It is very sad, really. If you were Felipe Massa during the Australian Grand Prix and you had just made your second pit stop, you would be perfectly justified in being rather furious.
Felipe’s late-season form last year was a welcome relief to the Brazilian’s fans. A consistent string of 10 points-scoring finishes in the last 10 races proved that, for the moment, Felipe was back on his game.
Back to Australia. The second stops are over, you’re on fresh tires, and you see your teammate right in front of you. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to chase him down, right? Well, it is the perfect time. But this notion should never have had to cross Felipe’s mind in the first place. Rewind three laps and you would notice that the resurgent Brazilian was ahead of his illustrious teammate. While his position in second place at the time was far from secure, there were no signs that he was cracking under the pressure of holding off his two time World Champion teammate. He was beautifully balancing his aggression with tire conservation, a skill many have yet to master.
In Formula One, there is a sort of unspoken rule that whichever teammate is ahead at any given moment gets pitstop priority. Ferrari easily obliged to this rule at the first round of pitstops, servicing Felipe a lap before Fernando. There was absolutely no problem there. Felipe was still ahead on track after his teammate exited the pits- they were free to race once more.
Come the second round of stops, the thinking within the Ferrari team changed. With the order still the same- Felipe leading Fernando- the latter was called in for a tire change, leaving Felipe out on the track bewildered by the fact that he was not given priority again. Ferrari broke the unspoken rule. How could they, you might ask? Well it’s simple really.
Ferrari’s history does not reveal that it is one to play the team game. It plays the team game in the sense that it wants to win the Constructor’s Championship at nearly all costs, but it is not exactly famous for leveling the playing field for both of its drivers. Any seasoned Formula One fan will tell you this without giving it a second thought. However, the situation in Australia was different.
This was the first race. The hierarchy of teams was not even remotely established at the time so there was no incentive to give priority to a driver that was not performing as well as his teammate. The staunchest Fernando Alonso fan will even tell you that at the second round of pitstops, Felipe Massa was cheated. He was cheated out of a better race, out of a potential podium, and- perhaps most importantly- out of a chance to have a fair, on-track fight with his teammate.
Here is the math of the situation. Felipe Massa made his first stop precisely one lap before Fernando Alonso. This meant that by the time the second stops came around, his tires were one lap older. One would think that to make things fair, Felipe would pit again one lap before Fernando to make the number of laps raced on both sets of tires equal. That wasn’t how Ferrari planned it.
Instead, Fernando entered the pits before Felipe at the second round of stops, thus ensuring Felipe would run two more laps than Fernando on the same type of tire. This meant, Felipe would be going slower for those two laps and thus, he would emerge from the pits behind Fernando. This bit of trickery was unquestionably unfair. But try telling that to Ferrari, and they won’t hear a word of it. The answer will be some sort of flimsy, political muttering placing the responsibility on Felipe and his engineer.
With Felipe floundering about on tires two laps older than they should have been, there was no chance for Felipe to come out on top after his pitstop. The laws of physics wouldn’t really have allowed for it.
Rewind to the 2010 German Grand Prix. This was a bitterly sad day for the sport, as Ferrari clearly established their intentions for the future. I need not remind you of the events that day, as they will be forever in the history books for all the wrong reasons. One may justify Ferrari’s actions by saying that Fernando needed the extra points to aid a championship bid that Felipe was clearly not it. This reasoning may be true, but it certainly does not justify Ferrari’s actions that day.
Fast forward again to the 2012 Austin Grand Prix. It is the morning of race day and you, Felipe Massa, get the news from the team that they will be breaking the seal on your Ferrari’s gearbox in order to incur a penalty. They tell you you’ll be on the clean side of the grid and that you’ll be helping out Fernando tremendously because not only will he move up a place on the grid, but he’ll be on the clean side as well. These aren’t the things you really want to hear, but as the second driver for Ferrari, you are practically contractually obliged to agree with these terms.
When the news of this Ferrari-termed “gearbox problem” broke out to the general public, uproars of a nature so furious arose, one almost thought an angry mob would flood the paddock in search for whoever made this decision.
These two examples barely break the surface of Ferrari’s politicized nature. Nothing is going to change this, no matter how much we may want it to.
The situation in Melbourne this past weekend was different, though. The first race of the season is always a tricky one, as the competitive order is yet to be fully established. This makes Ferrari’s decision to screw over Felipe in the pits all the more surprising. At this point in the season, there is no reason to play favorites. Ferrari don’t know for sure that Fernando will be as fantastic a performer as he was last year and that Felipe won’t be the better of the two drivers this year. There is nothing preventing Felipe from being Ferrari’s championship challenger (other than his team, of course). Because of this, there was no reason for Ferrari to put their focus of Fernando, and Felipe surely will not forget this throughout the season. Unfortunately, there isn’t much he can do, really.
2013 could prove the year that Felipe Massa officially finds his pre-accident form. Ironically, though, his team may just prevent this from happening.