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Felipe’s Ferrari future - is Massa really on borrowed time? 17 May 2012

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2012 (L to R): Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012 talks to Rob Smedley (GBR) Ferrari Race Engineer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One Testing, Mugello, Italy, Day Two, 2 May 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, 21 April 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012 (L to R): Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari and Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix Practice, Shanghai, China, Friday, 13 April 2012

It may have only been a short line near the bottom of an article about the Spanish Grand Prix, but the words published earlier this week on Ferrari’s official website must have hit home to driver Felipe Massa and his legion of fans. “Everyone, he more than anyone, is expecting a change of gear starting right away,” it read.

Despite its brevity, most onlookers decided the message was a loud and clear one - after failing to deliver at the opening five rounds of the 2012 season, the Italian team’s faith in the Brazilian has been severely dented. With team mate Fernando Alonso jointly leading the drivers’ table on 61 points, Massa’s tally of two is putting his tenure at Ferrari under closer scrutiny than ever before. The question everyone is asking is how much longer can he hold on to his seat?

Back in March, the 31 year-old started the season already on the back foot, knowing it was vital he improve dramatically on his lacklustre 2011 campaign if he was to stay at Maranello beyond 2012. It hasn’t, however, been easy. The F2012’s issues have been well-documented - it started around a second off the pace of the frontrunners - but whilst Alonso has driven around and beyond its problems, Massa has struggled.

Poor balance ruined his weekend in Australia even more than his race-ending collision with Bruno Senna, whilst in Malaysia he followed his race-winning team mate home almost a lap down in 15th. In China he fared little better, finishing in 13th, but with his quickest race lap just a tenth off Alonso’s there was at least some reason to believe that he’d finally got to grips with his car.

Massa himself had pretty high hopes for the following round in Bahrain - a race he has won twice - but though he enjoyed his best run of the year to date, his ninth place garnered him just two points. Any vestiges of luck, however, deserted him last weekend in Barcelona. He had a truly miserable time of it and after a drive-through penalty for ignoring yellow flags he finished in 15th. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was similarly punished, but the world champion fought back and finished seventh.

After five rounds, Massa is languishing in 17th in the standings, his worst start to a season since he commenced his Ferrari career back in 2006. His haul of two world championship points, meanwhile, is his worst tally at this stage in a campaign since his second year at Sauber back in 2005. It’s certainly a far cry from the highs of 2008 when Massa lost out on the title to Lewis Hamilton by a solitary point.

But Ferrari still hold a great deal of affection for their ‘number two’ driver. After his dramatic crash at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, the team waited patiently for him to recover sufficiently to return the following season. They again waited patiently for him to return to form in 2010. The problem this year it seems is that, on paper at least, they are still waiting.

Massa certainly hasn’t hit the highs of his pre-accident pace. But, then, Ferrari hasn’t given him a car as good as the F2008 which almost won him the title. 2010’s F10 was a difficult beast to master and then too it was Alonso who got the most from it - while Massa was ruled out of the title fight early on, Alonso was still in the running at the final round. Last year’s 150° Italia proved little better, but somehow Alonso scored more than double Massa’s points tally given identical machinery.

So for the last three years Massa has been down on his luck and struggling to hold his own against his team mate. And when a sport is as competitive as F1 is this season, an effective double act can make a real difference. Look at Lotus: the pairing of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen may not have won a race yet, but the duo’s combined success means the team lie third in the constructors’ table, one place and 21 points clear of the Scuderia.

All things considered, the pressure - real or imagined - must be spirit-sapping for Massa. But he still has one ace up his sleeve. There’s currently nobody obvious - or available - Ferrari could replace him with, and however cliched it may sound, for Maranello it’s certainly a case of better the devil you know.

Tester Jules Bianchi is still a work in progress and while Sauber’s Sergio Perez (like Bianchi, a Ferrari academy member) has been touted by some, a mid-season switch of teams would likely punish rather than reward the young Mexican’s career.

Holding on to his 2012 seat simply because Ferrari lack a suitable replacement is far from ideal, but it may at least give Massa some breathing space. If he knuckles down now, gets the support he needs from the team and show signs of improvement, he could yet revive his flagging Formula One career. If he doesn’t, Ferrari could easily be saying ciao at the end of the season - possibly sooner. Watch this space.

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