Is Felipe Massa the right man to lead Williams?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Though the hype surrounding the big-ticket seats fizzled out long ago, the 2017 driver silly season remains full of potential, and officially six seats remain up for grabs.

    Three of them have relatively fixed outcomes. Fernando Alonso’s signature at McLaren is considered a formality post-Honda, and the only question at Sauber is whether one or both drivers will be replaced by either Ferrari juniors Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc.

    Toro Rosso has two seats heavily dependent on internal politics. Carlos Sainz will be loaned to Renault in 2018 and will likely be replaced by Pierre Gasly, but the lineup was thrown into doubt when Daniil Kvyat was suddenly dropped in Malaysia for Gasly, muddying the waters considerably.

    But of most interest is Felipe Massa’s Williams seat.

    Massa’s form since coming out of ‘retirement’ at the start of the season has been strong enough to earn him consideration for an extended stay.

    On the other hand, however, at 36 years old he is past his best, and on the mind of Williams decision-makers is that the Brazilian hasn’t beaten a teammate in the drivers standings since 2009, almost by definition suggesting that he isn’t able to extract the maximum from his car.

    It begs the question: is Massa the right driver to lead a Williams team desperate to arrest its slipping form and crack the top three?

    Telling is that a list of potential alternatives have been assembled, with the team happy to take its time to choose.

    “The team knows what I can give,” Massa said, defending himself at the Malaysian Grand Prix. “I would say definitely I have all the people who understand about motor racing on my side inside the team — engineers and everything — which is what counts for me in the end.”

    Some timely driver politicking — is this a sneaky reference to Paul di Resta, considered a candidate since his solid stand-in performance in Hungary? Or perhaps his commentary regards Robert Kubica, absent since his 2011 life-changing injury but now on the cusp of a sensational comeback — though the Pole remains unproven in racing conditions and therefore a gamble.

    “Then you have some other decisions that are not depending on the talent of the driver, on what he can give to the team from a driving point of view,” Massa added. “This is not up to me to say anything.”

    Here the Brazilian refers to unlikely challengers in Jolyon Palmer and Marcus Ericsson, whose biggest draws are their financial backing.

    “The people in the management have their own way to decide, which is hopefully in the right direction as a top team, as a good team,” Massa concluded.

    Williams driver Felipe Massa

    (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

    The key phrase is ‘right direction as a top team,’ and here is where Williams’ decision lies. To hire Palmer or Ericsson would be to admit that the team is unambitious, and Paul di Resta would be little better, having been dropped with few sympathisers in 2013.

    To maintain Massa would be to accept the status quo, and though much of the car’s ills have to do with long-term design direction, equally noteworthy is that Massa was not as capable of extracting the best from the car as Bottas was, and therefore it must be assumed the car is better than he is able to demonstrate.

    That leaves Robert Kubica as a viable alternative, even if his signing would be a gamble on him being able to reattain the heights he achieved in his first career. A Kubica-led Williams would be a statement that the historic English team is not prepared to accept its rapidly declining status quo nor sell itself out for a quick cash injection reminiscent of the Maldonado days.

    But Williams may not be alone in its thinking. With the Red Bull Junior Team lacking F1-ready replacements for Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso could look again outside its own ranks, as it did when it snapped up Max Verstappen by signing him immediately into Formula One.

    Could Kubica step into the Toro Rosso breech?

    It might sound unlikely, and indeed Toro Rosso might do well to look to Red Bull-backed drivers elsewhere — Sebastien Buemi, for example, has won world championships since leaving F1 — but with Kubica obviously pushing for a return and with Toro Rosso in need of a leader, particularly in its Honda-powered era, Kubica might prove the best man for the job.

    Williams, therefore, would do well not to luxuriate in the perception that it has time to burn. Its choice for team leader will be critical to its recovery; it cannot afford to fall behind a more ambitious rival in its quest for competitive renewal.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • Roar Guru

      October 5th 2017 @ 12:01pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | October 5th 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

      Kubica, or even Wehrlein, who have now both been linked to Williams and Toro Rosso, would be reassuring choices for either berth. The latter particularly has been underrated, and his return from the pre-season dramas to outshine Ericsson hasn’t received the credit it deserves.

      In some respects, a Toro Rosso seat might be a more discreet way for Kubica to feel his way back into the sport without disappointing if he falls short. At worst, he’d plug the gap until a viable alternative is prepared to step up, or Toro Rosso sells up. Alongside rehabilitating Honda’s image, you could daresay it opens a window to a future drive with Red Bull in whichever guise it assumes beyond 2018.

      Williams might as well retain Massa for continuity if they’re leaning towards di Resta as there isn’t much separating them on the surface, otherwise they have nothing to lose by opting for a youthful alternative if the Martini clause can be stretched – particularly with a little prodding from Mercedes if Wehrlein becomes their preference.

      • Columnist

        October 5th 2017 @ 2:44pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 5th 2017 @ 2:44pm | ! Report

        Yeah, I don’t know how much benefit there’d really be from swapping Massa out for di Resta. Perhaps you’d gain marginally in peak performance, and perhaps you’d mitigate the loss of continuity because he’s obviously been inside the team as a test driver for some time now, but on the other hand Massa’s been able to stick around broadly on his own terms for a reason.

        Kubica, I think, would make more sense for Toro Rosso than Wehrlein purely because I can’t see Red Bull doing Mercedes a favour and housing one of its proteges, nor can I see it buying him outright. Personally I’d love to see Kubica at Williams, though, with Buemi at Toro Rosso.

        • Roar Guru

          October 5th 2017 @ 5:56pm
          Bayden Westerweller said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:56pm | ! Report

          Kubica would certainly be the likelier of the pair for any Toro Rosso berth, though you make a good point regarding Buemi – whose reputation is quite high following his exploits in WEC and more recently, Formula E, having retained his Red Bull ties throughout his absence from the grid. Wehrlein at Williams would be logical if Mercedes still envisages a future for him, though Kubica remains the perfect fit.

    • October 5th 2017 @ 4:45pm
      steve said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:45pm | ! Report

      Not too sure about Massa continuing anywhere TBH, and I would certainly like to see some driver moves and or new drivers entering in 2018 where there is a spot available.

      2019 and 2020 will be most interesting seasons as far as the two current Red Bull drivers in Ricciardo and Verstappen are concerned. The last two days I have read several articles about both, Danny Ric, is already fielding multiple offers for when he is available for 2019, though it didn’t say from whom. You would think moving anywhere other than Mercedes or Ferrari in 2019 would put an end to any thoughts of winning races and or a drivers title. Which would be very harsh as I believe he is currently the second best driver in F! behind Hamilton. I would hate to see him running around in a midfield car in 2019. Don’t know if any of the regular column writers here have heard of potential moves for Daniel in 2019.?

      Apparently Mercedes is poised to make a massive play for Max for 2020 and are apparently offering to quadruple his salary. Ferrari are also interested as they see him in a similar mould to Michael Schumacher the article said. What are you guys hearing about Daniel and Max?

      • Columnist

        October 5th 2017 @ 5:37pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:37pm | ! Report

        It will be interesting, but I have my doubts about either RBR driver moving. I’ve been hearing rumours about Ricciardo moving for years, but they’re never more than teams sniffing around to keep themselves in strong negotiating positions.

        Mercedes has Esteban Ocon lined up and Ferrari will almost certainly have both Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi to replace Kimi Raikkonen in 2019. Seeing where Verstappen or Ricciardo fits into either team in the next couple of years is difficult unless Vettel or Hamilton also move on, which you’d think won’t be for a little while yet.

        I wouldn’t write off alternative teams, however — who’s to say where McLaren or Renault will be in 2019 or 2020? Renault is improving at a rapid rate, and McLaren has a very effective chassis that should do good things with a better power unit next season.

        • October 5th 2017 @ 8:31pm
          steve said | October 5th 2017 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

          Yeah, it will be interesting to see where Daniel may end up. As I said, I think he is currently the second best driver in F1 at the moment and it would be a shame to him in an uncompetitive midfield car. Hopefully we can see more competitive teams in coming seasons, different teams and different drivers winning races and taking podium places. F1 needs it. Hopefully Daniel can make the right move after 2018.

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