How Massa rediscovered his mojo
It appeared a long shot just months ago, but Felipe Massa will remain a Ferrari driver next year after a belated return to the kind of form that took him to the brink of the 2008 title. But just how has he done it, and will it continue? Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes explains all...
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 16/10/12 3:52pm
In Korea on Sunday Felipe Massa had to be called off from crowding his Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso. It probably took all of his engineer Rob Smedley's restraint not to say, 'Fernando is slower than you' in an exact reversal of his infamous Hockenheim 2010 message. It was the confirmation of the apparent return to form of a driver who has struggled in the last three seasons since his comeback from serious injury in Hungary 2009.
In the last two races Massa has at last looked like the driver of 2007-09 - quick, composed and error-free. It's been a long time coming, but it really does appear as if a corner had been turned, a breakthrough in confidence made. It has made his re-signing for Ferrari for an eighth consecutive season an easier decision for the team than it would otherwise have been.
The driver that almost took the 2008 world championship was capable of extracting the maximum from the car in qualifying and had a spiralling confidence that allowed him to make great moves in the race - such as his pass around the outside of Lewis Hamilton to take the lead in the opening seconds of that year's Hungarian race. His style was very late on the brakes and a great way of maintaining a lot of momentum into a corner even with an understeering car. He didn't fight it, could go with it, and adapt himself accordingly. He was feisty in battle and reliably quick - a terrific little driver.
Then came that horrible accident, where a spring from another car was lodged in his skull just above his eye. His three seasons since then have been poor. Although he was on the front row in his comeback race of Bahrain 2010, the race performances lacked consistency; the speed was evident only sporadically. Just underlining that in red was the team-mate he has faced since his comeback - the formidable Alonso, a solid-gold airtight all-time great that the team had identified as their talisman, the man who would inspire the whole enterprise.
It's impossible to identify which hurt Massa's form more - the after effects of the injury or the psychological drubbing from Alonso and his relationship with the team, as epitomised in that Hockenheim team order instruction. The after-effects of even small brain injuries - and there was a small degree of brain tissue damage - are notoriously unpredictable. Typical symptoms include difficulties with concentration and judgement. But often these are not long term and the skills that were there before can be re-learned. New parts of the brain have to be re-trained to do what other parts were previously doing, damaged neurons with specific learned skills imprinted upon them are replaced by blank ones. It's more than conceivable that this process could have taken three years and it's taken this long to re-acquire the fine detail of his former skill set.
On the other hand, confidence can be a huge part of a driver's speed and it could be that physically he's unchanged. After a sporadically promising late-2011 - there was a period between Hungary and Korea where he out-qualified Alonso four times in six races - his 2012 season started disastrously. The nadir came in Malaysia where a sequence of errors left him finishing 15th in the same car with which Alonso had won the race.
Smedley - who has worked with Massa since mid-2006 - talks of the disaster of that race forming the basis of a recovery that has taken this long to come to fruition. "We had a long talk after that," he says, "and analysed the disaster of that race. Once you looked in detail at it, it was a series of moments of madness, not a lack of basic speed. We had to rebuild from there, we spent a lot of time in the simulator in the following days doing that Malaysia race again, in effect. But it takes time. You work on one weakness for two or three races before the solution becomes automatic, then another becomes apparent and you work on that. I think a lot of it was him understanding and accepting where he was as a racing driver and attending to weaknesses as opposed to thinking 'it's not fair.'"
Massa himself said in Korea: "My feel for the car is now automatic again and I can be happy once more. Even though it's the best job in the world, I've not been happy in the car, but now it's turned around. I still know how to be quick, and still know how to work with the car." That realisation is playing its part in the return to form.
It's not as though he has suddenly become a faster driver than Alonso. The traits of Alonso's driving style means that he can overwork the outside front tyre if it is at all marginal - which it was in Korea - whereas Massa's natural style can keep it alive longer. But previously he would have been too far behind for that to have been apparent. Even in Suzuka and Korea Massa still had problems in qualifying - front tyres that refused to come up to temperature in Suzuka, a scrappy Q3 lap in Yeongam - but this time they had little impact upon his confidence, were batted away as circumstantial and in both races he looked like the Massa of old.
It's early days yet, and no-one is seriously expecting Massa to challenge Alonso for the leadership of the team. But the Felipe Massa we've seen in the last two races can comfortably justify his inclusion in the team, something that could not have been said of his season up to that point.