Full Throttle: Keeping a sense of perspective at Ferrari
This week's cover of the respected British motorsport magazine Autosport, carries a picture of Fillipe Massa declaring his intention to "take the fight to Alonso in 2011."
Convinced I had lapsed into some sort of coma during the night and missed a few months, I checked the date in the top right hand corner. No, I was mistaken. April 1st, it was not.
Could be a figment of my imagination then? Well the magazine felt real enough in my hands. Then I figured it out. It wasn't me who was delusional but Massa himself.
Granted, during both 2006 and 2008 - when he raced against Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen respectively, the Brazilian enjoyed two successful campaigns and had compared favourably alongside both champions at Ferrari. He was the sole challenger to eventual champion Lewis Hamilton in '08 yet the following year, Ferrari were nowhere but the 29 year-old had, all things considered, performed better than expected.
Frustrated by the lack of dedication (and, some would say, personality) in his work, Ferrari chose to replace Raikkonen with the man they sought more than any other. The rumours had long abounded throughout the paddock for over a year before it was officially announced at the 2009 Italian Grand Prix - Fernando Alonso would be coming aboard for the following season.
In time honoured fashion, the team publicly declared that both drivers would receive equal treatment and both be given a shot at the championship. After the years of rule by Jean Todt and the 'thy team mate shall not beat herr Schumacher' attitude, it seemed, initially, as though Stefano Domenicalli and the new-age management at Ferrari were deploying a new philosophy.
Trouble is, they had no intention of doing so. Alonso knew it, the staff knew it, and everyone outside the team knew it - everyone except Massa. Having boarded a plane to Cloud Coockoo-land prior to the opening Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, the Brazilian was busy declaring himself an equal to his team-mate and a certain title contender throughout the 2010 season.
Sure, his winter testing times had been competitive - and served to eliminate any doubts about his speed following his horrifying crash at the Hungoraring the previous year, but did he really think he would be given the same opportunities as his Spanish double-world champion partner? Apparently so. Thankfully, the Brazilian's delusions of grandeur were assassinated with one quick radio message from his trusted race engineer Rob Smedley during last year's German GP. "OK... so... Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?"
That was it. Massa was leading the race with Alonso on his gearbox, but that didn't matter a jot. Alonso had more points and thus, represented the only realistic chance of glory the team had. Ferrari - knowing the rules didn't permit it, had to somehow get their number one driver ahead. Thus the order (sorry, request) was given to Smedley.
Just as Rubens Barrichello's faith in Ferrari fairness had been obliterated in Austria 2001 and at the same venue two years later when both times he had been ordered to make way for Schumacher, Massa was suddenly aware that Alonso would be challenging for the title and not himself. Granted the words 'let Alonso past' or something to that effect had not actually been uttered, it was the tone of Smedly's voice which suggested it was a coded message for the Spaniard to be allowed to pass.
Ferrari ensured the hole it was digging grew larger still when Smedley was later heard apologizing to Massa over the radio, though he claimed after the race he was just sorry he had been overtaken. Whatever, the fact remained that now there was concrete evidence that Alonso was the apple of Ferrari's eye and all that the subsequent $100,000 fine imposed by the FIA did, was to set the process of team orders being officially legal once more.
Now of course, the teams are free to employ orders as they see fit during the season as long as they are not done so in such a crass way so as to bring the sport into disrepute. No repeat of 'Austria-gate' is assured by the FIA and teams alike and while this is to be applauded, as team orders have always been de rigeur in grand prix racing, great care must be taken by it's participants that the watching world is not offended.
Of course it makes sense that if one driver is a long way ahead of his team mate in the title hunt, the team should be able to put all it's all it's weight behind that leading driver. It's when such instances occur without the need to do so, that the shit can hit the fan - just ask Jean Todt.
The problem Massa faces now is that Alonso has already put a marker down within their relationship and their status within the team. Much as he might try to deny it, the Brazilian is going to play second fiddle to his teammate from the moment Friday practice commences in Bahrain. OK, Ferrari won't publicly admit it, but the fact remains that it is Alonso who is the more likely of the two men to be challenging for the title come Interlagos next November.
As a two-time world champion, his retainer is undoubtedly higher than the one being digested by Massa. So, from a purely business point of view, if an employee is earning over $20m a year, is the employer not going to harbor more desire to see him win rather than the other driver who is earning a fraction of that investment?
Getting what he had at Renault, what he thought he should have had at McLaren and what he believes is rightfully his, Alonso has earned his status as a number one driver. His teammate however, has not. There is of course another obvious factor, which ensures Alonso will be treated like royalty from his employer.
Now free of it's commercial ties with McLaren, Santander - the Spanish banking empire, has thrown it's long-term financial weight behind Ferrari and thus, one has to wonder how content would they be at the thought of Massa getting equal status as their marketing dream or heaven forbid, being allowed to beat him to the title...
Contemporary Formula 1 drivers may be short of many things but confidence is not one of them (neither is money come to think of it) so it never hurts to create a little publicity prior to the start of the season by declaring yourself to be the equal of your more successful teammate. Just don't start believing your own hype.
"Can you confirm you understood that message Fillipe?"