Gray Matter: How can Massa recover?

Thu, 29 Mar 18:01:00 2012

Felipe Massa is under pressure to save his career at Ferrari after another disappointing start to the season — but where did it all go wrong and how can he recover?

Felipe Massa - 0

A friendly and happy soul, Massa arrived fresh-faced in Formula One with Sauber in 2002 and after a few years of grooming he stepped up a grade to join Ferrari.

That career progression sounds awfully similar to that expected of young Mexican Sergio Perez, who is tipped as Massa's replacement - sooner rather than later if things don't improve soon.

Massa cancelled a trip back to Brazil this week to head to the Ferrari factory in Maranello to try to fathom out what is going wrong - but whatever it is, history suggests it may not simply be mechanical issues but something deeply rooted in his psyche.

Massa's Ferrari career has clearly been split into two distinct parts — the period before he almost won the title in 2008 and the period after.

In the first part, Massa had an average finishing position of 3.3, with 10 retirements or non top-ten finishes in 53 races. Over three seasons he took 15 poles and 27 podiums including 11 wins (7 and 2 in 2006; 10 and 3 in 2007; 10 and 6 in 2008).

In his big year, 2008, his average finishing position in the races he completed was 2.6, with five non-scoring races (two retirements, a 17th in Hungary and 13th in the UK and Singapore). That's not a bad record for a man who was seen as the team's number two driver alongside first Michael Schumacher and then Kimi Raikkonen.

But it all went wrong straight after that title disappointment.

The first half of the 2009 campaign saw Massa's average position drop to 6.6 over seven races, with two retirements, and his only podium finish came with third in Germany, the race before his big crash in Hungary. When he returned to the cockpit in 2010, his form continued to tail off and has never recovered.

Since the start of 2009, Massa's average finishing position is 6.8, with eight retirements or non top-ten finishes in 49 races (he also missed seven races recovering after his injury in Hungary). In that period — almost the same length as the first - he has collected just six podium finishes and not a single victory or pole position.

It's now 23 races since he was on the podium, during which time team-mate Fernando Alonso has averaged almost one podium every two races. And while it's fair to say that Alonso has supreme qualities that can get a lot out of a car, so could Schumacher and Raikkonen (certainly in his first year at Ferrari) and back then Massa was not so far behind.

It all suggests that the soul-destroying title 'loss' in Brazil gave Massa a real mental battering.

Having managed to overcome Raikkonen and establish himself as the team's number one for that season, he had taken his first victory and the title was in his grasp. He did all he could to win it, so the sight of his father celebrating victory only to have his head in his hands less than a minute later when Lewis Hamilton snatched the place he needed to take the title will be a hard one for him to forget.

It happens in sport, and even Formula One is about mental games. Tennis player Andre Agassi once admitted that he once put so much into beating Boris Becker in a semi-final that when he succeeded, and then lost to Pete Sampras in the final, he lost all ability to play and went on a long losing streak. Only when he changed his mental approach did he finally manage to overcome the demons.

Perhaps rather than focusing on crunching the numbers, desperately over-thinking the situation from an engineering perspective, Massa and his engineer Rob Smedley need to take a step back, re-focus mentally and come back with a fresh approach; perhaps a trip to a sports mind coach rather than a return to Maranello would be a better bet.

And with suggestions Ferrari could trial Perez at the May test, Massa could have just two races left to impress. So it's now or never.


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