Race day did not match expectations for the Ferrari team in Australia – it exceeded them. Fernando Alonso’s fifth place finish – essentially the position his Ferrari was in for much of last season in qualifying – was a very strong result from 12th on the grid. It is fair to say that the lowly grid slot was due to Alonso spinning off the track in Part 2 of Qualifying and he would probably have been more like seventh or eighth on the grid in a clean session.
But Alonso’s result also put the spotlight on his team mate’s difficulties this weekend. Felipe Massa had a nightmare weekend of uncompetitiveness, retiring from 13th place after a collision with Bruno Senna. “It couldn’t have gone any worse,” he told the Italian media after the race.
Massa looked uncomfortable on Friday and in qualifying was never on the pace. When Alonso spun off in Q2 he was lying 5th with a 1m 26.494s lap, while Massa at the time was on 1m 27.603. Massa had another run after his team mate’s withdrawal and was still 1.003s slower, qualifying 16th. He got a great start, up to 10th by taking advantage of the chaos in the first turn as Senna and Ricciardo collided, but his race pace was well short of Alonso’s in the opening stint. The Spaniard was into the low 1m 34s by lap three, while Massa took until lap 6 to get to 1m 34.6s. His fastest race lap – 1m 31.940 – was 1.7 seconds slower than Alonso’s (although it was set six laps earlier, so fuel corrected was 1.2 seconds slower).
The discussion throughout the pit lane all weekend was of how Ferrari have stood by their driver despite the results of the last two years. Now again that patience and loyalty is being tested. “We need to stay close to Felipe because it’s clear that he’s under pressure,” said team boss Stefano Domenicali. “I’ve asked his engineers to analyse the data on the car, also to reassure him.”
The Ferrari is a difficult car to drive with a narrow operating window at present. Alonso can deal with this better than Massa, although Alonso had a number of “moments” during the weekend, of which the spin in qualifying was the worst.
Massa is also still struggling to get the tyres to work and in the race was suffering worse tyre degradation than his team mate, which is a sign of not having the car well balanced. This is despite the hiring of Mr Hamashima, formerly technical boss of Bridgestone.
Where does the situation go from here? Massa must quickly regroup and get on top of his problems, clearly. Last year he was able to get away with being over half a second slower than Alonso because the gap back to the next fastest team – Mercedes – was greater than that. This year that part of the grid is much more competitive. Mercedes and Lotus, even Williams and Sauber look to have the pace to vie for the top ten slots, so the difference between the two Ferrari drivers may result in grid slots with a large – and obvious – disparity.
The pressure which Domenicali referred to in Melbourne and which was highlighted pre-season by Ferrari president Montezemolo, is significant. But there is no obvious driver with whom Ferrari might replace him.
Sergio Perez is the closest thing, but he has a Sauber contract and in any case has less than 20 Grands Prix under his belt and that is not Ferrari’s style to go for an inexperienced driver. Mark Webber is the obvious choice for 2013, should Ferrari feel they need to move on.
Nobody wants to see a driver who was so combative in 2008 and so dignified in defeat at the end of that season, suffering like this.
It’s a headache for driver and team management alike.