The return to form of Felipe Massa was one of the more heartening stories of the second half of last season.
In the 11 races prior to the Belgian GP last year the Brazilian had scored just 25 points, but in the remaining nine races from Spa onwards he scored 97 points, with two podiums.
Speaking at the Ferrari Wrooom event in Madonna di Campiglio this morning, Massa said that this was down to a shift in his own mental approach rather than to any changes on the car which may have suited his style,
“It is not that the car changed that much from August in reality,” he said. “There was also a change from my side. Even if 90 per cent of people do not want to believe in me any more, it is important that you believe so you are not good one day and bad the day after.”
Massa had struggled to match the performance of Fernando Alonso and had lost sight of what was important. Too hung up on what Alonso was doing, he failed to focus on his getting the most from his own situation.
However by looking back and reflecting on his 2008 campaign, which almost brought him the world title in a close fight with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, Massa rediscovered his self-belief,
“You need to believe in what you can do. I believe in myself, I know I can be a champion, I know I can win, I know I can be what I was all my career,” he said. “I think after you understand yourself it makes you stronger and stronger all the time.”
This is such a vital and under-considered part of the racing driver’s make up. It’s an interesting area; if you look at the GB Cycling Team under Sir Dave Brailsford, he introduced psychiatrist Steve Peters to the team and he worked with the riders to strip down their psyche and discover the “inner chimp”; that part of the mind left over from primitive times, which is both destructive and self-destructive.
By teaching the riders to understand that side of their minds and to recognise the signs of self-doubt, he trained them to master self-doubt when in competition.
Unlike elite athletes in every other mainstream professional sport, it’s amazing how little of this goes on in F1; it’s not in the culture of F1 for drivers to have coaches beyond a simple physio, who attends races with the driver for massages and fitness work. Some drivers have seen a sports psychologist, some have the odd session with a driver coach, but compared to tennis players, golfers and footballers they are very light on support staff.
You can look down the grid and see a number of drivers who clearly were struggling with various issues, many of them to do with their mental approach. It’s good that Massa identified his problem and sorted it out and we wait to see what kind of performance he puts in next season. Outqualifying Alonso twice in the closing stages of the season will have given him a huge boost.
By focussing on himself, rather than worrying about what Alonso was doing in the other car, Massa rediscovered his touch and he was visibly happier in himself.
In the first half of the season he had looked like a man who had fallen out of love with the sport,
“Maybe I was not enjoying my job so much, maybe I was not happy,” he admitted today. “I am happy now. When you get into the car and want to have fun and enjoy it, that is when you can do your job in the best way possible.
“By doing that you can have a year like 2008.”
Following up on yesterday’s English language conference with team principal Stefano Domenicali, the Italian language conference yielded some other interesting notes.
The 47 year old told Italian colleagues that the 2013 car would be “extreme, at the limits of the regulations. Because of the continuity of the rules, not much will change on the outside, but inside there will be interesting modifications because we have explored areas which haven’t been looked about before particularly in the area of the exhausts.”
He is convinced that Alonso will be able to repeat his extraordinary form of 2012 and that if the car is on the pace from the outset this will put him in with a great chance of winning the title, “Since he has been with us, ” said Domenicali, “He has always amazed us with his strength; his capacity to fight is a guarantee.”
He spoke about 2014 as a positive challenge for the engine makers, but reminded his audience of where Ferrari’s priorities lay,
“The priority is 2013. Because we have to win.”