Both the Ferrari drivers went back to Maranello from Kuala Lumpur for meetings and discussions about the first two races and the way forward. Interestingly Malaysian GP winner Fernando Alonso had two meetings with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, a long one on Monday and another yesterday.
Alonso participated in the ceremony whereby a flag is raised at the factory gate after a race victory, but while the Spanish driver’s stock is as high as it has even been within the team after winning a Grand Prix in arguably F1’s fifth or sixth fastest car, it has served only to emphasise Felipe Massa’s problems. The little Brazilian has not stood on an F1 podium since 2010 and the sight of his race engineer Rob Smedley shaking his head on the pit wall on Sunday was as seminal a moment as the immortal “Fernando is faster than you” line on the radio.
Interestingly, team principal Stefano Domenicali said that Massa had changed his plans in order to attend meetings at the factory to try to resolve his problems,
“Instead of heading home to see his family in Brazil, he will be in Maranello to work alongside the engineers to calmly analyse everything that happened in these past two races, trying to identify why he was not able to deliver what he is capable of,” said Domenicali.
“That’s the right spirit and we are here, ready to help him.”
Ferrari has been very patient and loyal with Massa, giving him a new chassis for Malaysia and he was on average around 4/10ths off Alonso prior to the race. This is closer than he was in Australia, but still far from what is expected. Tellingly, it’s also the amount that the other teams’ strategists factor in as the difference between the two Ferrari drivers when planning race strategies.
At the meetings in Maranello he is likely to have been told that their patience is not endless.
The Massa situation is not Ferrari’s primary concern at the moment. Sorting out the problems with the F2012 is top of the list. Engineers from rival teams say that it will be hard to get the car to the same level as the pace setting McLaren as the decision to go with pullrod front suspension has been shown not to be effective and the team are committed to it now. Time will tell.
But the performance on Sunday of Sergio Perez, the man most likely to replace Massa at some point, has further added to the glare of doubt about the Brazilian, who is driving at the moment like a man with little or no confidence.
Many outsiders are calling for Perez to be brought in for the next race in China, including, mischievously, the McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh. It is very tempting for onlookers to see this as the logical move. But this is unlikely to happen. The earliest Ferrari might consider giving Perez a run would be the Mugello test on May 1st, after Bahrain.
But even then the situation is fraught with problems. Putting Perez in the car mid season could actually prove counter-effective, for the team and for Perez’ career, as the F2012 is a difficult car to drive and how would it look if he under-performed in it? It would leave the team with nowhere to go next and could wreck his confidence.
“We know we have an unstable car,” said Domenicali, “One that in certain moments gives us a lot and at other times, a lot less.” Technical director Pat Fry agreed, “The F2012 seems to behave in very different ways depending on the conditions,” he said. “In this race there were moments when it was competitive, others where it struggled. Now we need to find the missing tenths.”
This is not a car a young driver, whose stock is high after a good result, should want to step into hastily.
Moving teams mid-season with little or no testing time is always very high risk, especially for a driver with only one season of F1 experience. Add to that the performance of Alonso in the other car and the entry level would be very high indeed for Perez.
Better to wait until the end of the season and then start afresh with a new car and plenty of testing. One of the likely outcomes of the new Concorde Agreement, called for by Montezemolo, is the return of a bit more testing in 2013.
Of course if Massa’s decline continues the team may be forced to act and in that scenario it will be fascinating to see what they decide to do.