Felipe Massa has a big job this weekend. Monaco is one of those circuits that tends to exaggerate a driver’s talent, and recently he has apparently been showing all too little of that. Of course there have been reasons (or excuses if you are anti-Felipe), but the signs appear to be that tolerance in the Ferrari camp is reducing. Luca di Montezemolo has mentioned him explicitly in his recent letter to the Ferrari troops, and in Spain their press release stated that the team is expecting a change of gear. The question is: will that be a change from team gear to civvies?
Essentially, Felipe has two problems, qualifying and the race. Or, looking at it less harshly, his left and right rear tyres. On Saturdays he doesn’t seem to be getting the best out his P-Zeros and is losing time as a result. And on Sundays he seems to be using his tyres too quickly and losing performance as a result.
Now this is not to say that Felipe is a bad driver, or that he is not as quick since his Hungarian spring episode, just that extracting the best from the current Pirelli rubber is not as easy as it might be. Even his old German teammate has been complaining vociferously about how one has to drive using the current Pirelli tyres.
But it seems to me that Fernando’s legendary ability to adapt to any situation (and I’ve heard this from engineers who have run him in a simulator) means that he is able to work with the latest rubber from Izmit (Pirelli’s F1 tyres are produced in Turkey). Maybe it’s this natural adaptability that is making the Ferrari look good and Massa look bad.
One person that has experienced this first hand is Pastor Maldonado, sitting behind Alonso for several laps at Albert Park. Seeing that Alonso’s tyres were destroyed he kept pressurizing the Spaniard, convinced that it was not possible for the Ferrari to remain on the road in front of him. Turns out that it was possible, and Maldonado made a (sizeable) error and slammed into the wall. With the lesson learned, a strategy was deployed to pass Fernando in Spain.
Felipe doesn’t have the option of beating Alonso by strategy; he’s just expected to drive (nearly) as fast. This sounds reasonable to an outsider but I’m not convinced it is. It’s almost a shame that Ferrari didn’t put a third driver into the F2012 at Mugello. Of course, that would have been seen by most as threatening Felipe, but I’m guessing any third driver would have been slower than the Brazilian – and Ferrari know that.
They might know that this year’s car is a devil to extract the maximum performance from, but they are not going to admit that publicly. What if they put a new driver in and the performance gap to Alonso grows? Just imagine the reaction if Felipe swaps seats with a Sauber driver (I like Edd Straw’s idea that Kamui is the ideal replacement) and Felipe then out-qualifies his new team mate. It could happen. The Sauber is easy on tyres and Felipe would relish that; plus he’s worked with a lot of people at the team.
But first we have Monaco. If Felipe is over-driving the car, it’s quite likely that it’s the slower corners that are causing him problems – drivers tend to avoid exaggerating tyre slip-angles on fast corners for obvious reasons. And Monaco has plenty of slow corners to eat those sensitive rear tyres. This means Felipe will most likely be struggling even more than in Spain and this will put even more pressure on the Ferrari management to find a solution.
So let’s hope that solution is some kind of technical update that will allow both drivers to be quick in the F2012. It would be a great pity if Felipe were to be expelled from F1 in these circumstances; purely because Ferrari’s current challenger is virtually impossible to drive. Of course, if a substitute driver is installed for Canada and he is immediately quick, Felipe would have to accept that his talent has fallen off a cliff, along with the grip of his tyres.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see what Ferrari do if Felipe is slow at Monaco. If they don’t replace him, they are effectively saying we don’t think anyone else could do anything better. I certainly didn’t think that after China, but now I think they might be right.