Motorhead: The day Perez replaced Massa at Ferrari

Sun, 25 Mar 20:20:00 2012

Rain, opportunism and the brilliance of Fernando Alonso handed Ferrari an unlikely victory at Malaysia, but that may not even have been the result of the day for the Scuderia.

auber Formula One driver Sergio Perez (L) of Mexico congratulates Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain during the podium ceremony following the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix at Sepang International Circuit outside Kuala Lumpur March 25, 2012 - 0

Merely dreaming of Ferrari winning races by the second grand prix of the season would have been fanciful. The car looks more like a middle runner than a title contender, and yet Alonso found a way to take the chequered flag first.

The triumph of Malaysia has not solved Ferrari’s problems; without the chaos of a rainy Sepang it remains highly unlikely that Alonso could have won. The rain itself, however, was always likely to arrive and is becoming a Malaysian staple: a late afternoon start in the tropics is asking for trouble, the meteorological equivalent of poking a lion in the eye with a stick and expecting it not to get upset.

Still, Ferrari have now been given an almighty boost. They possess the resources and the wherewithal to get back up to speed, and in the Spaniard they have a driver who can wring every last drop of performance out of the car in the meantime.

Alonso and Ferrari are a good fit, but the Italian team do have a worsening headache over their second driver.

Felipe Massa has been their driver since 2006, and Ferrari’s affection for the Brazilian is genuine.

But his career, which peaked at Interlagos in the 2008 season finale when for all of about two corners he was the world champion, has declined - at first gradually and now spectacularly.

In 2009 he suffered an injury after a suspension spring hit him in the helmet in Hungary and he has rarely shown his best form since, while Alonso’s arrival and assumption of the number one driver status has seen Massa wither rather than find a new gear.

He followed an ignominious qualifying and race in Australia with a 15th place here in Malaysia, beating only the Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs.

Ferrari changed the chassis between races and backed him to improve, but there’s little sign that that step forward is coming.

Does team principal Stefano Domenicali still believe in Massa? And for that matter, does Massa still believe in Massa?

Ferrari’s thinking on Massa will have been focused by the display of Sergio Perez for Sauber.

The 22-year-old Perez was electrifying – not content with putting an unfancied car in second place, he attacked Alonso and twice whittled down a seven-second lead to nothing. The difference between the Mexican and the Brazilian could scarcely have been starker.

Some will contend that he should have won, and he might well have done so had his team not kept him out one lap too long on intermediate tyres - gifting Alonso back five seconds - and then had he not slipped too far on to the kerb and lost another five.

Others are discussing conspiracy theories, suggesting that his Sauber team effectively told him to back off Alonso in the final laps. Sauber’s engines are supplied by Ferrari, and the message from his engineer – “we need the position” – just as Perez threatened to snatch the lead was curiously downbeat as the excitement brewed.

And the final ‘smoking gun’ for the imaginative is Perez’s membership of the Ferrari Driver Academy, meaning that the Scuderia have a vested interest in his progress.

Sauber team owner Peter Sauber rejected any such talk of collusion, of course, and as much as Formula One fans love a good conspiracy theory, this probably wasn’t a valid one.

But paddock whispers at the start of the weekend have now become a very open talking point. As McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh mischievously suggested, Perez has surely pushed himself to the forefront of Ferrari’s minds.

"He was a revelation, I imagine he has put a bit of pressure on Mr Massa," Whitmarsh said.

"I don't know what the odds are on him switching teams before China, but there must be consideration."

Perez may not line up in red by China, or indeed this season. But based on his Sepang drive, and the maturity he is starting to demonstrate at this level, Perez’s accession to Massa’s race seat looks just about inevitable.

And that may just be worth even more points to Ferrari in the long run than Alonso’s surprise victory.

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DRIVER OF THE RACE: Bruno Senna (Williams) – 13th in qualifying, 6th in the race – Alonso and Perez both turned in superlative performances, but Senna quietly shone a little further back, securing Williams more points with a single finish than the team managed in the entirety of 2011. Not bad for just his second race with the team.

QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND: “The track is exactly as I remember it” – That’s handy, then, Kimi Raikkonen. Perhaps it’s something to do with the track being exactly the same as it was since Raikkonen last drove on it. Unless they moved the whole thing 90 degrees to the left and nobody told Motorhead.

COMING UP: Just when you were getting into the swing of the season, it’s time for a three-week break. There’s no team that’s done enough to rest on their laurels, so it’s going to be three very hectic weeks back at the factories before they meet again in Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix. We’ll be bringing you live text commentary from every session because, well, what else would we do?

Mark Patterson - on Twitter @Mark_Eurosport / Eurosport

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