What would happen at Ferrari if Brazilian Felipe Massa, who came within a whisker of winning the world title in 2008 and then of losing his life in 2009, proves this year he is again championship material?
If Massa’s quick pace in the first two races continues this weekend at the Chinese Grand Prix and beyond, would he be allowed to take Ferrari’s No. 1 spot from its star, two-time world champ Fernando Alonso?
In 11 seasons and 200 Grand Prix, no teammate of Alonso’s has outqualified him for five consecutive races. Massa would become the first if he qualifies quicker than Alonso on Saturday in Shanghai.
Qualifying well loses its importance if not followed by a strong drive and points in the race Sunday, but Massa’s qualifying performances and the fact that he has four points more than Alonso going into the third of 19 races this season both suggest that he has his mojo back.
“He was very confident from the end of last year because the results he had in the last two Grand Prix made him very, very confident,” said Dino Altmann, the chief medical officer at Massa’s home race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, and his family doctor.
“He told me that the car this year is really very friendly to him and he’s very happy with all the developments,” Altmann said. “Last year, he began the year working psychologically to become stronger and the result came in the middle of the year. So from them on we could see Felipe coming to his best at the end of the year and I think (that) changed everything and he’s now very, very confident.”
Two events mark Massa as a survivor. The first was the 2009 crash. A heavy spring detached from a car in front of him in qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix and thumped his helmet, leaving him with a concussion and fractured skull.
The second was at the German Grand Prix in 2010. Massa looked as if he could win when Ferrari suggested he shove over and make way for Alonso, who took the victory. The nudge-nudge, wink-wink radio message to Massa from race engineer Rob Smedley – “Fernando is faster than you” – has since become a T-shirt and a ringtone.
“He was devastated with that,” Altmann said. “From Hockenheim on, I think his confidence was very, very poor because … that was the point where he really understood that he was the second driver.”
If Ferrari finds itself having to choose between the two in a fight for the driver’s title, that would be a pleasant problem to have. Smart money would be on Alonso. But, for now, it’s heartwarming to see Massa again performing well.. He’s been through a lot but he still has a lot to give.