- Commenting on ... United States Grand Prix
Taking one for the teamLaurence Edmondson November 19, 2012
For the first time since it was made public in October, Ferrari's decision to keep Felipe Massa for 2013 started to make sense at the United States Grand Prix. Not only did he register one of his best race weekends since his career-threatening accident in 2009, he also gave Fernando Alonso a timely leg up in the title race by sacrificing a decent qualifying performance with a self-inflicted gearbox penalty.
By rights the Brazilian's start to the season should have seen him put out to pasture in 2013, but Ferrari saw strengths in Massa - namely that he is a team player, well versed in the Scuderia's modus operandi. Imagine how Mark Webber would have reacted if Red Bull had retaliated with a gearbox penalty of its own to put Fernando Alonso back on the dirty side of the grid. Yet Massa's dissent towards his team boss peaked when he said: "He is lucky to have a driver like me," to which Stefano Domencali could have quite easily replied: "You are lucky to have a team like Ferrari in 2013." Put simply, Massa is in debt to Ferrari for giving him a second chance next year and Sunday's self-imposed grid drop was just the first instalment of his repayment. As a result Domenicali didn't have to say anything; the writing was on the Ferrari pit wall (not to mention in Massa's contract).
Of course that doesn't make the decision any easier to swallow, as for the first time this season Massa had the upper-hand on his team-mate in both qualifying and the race. Despite starting three rows behind Alonso, he finished the race just seven seconds off his team-mate, acting as a rear gunner to any threats further down the road. At one stage around the pit stops it looked like he might even have the pace to challenge Alonso, who stopped earlier for the hard tyres and was struggling to get them up to temperature, but a tyre sensor problem, which was incorrectly reporting low pressure, forced Massa to pit a few laps earlier than planned. On his return to the track he picked off Kimi Raikkonen and then settled in to position behind Alonso. It's no wonder that he considered his performance to be on a par with a victory by the end of the race.
But cast an eye over the history of Ferrari and the team's actions in Austin were nothing new. In 1956 Peter Collins sacrificed his own championship chances by handing his car to Juan-Manuel Fangio halfway through the race and a more recent example is Rubens Barrichello yielding to Michael Schumacher ahead of the finish line in Austria in 2002. The list is long.
So by signing for another year in October Massa pledged his allegiance to Ferrari which, in the current era, also means Alonso. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh is a man who knows a thing or two about these situations: "It's very clear that they are very focused on Fernando and in fairness it works for Fernando. Lest we forget that when Fernando was with us it was not doing those things that meant that Fernando left us. They've got to make their decisions and I'm not criticising anyone for what they do."
Different teams operate in different ways and that is partly what makes Formula One so intriguing both on and off the track. McLaren, for example, puts pride in being whiter than white when it comes to driver parity and, as Whitmarsh alluded to, it cost them the title in 2007. Ferrari, meanwhile, prides itself on doing what is best for Ferrari. Had it not taken the gearbox option in the USA and Alonso went on to lose the championship by a couple of points, much more serious questions would have been asked at Maranello. Meanwhile, Massa justifies the decision to himself by thinking about his recent upwards trend in form and what that could mean next year.
"I've just been getting better and better all the time, improving and getting in the best shape," he said. "There's just one more race to finish the championship but it's quite positive for next year. For sure, I hope the car changes a lot for next year to be competitive, but the rules stay the same so I don't think it will be a big change for next year with how the car is [to drive]. So again, I think this can be very important for me."
And Ferrari justifies it to itself by heading to one of the most unpredictable races of the season with just a 13-point gap to Vettel.
"You can agree or not with that decision, but honestly at the end of the day it is something that is our responsibility to do," Domenicali said. "We knew before the start of the race that the difference in the grip level on the two sides of the grid was very high and we knew that if we were trying to take the championship down to the last race it would be very important to be near the front on the first couple of laps."
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1