Twelve months ago Felipe Massa was about to start the race weekend which at the time seemed to signal the beginning of the end of his six-and-a-bit years at Ferrari.
Team-mate Fernando Alonso won last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix you will recall. As the team prepares its quick F138 single seaters for this weekend’s race, you might not recall being as gob-smacked as we were over last year’s result; the 2012 Prancing Horse had already been found to have traces of donkey DNA in its design. The result however had us all forgetting about that and instead the focus switched to Massa who finished miles behind Alonso (one minute 37secs behind). He narrowly avoided being lapped.
The hashtags started appearing instantly – #massaout #sackmassa #fernandoisfasterthanyou and one more, #pereztoferrari. The teams had barely packed up before it was decided that Massa was heading home to Brazil and Sergio Perez would soon switch a Sauber-Ferrari for a real one.
It didn’t happen, not that it got better for Massa for a long time. While ‘dissing Perez, Luca di Montezemolo was hardly effusive about Massa. ‘Get faster or get out’ was the message from the Godfather of Maranello. And somehow, slowly, he did. So much so that he out-qualified Alonso in the US and in Brazil at the end of last year. And he did last weekend in Australia too.
Will he make it four on the trot this weekend? And can he this time turn it into an advantage come the flag? He has the car to do it. We’re still convinced the Lotus E21’s tyre management advantage is decisive, but it’s marginal over the Ferrari and the Red Bull. And of course it could chuck it down as it did last year. As it did today in Kuala Lumpur, in fact. Sepang is a very successful circuit for Ferrari.
We’re interested because Felipe seems a jolly nice fella who came very close to leaving us all for good back in July 2009, and it is Easter time. And then there’s F1’s best bromance. It’s so personal, so intimate it feels like illegal phone hacking when Rob Smedley gets on the blower to his man. I for one bought it when Smedley told Jake Humphrey last season that what really made the difference to Massa was a weekend at the Smedleys and a big hug.
Yup F1 drivers need loving too. But there’s more. How is Fernando Alonso going to cope? He is, as Lewis Hamilton will tell you, not good with being beaten. Remember that little incident in the pitlane in Hungary in 2007? It doesn’t get more petulant than that.
Massa has had two team-mates at Ferrari before Alonso. The first was the most successful driver of all time, the second the man who’s leading this year’s world championship. Ferrari was exclusively Schumacher’s team in Massa’s first season but he still managed to out-qualify him a handful of times. However, against Raikkonen and before the accident the advantage in qualifying was decisively Massa’s, especially in 2008, when but for one racing lap, he would have been world champion.
It’s easy to forget after two difficult seasons, that Massa, still only 31, is no tortoise. And his confidence as well as his speed seems to have come back. He was quick to point out that tactics, not speed, got Alonso ahead of him last weekend, obliging Ferrari to ask Alonso to claim the credit for making the early call that gained him track position. Handy that.
But how long will it continue? Ferrari’s patience and faith in Massa during the difficult times was touching, but we all know how ruthlessly Ferrari races. All sentiment aside, Alonso is their man and there is a very real sense that Ferrari owes him, especially after last year’s heroics.
The F138 is probably the best Ferrari Alonso has had in his time in Italy. But it’s tight out there and unless Romain Grosjean is able to find vision to match his pace and not drown in caution, it looks like Alonso will be fighting two ‘one-car’ teams in Raikkonen’s Lotus and Vettel’s Red Bull. He really can’t afford to hand victories to Massa. And if Felipe continues at this rate any more ‘Fernando is faster than you’ calls will ring hollow. Keep a close eye on Alonso’s usually affable twitter stream (@alo_offcial).
The first two free practice sessions take place in the early hours of tomorrow (Friday) morning, at 02.00 and 06.00 GMT. Sky will of course be live for both sessions or, if you don’t have a subscription BBC Radio Five Live Sports Extra will be on the air just before FP2 starts. We’ll be back tomorrow morning.