I think this year Felipe Massa has converted a lot of people. Particularly, his performance — both on and off the track — were a demonstration on what a true sportsman should be all about. After turning in a perfect performance in challenging conditions, Massa had the World Championship snatched from his grasp by events outwith his control in the cruellest of fashions.
His behaviour after this shattering event has won widespread praise, and rightly so. Dignified in defeat, where others may have gone in a sulk, Massa took the hammer-blow on the chin and vowed to try again next year.
With his behaviour, Felipe Massa has completely won me over. Not only that — his driving has won me over too.
Massa has always been tainted by his début season in 2002 which the Brazilian himself confesses was too erratic. A year out of racing gave him the opportunity to test for Ferrari. He impressed the Scuderia so much that he was offered a race seat in 2006.
At Ferrari he has been mentored by Michael Schumacher and has forged an important partnership with his race engineer Rob Smedley. Today’s Felipe Massa, as opposed to the erratic guy Sauber hired, is a product of the Ferrari team. They recognised that Massa had the talent and the speed — and they learnt how to shake the errors out of him.
The transformation has been slow, and like a frog being boiled it has happened so slowly that we almost didn’t realise it. Massa has retained the image of the erratic driver who can’t stop making errors. But in a season littered with driver errors, Massa has not done much worse than many others.
Lewis Hamilton had the pressure on him because he was expected to do well. But Massa had more pressure on him because he was expected to do badly. But Massa has shown the critics. After a shaky start to the season, Massa has proved that he has the ability to become true World Championship material.
Somewhere along the way, Massa got a reputation for being poor in the wet. I particularly remember his performance in the 2007 European Grand Prix underlining this. His five spins at Silverstone this year did not help.
But any fair assessment would have to take into account the fact that Kimi Räikkönen also spun a number of times during the same race. Maybe not as often as Massa, but it suggests that there was something wrong with the car rather than the driver in that instance.
Look at some of the other wet races this season. In Monaco, Massa had a slight problem when he ran wide at Ste Devote, losing a place to Robert Kubica. But three of the best drivers on the grid — Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen — all made contact with the barriers, while Massa did not.
In Spa (tainted though that victory may be in the eyes of many), Felipe Massa won a race in wet conditions which completely got the better of Räikkönen. And victory in Brazil never looked in any doubt.
The other main taunt that Massa received is that he was only good at certain circuits, namely Bahrain, Turkey and Brazil. This year he won all three of those — but he also added France, Europe and Belgium to the list. Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps being, of course, the driver’s circuit, a true test of skill and bravery.
Is Felipe Massa the more improved driver in recent years? I struggle to think of anyone who can rival him for that title. Felipe Massa is living, breathing proof of what you can achieve when you set your heart to it. The sub-par driver who was a laughing stock has had the last laugh — even if the title still (just) eludes him. If he doesn’t get another crack, I will feel sorry for him.