Where to, Felipe?

Is Massa's time in red up? © http://www.ferrari.com

When Felipe Massa pull aside for Fernando Alonso at the Hockenheimring in July, it signalled more than just an unwilling acceptance of team orders at Ferrari, but may indeed have signposted the end of Massa’s time as a driver in a top team.

Ever since the controversial move, rumours in the media have been rife regarding Massa’s future and speculation that he would be out of the team as soon as 2011 have steadfastly refused to go away. It is unlikely that such a drastic move will be made with one of the leading players this late in the season; however, it leaves the Brazilian in something of a conundrum as to what happens next. Where can Felipe Massa go from here?

To understand this, one must examine how Massa is now perceived. Where only two years ago, the Brazilian fought a tooth and nail with Lewis Hamilton in a thrilling title battle, the Massa of today has being left to feed on scraps left by the Championship contenders. That the Brazilian has been beaten by Alonso is not such a bad thing, but that he has been beaten so thoroughly, is.
Now add to that a race that Massa had dominated and the Brazilian is ordered to move aside – where once a true Championship fighter, a pushover now sits. Some may argue that Massa moved aside to appease the team and help secure his seat, but in my eyes, it has probably only hastened his departure from the Scuderia.
Of course, there is always his accident from last year – how much has that affected Massa and how much has the presence of Alonso damaged Massa’s mental recovery. When Mika Hakkinen suffered a near fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995, he returned to a team that had David Coulthard as its second driver. No offence to Coulthard, but he’s no Alonso and never was.

No longer the bullish contender in the eyes of some, but a quality driver with broken confidence that can occasionally secure decent results – it is not exactly the unique selling point that squads will seek out. It is also a factor that could instantly rule Massa out of a driver with a top-level team. So what’s left?

Massa’s biggest possibility is Renault. The team currently runs with Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov and by 2012, both drivers may have left the team for very different reasons. Kubica has been linked to Massa’s Ferrari seat a number of times in the last eighteen months, although it would not be unreasonable for the Pole to turn down a drive in light of Alonso’s demands for inter-team dominance.
Petrov, on the other hand, has struggled occasionally during his début season with a lack of pace – he has also had several avoidable accidents. It has left question marks about his ability to stay in Formula 1; however the Russian is backed by a large amount of sponsorship from his homeland and it is dollars and cents that keep Petrov there for another year.
There is also a level of uncertainty regarding discussions with Group Lotus / Proton. Should the Malaysian company take over the team, it would change the face of the squad completely. This could either leave Massa being an in demand veteran to lead the Malaysian venture, or he could end up being shunned altogether.

There is slim potential for a seat with the Mercedes squad; however this depends on when exactly Schumacher finally retires and the status of Paul di Resta is at that time. In Massa’s favour, there is the presence of former Ferrari technical director, Ross Brawn as Mercedes team principal. Brawn already has a relationship with Massa’s manager, Nicolas Todt; son of former-Ferrari boss and current FIA president, Jean Todt, but even that connection may be too tenuous to guarantee a seat for the Brazilian.
Also, it may be unlikely that Massa quite fits the team’s desires – the team has thus far maintained quite a Germanic stance since it bought out Brawn last winter and may wish retain that. Initially there had been talk of Force India’s Adrian Sutil replacing Schumacher, but with the seven-time World Champion staying on, Sutil may stay with Dr Vijay Mallya’s squad for another season. Sutil may yet still be a factor at Mercedes for 2012.

Openings could free up at he likes of Williams or Force India, but Massa’s pay demands may push these teams out of the Brazilian’s reach.

Massa will not be the first driver to have been devalued by team orders. When Rubens Barrichello left the Ferrari fold at the end of 2005, his best option at the time was a seat with the works Honda team with future World Champion Jenson Button. Honda had limited success in 2006, but much of the following two seasons was quite barren as the Japanese company floundered under a top-heavy management structure and a series of poor handling machinery.
By 2007, Honda were in such disarray that even obtaining points was out of the question. When the Japanese squad pulled out the sport at the end of 2008, it was assumed that Barrichello would fall by the wayside too, until the team was famously saved by Ross Brawn’s buy out just prior to the start of the 2009 season.

Massa may well find himself in the same situation soon, but may not have Rubens’ luck when it comes to rejuvenated teams.

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