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For All the Entertainers who Missed Out

FEATURE BY STUART GARLICK
30/09/2008

There are some who believe that Felipe Massa should not be in the 2008 title hunt. That somehow the Brazilian has lucked-into the best car on the grid, and that, if not for Kimi Raikkonen's inexplicable loss of form, Massa would be playing his natural role in life, that of back-up.

Maybe it is the cheesy grin, the overt need to be liked, the earnest, matey, banter, making him look like a bit of a walkover. Maybe Massa-sceptics have been reviewing the five spins at Silverstone, in a confidence-sapped wet-weather performance reminiscent of Damon Hill lousing up his 1996 Spanish Grand Prix. Spa 2008, in which Massa was awarded the victory in spite of never being a contender for the lead, proves that Massa is by no means the foremost rainy-day performer of his generation. And the true greats have always been masters of inclement weather. But that should not mean Massa cannot have a place in our hearts.

Ferrari again conspired to steal defeat from the jaws of victory in Singapore. A team which seemed so well-drilled that nothing could go wrong under Ross Brawn now seems chaotic. Massa had been faultless after starting the race well. His strengths lie in new circuits and street circuits, and Singapore is both of those. He knew what he had to do, he would have been encouraged by the pre-race chat with his engineer, Rob Smedley, and the start he got was a rocket. Who was going to win this one? Massa, fair and square, it seemed. Just as in Turkey and Bahrain, he had this one nailed. Like the very best Scalextric driver, he kept to the racing line, kept his pace consistent, let others confuse themselves over things such as strategy. All was going according to plan until catastrophe struck. One can bet that McLaren would never release a car from the pits with the fuel hose still attached.

That kind of occurrence is becoming all too frequent at Ferrari, and it is hard to be sure that the almost limitless tiers of management currently in place at Maranello know how to prevent the same difficulties from re-occurring. Ferrari, of course, has previous in the respect of panicking under pressure in 2008; it was the way Massa and Ferrari were let off with a fine for "unsafe release" in the pits in front of another driver which ignited the debate about the way in which Ferrari and other teams were treated by the FIA. Going back further, Raikkonen was given a drive-through penalty at Monaco because his team had not fitted his tyres with three minutes to go until the start of the Grand Prix. Management don't fit the tyres, but they can create a culture that either inspires or frustrates staff.

If Massa and, it could be argued, Raikkonen, were operating under the Schumacher-era Ferrari organisation, maybe they could have more confidence that it was possible to concentrate on driving alone, as all other issues were being dealt-with. As it is, the succession of blunders seem to imply a lack of the level of attention to detail prevalent when Schumacher and Brawn ruled over the team. F1 drivers, like other sportsmen, are singular beings, and will respond best if they know that all they have to do is turn up and do their job to the best of their ability. Although neither driver has said as much, failure outside of a driver's control, whether it is mechanical or team failure, can spread the seeds of doubt. If Massa had not been allowed to leave his pit with the fuel hose attached, he probably would have won, and would have a Championship lead to take to Fuji. As it is, it's catch-up time again.

To a certain extent, Massa suffers from an image problem amongst F1 fans and media. This might explain why there are still people who doubt that he is World Champion material, even when he is only seven points behind Lewis Hamilton with three races to go. When he first joined Sauber in 2002, he was exciting, but also ragged and unpredictable, so much so that the team dropped him from the race line-up for the ever-reliable Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 2003. Although the likes of Vittorio Brambilla had lengthy F1 careers in spite of being "crashers", because teams trusted them to produce the occasional extraordinary result, it is much more difficult to justify that kind of patience with an unruly driver in the modern, corporate era. Takuma Sato's employment with the "works" Honda team ended for that reason; few drivers are lucky enough to have a satellite team formed around them in the manner of Super Aguri and Sato subsequently.

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