Felipe Massa - local hero with a point to prove 03 Nov 2010
The Brazilian crowd is a partisan bunch. Even though he didnt turn a single lap of Interlagos, some of the biggest cheers at last years Brazilian Grand Prix were reserved for local hero Felipe Massa. Still recovering from the injuries sustained in his dramatic crash at the Hungarian Grand Prix a few months earlier, Massa waved the chequered flag and soaked up the adoration of his fans.
Many, however, suspect his welcome at Interlagos may be a little cooler this season. Not only is he yet to win this year - in what team mate Fernando Alonso has proved is a race-winning car - hes also struggled to finish on the podium (just five from 17 races), and as a result dropped out of the world championship fight early on. But its not just been his relatively poor form which has dampened the support of his countrymen - the team orders fiasco at Julys German Grand Prix was a bitter blow too, and saw Massa publically harangued in elements of the Brazilian press.
Rewind to 2009 and it was all so different. What had initially been a battle for survival in the first few days after the accident became a slow and sustained fight to be race-fit once more, and after weeks of recuperation an amazing recovery saw him retain his place at Ferrari for 2010. His quiet determination won him hearts far beyond the borders of his own nation, and there was widespread hope that Massa would bounce back with a flourish this season.
But after a promising start, the 29 year-olds performance has been generally underwhelming this year. Struggling not just to match Alonso, but also his own previous successes, Massa just doesnt seem able to extract as much of the F10s potential as the Spaniard. An 11-time race winner who very nearly became 2008 world champion, he has been overshadowed by his new team mate. Whereas Alonso has recently regained the lead of the championship, and has the chance to clinch the title at Interlagos this weekend, Massas disappointing points haul (143 to Alonsos 231) has cast him - controversially - in a supporting role, and even Ferrari have dropped public hints that more is expected.
Of course, as Lewis Hamilton and McLaren found to their cost in 2007, the role of Alonsos team mate is not an easy one. Determined and ruthless, the Spaniards arrival at Ferrari has undoubtedly ruffled Massas feather, and hes someone who flourished with Michael Schumacher as a team mate for several seasons. Even so, at the start the two seemed pretty evenly matched, at least in terms of popular support, and Massa even led the championship at one stage.
But since then its been generally downhill all the way, with Alonso progressively adapting the F10 to suit his needs, whilst Massa flounders. Getting enough heat into his tyres has been his biggest gripe over recent months, and its a problem that is most on show during qualifying. In 17 Grands Prix, he has been beaten on a Saturday a massive 13 times. In terms of raw speed, Alonso clearly has the edge.
On Sundays - for races in which both made it to the finish line - Massa has finished higher than Alonso on just three occasions. But then at Julys German Grand Prix he came the closest he has come all season to victory. He had been pretty perfect throughout the weekend and had the win within his grasp, but then came the controversial call informing him that the pursuing Alonso was quicker. Loyalty to the team ultimately superseded any qualms and Massa moved aside.
At that point he was still very much in the running for the championship, but contender or not, it seemed Ferrari had decided that Massa was number two, at least in terms of their drivers title hopes. Coming exactly a year to the day after his Budapest accident, it was no doubt spirit-sapping stuff for Massa. And his apparent complicity in the team orders, and the vitriolic aftermath complete with FIA fine, caused unknown harm to his confidence, whilst seriously undermining his reputation at home.
Hell need to pull out all the stops this weekend if his popularity in Brazil is to soar to the same heights as last season. At least many fans will concede he must now support Alonsos title bid and Massa himself is positive about the Interlagos event, saying that he can't wait to get out on track in front of my home fans, but its clear hell need to work hard to reach the same level of support hes become used to from the grandstands.
Some pundits have even questioned whether Massa will see out his contract with Ferrari after his difficult year. There have certainly been numerous occasions when he hasnt look his typically bubbly self in the garage, but even so the thought of him throwing away a drive with the fabled Scuderia seems unlikely, especially as the team have given assurances that he and Alonso will start next season back on an equal footing.
Indeed, a more pertinent question is whether Massa can bounce back from adversity again in 2011. By then his team mate could be world champion once more, and hell have his work cut out if he is to resist the role of second driver for another season. Judging from his return from injury, however, willpower is clearly something Massa has in spades. Heres hoping he gets back on an even keel next year, if not sooner.
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