last year in order to secure his seat for a further year,

Talking to Corrier della Sera he said, “Felipe is a very quick driver and a great guy.  But in the past days, we were very clear with him: both he and us need results and points.  Then, at some points we will look one another in the eye and decide what to do.”

Current Marussia driver Jules Bianchi, who has been given the seal of approval by the Head of the Ferrari Driver Academy Luca Baldisserri on their website, is one of the favourites to win Massa's seat should he lose the game this season,

“Jules has completed the move to Formula One without any problems.  He has become the benchmark driver for the team, gaining its confidence at the track.  I consider it a fundamental move, especially in Formula One.”

Bianchi started the season with a bang, his sparkling form placing him consistently head and shoulders above his team mate as well as allowing him to streak away from closest rivals Caterham.  As the season has progressed however, his talents have been slightly overshadowed by Caterham's progress in performance and team mate Max Chilton finding his feet a little more.  Marussia Team Principal John Booth's wish to have both drivers continue to represent the team next season due to the financial backing they bring,  coupled with the fact that Jules hasn't had the chance to show his promise fighting with those further up the field, suggests he may remain to consolidate his debut year.  He has shown his gratitude to the team who gave him his break in Formula One but of course is not ruling out a move to the team every driver wants to drive for,

“I do not forget that with Marussia I was given the chance to make my grand prix debut.  If I stay in this team next year, it will be in good faith.”  Continuing his discussion with the Nice- Matin newspaper he added,

“Maybe I will be asked to join the team this winter.  Of course I will not say no!”

Jules Bianchi to have a race seat next year? Photo:

 Long been linked with a move to Ferrari, Nico Hulkenberg is another favourite to snatch Massa's seat from under him.  He has continued to demonstrate his talent by showing what he can achieve in a seriously under performing Sauber.  Rumours about non payment of wages caused by financial woes, coupled with the announcement that Sergey Sirotkin will join the team as part of the deal agreed with Russian investors in order to abate those woes, mean it is odds on he will be leaving the Swiss team.  But for Ferrari? It is no secret Nico is in talks with other teams, in particular Lotus, so it wouldn't be wise to put all bets on that part of the wheel. 

Paul Di Resta made no secret of his displeasure at missing out on a top seat for 2013. However the performance of the Force India was surprisingly high at the beginning of this season and he took advantage of that delivering some great performances; a podium place narrowly evading him in Bahrain.  His advancements through the pack following disappointing qualifying sessions have also been noted, especially in Britain when he turned a twenty first grid position into a ninth placed finish.  Not a favourite for a possible seat at Ferrari though, and perhaps having spent too long on the outside looking in, Paul could again find himself just on the edge of the seat he desires.

An outside possibility could be Davide Rigon, a young Italian driver responsible for testing duties at Ferrari along with Pedro de la Rosa. Apart from the Pirelli tyre test conducted by Massa, he was entrusted with all testing time at the recent Young Drivers Test at Silverstone  in which his combined times put him ninth out of  thirty three and only seven tenths down on the times recorded by SebastianVettel. He would be willing to play number two to Alonso and is Italian thus giving Maranello its first Italian race driver since Giancarlo Fisichella in 2009, and before that, Michel Alboreto who drove for the Scuderia between 1985 and 1988.

Davide Rigon.  Photo:

All good things come to an end. Or do they?  Perhaps the most likely option could be that Massa will again stay with Ferrari on another one year contract. Possibly until he decides to retire, much like Mark Webber did with Red Bull.  Fernando rules the red roost and sometimes it is just the better the devil you know.  

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