While they’re dashing youngsters compared to Schumi and Rubens, the seats of Felipe Massa (30) and Mark Webber (34) seem more shakey than those of the old farts. There are definately some parallels to be drawn on their respective F1 careers, most notably the fact that both of them came within sniffing distance of the world championship, and both saw their WDC dreams shattered at the final GP of the season. Massa could have taken the 2008 title if it weren’t for some silly mistakes during the season (his spin-fest in a soaked Silverstone GP springs to mind) and Timo Glock’s tire gamble not working out in Brazil. We forget easily but with just a few Grand Prix to go last year, the title was really Webber’s for the taking and he choked, hampered by a broken shoulder and upstaged by his young teammate in the final GPs.
1. Felipe Massa
It is hard not to like Felipe Massa. He is a very soft spoken guy, handled the 2008 disillusion with admirable class (unlike his jeering compatriotes in the stands) and it was already a strong feat to return to F1 racing after his freak accident in Hungary 2009 which could well have ended his career. It must be said that Ferrari’s loyalty to Massa in those dark days was very commendable, and he had his race seat kept warm for him as he returned for the 2010 season. However 2010 saw Alonso arrive at Ferrari, and within just a few GPs it had become clear for all to see that Alonso was now the de facto number one driver leading the team. Fact is that even before Alonso came along Felipe has never truly led the team in his now 5 years with Ferrari. First there was Schumi, then Raikkonen. Granted, in 2008 Massa became de facto number one, but that was fairly short lived and one could sense that while it was the sensible thing to do for Ferrari, they would have preferred having Raikkonen fight for the WDC. Few drivers have been so thoroughly outperformed by their teammates in 2010. Sure, there were the scandalous Hockenheim team orders that may have broken his spirit, but even prior to that Massa was getting spanked by Alonso. The numbers speak for themselves: he was outqualified by Alonso 15-4 in 2010, and is being outdone 6-0 in this season. He finished a whopping 108 points behind Alonso in the WDC last year and a mere 2 points ahead of Nico Rosberg who was in a clearly inferior car. Alonso is no slouch of course, yet such a huge discrepancy in performance is simply unacceptable in a top F1 team. These teams need drivers that can eke out the maximum from their cars all the time, and surpass the car’s capabilities by pure driving genious on occasions (the true mark of a top class driver) and Felipe has done neither since 2008. Massa looked to finally make a resurgence with solid performances in the Malaysian and Chinese GPs. Come Turkey I was expecting him to really throw down the challenge to Alonso on his favorite track where he’d won 3 times in a row, yet his Turkey race proved to be yet another dod. In Monaco and Spain we were back to square one as he was again thoroughly outclassed by Alonso.
Ferrari have been very loyal to Massa to date, yet their patience with him is surely being stretched to the limit. He has a contract untill the end of 2012, yet it is becoming increasingly doubtful whether Ferrari will honor this contract. The Raikkonen affair shows Ferrari does not have any qualms breaking up contracts, even if it costs them bucketloads of money. They also have some promising youngsters waiting in the wings with the likes of Perez, Kobayashi and Jules Bianchi to name only a few linked to Massa’s seat for 2012. I doubt we’ll see Massa beating Alonso consistently any time soon, and in fairness it’s looking increasingly like he is just wasting a seat in a competitive car that others would be more deserving to drive. A lot will depend on Ferrari’s thinking. His saving grace could be for Ferrari to have a knee-jerk reaction to grasp back to the glory days with Alonso as the new Schumi and Massa as the new Rubens. Or do they wake up with the times and realize they need someone pushing Alonso all the way and raking in those all important points to compete in the constructors championship? The future is looking grim for Massa if this is the case, as he is very unlikely to get a seat with any other front runner judging by his poor performances, and we might see another Rubens scenario play out: stuck with midfielders or backmarkers, their shot at the ultimate WDC glory long gone.
2. Mark Webber
Let us now turn to Mark Webber, or the Aussie Bastard as I affectionately call him. One can only admire his grit and determination looking at his F1 career, he truly did it the hard way. He is also one of the few drivers in the paddock who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and cut the corporate crap. From Minardi all the way to the dominant Red Bull team, his run in F1 has been impressive. In 2010 he finally found himself in a dominant car with a talented yet young and fairly unexperienced teammate at his side. Surely this was the year Webber would take the crown. However it became clear from very early on that the Red Bull groomed Vettel was the team’s golden boy, and Webber was probably right when he said his successes were an inconvenience for the team. At 34 he does not have age on his side of course and it is somehow logical for Red Bull to prefer a 23 year old hugely talented German speaking youngster (after all Red Bull is an Austrian company) over a grumpy 34 year old Ozzie to cement their dominance in F1 for years to come.
We all know how last year played out, so I won’t go into too much detail. While they were very close in qualifying, Vettel did beat Webber – who had built a reputation for having great quali pace- 12-7 on quali, still a respectable result for Webber. But in 2011 Webber seems lost at sea compared to Vettel. Beaten 5-1 in quali and 6-0 in races, Vettel is racking up the dominant wins while Webber is struggling to compete with the Mclarens and Ferraris. Webber has had his share of bad luck with faulty Kers and bad quali decisions, but the gap to his teammate which was so close last year has become huge in 2011. To say Webber is underperforming like Massa is is probably stretching it too far. Vettel is clearly riding the wave of confidence (and luck as we’ve seen in Monaco) while Webber is trailing in his wake, yet contrary to Massa Webber has already put in some absolutely storming drives this year recovering from botched quali sessions. The key question here is where Webber’s one lap pace has disappeared to?
I believe the key to Webber’s slump can be found in the Pirelli tires as he himself has hinted at. He is clearly tougher on his tires than Vettel, in effect harder than any other front runner as he has done the most stops on average per race of all the top drivers, almost always stopping one more time than the people around him. I believe the Pirelli characteristics also explain his lack of one lap pace in quali, Webber just does not seem to be able to get these tires hooked up. He was an expert at quali in the grooved tire days, but the Pirellis just do not suit his style at all. Another interesting thing to look at explaining how Vettel got the better over Webber from mid 2010 onwards is RBRs exhaust blown diffuser. This very interesting BBC article explains how the use of the EBD, pioneered by Red Bull in ’10, took away a key advantage Webber had over Vettel. Quoting the BBC article:
In its initial form, this component required a very specific driving technique to maximise the time on open throttle – which increased the downforce boost from the exhaust plume – and Webber was superb at it, consistently squeezing just that little bit more from it than his team-mate
So the EBD took away an advantage from Webber, perhaps when the off throttle EBDs will be banned from Silverstone onwards, he can claw back some of the deficit on Vettel. One thing is for certain, Webber needs to seriously up his game and start challenging Vettel if he wants to have any chance to retain his seat for 2012. He is in a particularly weak position as his contract expires at the end of this year, and Red Bull have more than any other team youngsters ready to take his seat. Mateschitz will not have invested in Toro Rosso to permanently stable young drivers there, he wants the Red Bull young driver program to deliver top drivers that can one day be WDC in a Red Bull like Vettel. Buemi has been driving the wheels off the STR this year and looks ready for a Red Bull seat, Algersuari is struggling but is still quite young (21) and Red Bull also have the hugely talented Daniel Ricciardo waiting in the wings. This thinking is reinforced by Helmut Marko’s recent comments that Webbers seat would be taken by one of the STR drivers should he leave Red Bull. Buemi and Alguersuari have spent two years at Toro Rosso and won’t be happy to trundle along another season in the midfield. Ricciardo is more than ready for an F1 seat. Red Bull need to free up at least one slot for their young driver program to keep rolling. On top of that it is no secret Marko thoroughly dislikes Webber, and one cannot help but feel for the guy having to work in a team where everyone sees him as the second driver, but if anyone can deal with such adversity and strike back, it’s the gritty Webber.
Fact is, the only way Webber will cling on to his Red Bull seat is if he starts beating Vettel regularly – which the team probably won’t like but it would make it very hard for them to justify dropping him at the end of the year. Judging by how Vettel’s driving this year, this is a monumental task for Webber but I fear it is his only chance. If Webber does not get his Red Bull contract renewed, I believe he will prefer to retire rather than take a step back on the grid. I think it is unlikely for Mclaren, Ferrari, Mercedes or Renault to hire him and I think if this were the case Webber would be better off leaving F1, perhaps going to have some fun in the awesome V8 supercars, or return to Le Mans to do somersaults in another car. It is a bit of a paradox that of all four drivers in the twilight I have discussed, it is the one that is performing the best relative to the others who’s seat is most at risk.