After Fernando Alonso and Stefano Domenicali, it was Felipe Massa’s turn to speak today at the Ferrari event in Madonna di Campiglio. He talked of various things, but I was interested in what he said about his relationship with new team mate Fernando Alonso, the support he got from Ferrari and about fatherhood.
Although Alonso has been the headline act this week, with Domenicali speaking of his arrival at Ferrari as possibly heralding a “new era”, Massa is newsworthy too. His return from a potentially career ending injury is one of the great human interest stories of the 2010 season.
So far in his media statements since Alonso’s arrival he has been careful to be strong without appearing hostile to his new team mate. Massa has had his feet under the table at Ferrari for four years now and has built some strong relationships. He had outperformed Kimi Raikkonen in 2008 and again last year in a difficult Ferrari car. He was still improving as a driver when he had his accident at Budapest.
He is a tough little character – as he showed when he said last Autumn that Alonso must have been in on the Renault crash plot – and he is used to fighting hard to get what he wants. So while welcoming a Latin team mate who is clearly more similar to him than Raikkonen, he is also right to be wary of the relationship and what it might hold for him.
With Raikkonen there wasn’t much rapport, but neither were there any politics. Domenicali and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo have been at pains to state on several occasions that both drivers are there to drive for Ferrari and there are to be no self-destructive acts, of the kind which made Alonso’s partnership with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren so painful in 2007. After a tough 2009 season, Ferrari needs the pair to work together to develop a competitive car and according to Massa, they are already well on their way with that,
“Things have started extremely well,” Massa said. “I’ve spoken more to Fernando now than in three years with Kimi. Perhaps this was not difficult because Kimi of course did not like to speak much, but I also worked extremely well with Kimi, even without speaking. So it was fine. I think we can have a very good relationship and we can work extremely well together.
“I think we need to work well together otherwise it will not be positive for either of us or for the team. We are in a very important team, we know what we have to do, and we know if we work well together on the professional side we can have a better car on the track. I really don’t think there will be a fire, and we can work well together. We can develop a great car.”
The fact that this is even being talked about by management and both drivers indicates that all sides realise that there are potential flash points here. Alonso has a history of “not taking well to not winning”, as Patrick Head once said of Nigel Mansell. Alonso likes it even less if his team mate beats him.
The problem for Alonso is that once again he is dealing with an unknown quantity. It was worse for him with Hamilton in 2007, about whom he had zero racing knowledge. He has raced Massa before and they have even had a flare up in Germany in 2007, when Massa though Alonso drove incorrectly in squeezing past him on a slippery track. They’ve buried the hatchet on that episode, they both say. But Massa is still hard to quantify because he keeps exceeding expectations and, according to his engineer Rob Smedley, he is still likely to improve some more.
“As for the problems, we have discussed it,” he said. “You’ve all seen what happened in 2007 when we spoke in Germany. I gave my compliments to him for the race and he said I had done something not honest, but it was not true so I just talked to him about it and then he said he was sorry, and that was it. Personally I have no problems, there are no strange feelings or opinions about Fernando.”
Alonso said yesterday that he will need three races to get up to speed with Ferrari. Massa too will need some time to get back into the swing after a long lay-off.
Ferrari have shown a lot of faith in Massa, they could easily have dropped him after the accident and made their life a lot more simple. He has done only one small test since and it is yet to be proven that he is as good as before. Massa acknowledged the extraordinary humanity of the way Ferrari handled his situation,
“I always had lots of support from Ferrari, since when I started racing for this team,” he said, “But the strength and the availability they showed after my accident was really incredible: I knew that I could count on them, but what they gave me was really exceptional.”
The big change in Massa’s life, apart from his second chance in F1, is the birth of his son last November. In the days when death was never at a comfortable distance for a racing driver, it used to slow the more sensitive ones down. In this era of almost unbreakable cars, it doesn’t seem to make much difference any more,
“When I sit behind the wheel I don’t think about my family, only when I come back to the garage I remember that I’m a dad now,” he said. “They say that you loose one second per lap for every child? A champion like Schumacher has won a lot and he has two children….”