Felipe Massa is to stay at Ferrari next year after agreeing a new one-year contract with the team. It’s a move that, whilst not a huge surprise now, would not have been called by many people just a few months ago.
At the beginning of the season Massa was nowhere. He lacked pace, he was making mistakes, he was tripping over his rivals, and whilst team-mate Fernando Alonso was fighting for race wins, the Brazilian was finding it tough just to score a point.
Since the summer break however, Massa has looked like a different driver. He has scored points in the last six races, has been much closer to his team-mate’s pace and at the Japanese Grand Prix took his first podium finish in almost two years with a fine drive to second place. It is a run of form that has seen him show clear glimpses of being the same driver that almost won him the world championship in 2008, a driver not seen since his life-threatening accident in Hungary three years ago.
And it is this run of form that has persuaded Ferrari to keep him on for another year. Whilst not quite on the same level of Alonso, Massa is capable of running him close at times, and if he can maintain this level of performance through to next year can act as the perfect number two driver; someone not quite as fast as his team-mate but with the pace that he can act as the perfect foil for him and is there to pick up the pieces should something go wrong for the Spaniard.
There is no doubting that should Massa sustain this form into next season that Ferrari will have a formidable driver line-up and one which, providing they can be given a car capable of challenging, will be able to take the fight to the likes of Red Bull and McLaren.
However, there is another huge factor to this whole story, Sebastian Vettel. Vettel has been linked very strongly with a move to Ferrari in 2014 and sources close to Maranello say the deal has been done. Therefore it leaves Ferrari needing a second driver for one year before the reigning world champion joins the team. With not many options available apart from young drivers, it makes perfect sense for Ferrari to stick with Massa for another year.
Although the likes of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were linked with the team, as youngsters and with just two seasons race experience in Formula One, a move to a big team would have to be seen as a long-term proposition. It would make little sense to poach an inexperienced driver from a smaller team and run him for one season before handing him his paycheque and showing him the door.
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo had said that Perez in particular was ‘too inexperienced’ to drive for the Prancing Horse. It was always a contentious claim, particularly given that the quote had come from the same man that in the past has hired the likes of Eddie Irvine and Jean Alesi to drive for the team with equal or less experience than Perez would’ve had.
Looking back on that now, it would appear that the agreement with Vettel has been in place for some time and Ferrari were merely seeking to avoid the embarrassment of poaching a young driver to run at the team for one season. And it makes sense, considering that the likes of Perez (now on his way to McLaren) would in all likelihood have acted as an ideal back-up to Fernando Alonso.
And it is the ‘Vettel factor’ that has given Massa this lifeline. Without the reigning world champion at the team in 2014, it is likely that Ferrari would have replaced Massa with either Perez or Hulkenberg for next season. And whilst both would’ve been perfectly good number twos, the Brazilian’s recent drives coupled with the impending arrival of Vettel means that not only have Ferrari made the right choice to keep him on, but they have probably stumbled upon the perfect balance for team harmony as they look to the future.
After all, if Massa can sustain this current run of form into 2013 and back-up his team-mate to the best of his ability, and regularly challenge for podiums and even the odd win, then there will be no doubting that Ferrari will have made the right choice in keeping him on. And if he can show the ability that saw him come within a few seconds of becoming the 2008 world champion then not only will Massa still be a hugely valuable asset to the Scuderia, it will give him the perfect opportunity to put himself in the shop window for a good drive in the years ahead.