Massa's win could change equation for Ferrari

Updated: August 31, 2006, 5:03 PM ET
By Michael Kelley | Special to ESPN.com

Michael Schumacher's driving partners have been expected to let him have the upper hand within his team since he began winning Formula One championships more than a decade ago. Felipe Massa, his current stablemate at Ferrari, devised an unusual, admirable and effective solution to avoid the usual order of things at the Turkish Grand Prix: He kicked Schumacher's butt.

Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesMichael Schumacher sprays teammate Felipe Massa with champagne after Massa won his first Grand Prix in Istanbul.

Massa, in his first year with the Modena, Italy-based squad, won his maiden F1 race by being so much quicker than Schumacher that the team's powers that be never had a chance to have him move over in favor of his more accomplished partner. He was faster in qualifying, earning pole position, faster off the line at the race start and faster all the way to the checkered flag.

"I did a very good start and first lap," Massa said. "The car was well balanced through the whole race, and even after the safety car I was able to pull away and wasn't too aggressive on the car. Every set of tires and every part of the car was just responding in a fantastic way and I was able to keep the gap through the whole race."

Rare indeed have been occasions when Schumacher has been dominated over the course of a race weekend by a teammate; he's usually been so superior to his partners with regard to speed and talent that results such as Sunday's are almost unheard of. Massa's stunning second-seat performance was reminiscent of Alexander the Great's solution to the Gordian knot -- don't try to untie it, just cut right through it -- and it seems likely Ferrari will re-evaluate his future after such a commanding showing.

From Rubens Barrichello to Eddie Irvine to Johnny Herbert and beyond, Schumacher's teammates always have been expected to give ground, most notoriously at the 2002 Austrian GP, when Barrichello was ordered to let Schumacher pass while leading and within sight of the finish line. While it was only the third time this year Massa outqualified his teammate and the third time he'd finished ahead of him, the style in which his victory was accomplished was most impressive. Massa remains mathematically alive in the drivers' standings heading into the last four races on the calendar.

Events in Turkey began to unfold along the lines of similar races past: Schumacher made his trademark blocking move at the start, chopping hard right from second on the grid to keep championship leader Fernando Alonso's Renault at bay, perhaps expecting he'd be able to catch and pass his teammate one way or another later in the race.

Massa, for his part, nullified that game plan as he sailed through the first corner after a rocket getaway and drove off into the distance, and was hardly troubled by his teammate's advances for the rest of the race.

"He opened up quite a gap in the early stages of the race and was very consistent," Schumacher said. "I managed to close it just before we went to the safety car, but he didn't do any mistakes, he drove it home superbly and that's what is good about our team -- if someone didn't have a good weekend, then someone makes up for it. Well done for him."

All this must have seemed strange at the very least for Massa, who was previously better known for his aggressiveness and less well recognized for his ability to use his head as something other than a helmet holder; his nickname in his first F1 season was "Baby Bull," as in china shop. That also seemed the case in the early going at Ferrari, with a couple of questionable driving decisions leading to speculation regarding his further employment after this year.

That situation might have changed as Massa benefited from a change of personnel in the team around him in the wake of a vocal difference of opinion with his former race engineer, Speed TV reported, which led Massa to demand a replacement. He surely could have had no argument with his race strategy on Sunday considering its result and after executing it to perfection.

All of which leads to the question of who will drive for the Scuderia next season. Massa's one-year contract expires at the end of the year. Speculation about his possible replacement has centered on Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren-Mercedes, a very fast driver who has indicated he's willing to change teams after a mostly frustrating period with his current employer highlighted by repeated mechanical failures.

Clouding Ferrari's plans slightly is Schumacher's pending decision regarding next season and beyond, with the seven-time world champion slated to announce his plans at the next race at Monza, Italy, in two weeks. Should Schumacher decide to retire at the end of this year, Ferrari will need two accomplished drivers for 2007. In that case, it could do worse than a pairing of Massa and Raikkonen based on current form. A lot worse.

As to this season, Schumacher will need all the help he can get if he's to erase his 12-point gap to championship leader Alonso. He's gotten that assistance in the past. Considering Massa's performance in Istanbul, he might not get as much aid from his teammate as he might have gotten previously or hoped for.

Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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