F Features

Rise of the Prancing Horse

Ferrari Looks to Dethrone Hamilton in 2009

A year ago Kimi Raikkonen got his F1 season off to a very strong start. His Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, after failing to score points in the first two races, also started racking up the results. But after two victories in his first four starts Raikkonen never won again. Meanwhile, as Raikkonen’s season _MG_1153_optdescended into mediocrity, Massa racked up six wins and lost the Drivers’ World Championship only in the final seconds of the final race.

Naturally, Raikkonen aims to reverse that trend this season.“I always try to win, and hopefully we can win championships this year,” he says, “but I’m not going to promise anything and put my hand on my heart because maybe it won’t happen.”

Massa expects Raikkonen to be back in the title fray. “For sure I expect Kimi to be very tough competition,” Massa says. “He has shown over many years that he is a very quick driver, so we will wait and see how the championship is going to be.” Massa also expects to be fighting for the crown. “The most important thing in my mind is to be champion,” the Brazilian confirms.

From 1996 to 2006 Ferrari was Michael Schumacher’s team. Raikkonen took over his seat in 2007 and promptly won the championship. Then in 2008 Massa was the star at Ferrari while Raikkonen struggled. After the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the dramatic, experiences in 2008, Massa and Raikkonen headed into this season as equals.

Equal Number Ones

Michael Schumacher always dominated his Ferrari teammates. Sure, Ferrari said Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello had equal number one status with Schumi, but the team revolved around Schumacher. The same was true with Massa.

While the Ferrari team rated Massa highly - he has been under contract to the Prancing Horse team since 2002 - the unspoken truth was that the_64I8292_opt team considered Massa to be the reliable number two support driver to Michael Schumacher when they were teammates in 2006. That concept continued in 2007 when Ferrari hired Raikkonen away from McLaren Mercedes to replace the retiring Schumacher. And Raikkonen then backed it up by winning the championship while Massa finished a respectable but distant fourth.

When Raikkonen joined Ferrari in 2007 the team made the point over and over that it would treat its two drivers equally. And that was the case in 2007 and last year. And, after Massa’s strong performance in 2008, there is no doubt that he and Raikkonen will equal number one drivers at Ferrari this year.

The Fire Still Burns In The Iceman

Raikkonen refers to his erratic results last season as the “dark period.” Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo would later quip that perhaps Kimi’s brother was driving the car, and he added that he hoped the real Kimi would be back in the car this year.

“I have one brother,” Kimi says, “but he definitely didn’t drive the car!” Raikkonen’s basic problem last year was that he was not quick enough in qualifying. His driving style and his set-up of the Ferrari were not the ideal way to go to get the optimum heat (achieved only in a very narrow window) into the front Bridgestone tires over an out lap and a qualifying lap.

He was fast in the races - racking up 10 fastest race laps in 18 races – but was usually bogged down in the field because he had not qualified high enough up the grid. As the season progressed, Ferrari developed its F2008 car away from Raikkonen’s driving style preferences. He and the team hope that won’t be the case with this year’s F60 chassis.

SNE18310_opt“As we know, Kimi felt instability at the front of the car during the second half of last season,” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali points out, “but we hope we have solved that problem with the new car, with different suspension settings and tires.”

Raikkonen is called The Iceman because he is so unflappable. Win, lose or draw, he rarely changes his demeanor. So it was easy to think that he had lost his fire, desire and motivation last year.

Alex Wurz, who was McLaren’s lead test driver and worked with Raikkonen from 2002 to 2006, disagrees. “Kimi has one of the greatest talents I have ever seen,” Wurz tells Performance Racing News. “We have to accept that drivers have their ups and downs - like the stock market! Things didn’t go as planned for Kimi last year- his driving style was not perfect for those tires. And when you are on the back of the wave you can’t paddle into it anymore.

“In the long run it maybe even makes him stronger. We have slick tires this year, and he will come out of last year very strong.” Wurz is confident that Raikkonen has not lost his motivation. “I hear a lot of people saying ‘he lost the fire,’” Wurz says. “I thought so myself for a while, but I think he will get it back the moment he feels more comfortable with the new slick tires and has a fresh start with a new season.”

Domenicali believes the real Raikkonen is back. “Kimi just wants to put last season behind him,” he says. “Don’t expect him to come back speaking loads because Kimi is Kimi! But he is very motivated.” Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso all won back-to-back championships. But sublimely talented drivers such as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart won their titles in alternate years. There is a good chance Raikkonen will be champion again next year.

The Schumacher Factor

Chris Dyer worked as Schumacher’s race engineer before taking up the same position with Raikkonen in 2007 and 2008. Dyer says the Finn spends as much time in technical debriefs at the track as Schumacher did. But, unlike the latter, Raikkonen is not in frequent contact with the Ferrari factory between races.

08Spain_O9T7106_optFormer Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn recalls often getting phone calls from Schumacher inquiring about something obscure like a spring rate setting. During one call, Brawn, who was at the Maranello factory in Italy, looked at his watch and realized that it was something like 3 a.m. in Malaysia where Schumacher was on holiday. One has to wonder if he had been in Raikkonen’s situation if Schumacher would not have solved the whole thing a whole lot sooner.

Raikkonen shows no interest in talking with Schumacher. Massa, however, has worked closely with the seven-time World Champion. They have had a close relationship for years.

“For me, Michael was definitely a rival on the track,” Massa told reporters while on a Shell promotional tour in South Africa. “I always wanted to beat him. But he was something different; he was something more special.

“I was looking at Michael more like an older brother instead of really a big rival. And especially after the start of the (2006) season when I knew quite soon that Michael was going to stop, because he was very kind to tell me.”

“He was very kind with me all the time, through my career, even when I was the test driver (at Ferrari in 2003,)” Massa added. “I think it was a good example that I had a future at Ferrari, and I wanted to do anything I could to help Michael to win the championship. And the relationship that we have is very much like a family; we’re still very close.”

Human Errors

Ferrari was a very strong team last year. It won the Constructors’ World Championship for a record 16th time. And Massa came within one point and a few seconds of being the Drivers’ World Champion instead of Lewis Hamilton.

Like any team, Ferrari made mistakes. The most glaring error was in Singapore where a crew member released Massa from his pit stop a couple of seconds too early. Ripping out the fuel hose and a subsequent drive through the pits penalty meant that Massa scored no points that night. Of course, a championship is won and lost over all the races, but that Singapore mess certainly contributed heavily to the loss column. Ferrari did some restructuring of its staff during the offseason and also tried to improve the human error factor.

“The procedural reliability is part of the overall reliability,” Domenicali says. “Human errors remain a characteristic of the team and the drivers, which gives a certain humanity to racing. We tried to improve the procedures, and we introduced people from different areas to improve the procedures and increase concentration - although human error will always be a part of racing.”

Massa Is A Contender

When Massa first came into F1 with Sauber in 2002 he was a wild child – fast but erratic. Spending 2003 as Ferrari’s test driver calmed him down a bit, but he was still a somewhat of an unproven quantity when he returned to racing with Sauber in 2004 and 2005. He proved he could win grand prix _64I9060_optraces when he moved to Ferrari in 2006, taking two victories that year and three more in 2007. In 2008, however, Massa showed that he can be a true championship contender. “I am very, very impressed with Felipe Massa,” Williams director of engineering Patrick Head reflected towards the end of last season, “There were races where people questioned not his capability because everybody knows that he is blindingly quick, but intense focus, intense achievement in getting the best out of himself.

“Who would have said a couple of years ago that Felipe Massa would be the lead driver in terms of points achieved when he was up against Kimi Raikkonen in the other car? I am not saying I don’t admire Lewis Hamilton or any other driver, but sometimes Massa does not quite get the credit he is due.” Massa, of course, always had believed he had what he takes to be a top F1 driver.

“People said that I was not capable to be competitive, first of all at Sauber,” he recalls, “and then when I came at Ferrari (they said) I was not capable to be there, or to win races.

“Everything turned out differently. I was always competitive. I won many races. I fought for the championship, and I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. That is why I feel even stronger.” Losing also made Massa stronger. That last lap in the Brazilian Grand Prix, when Massa won the race and, briefly, was World Champion as he crossed the line, only to lose the title as Hamilton passed Timo Glock for fifth place (and fifth place was just enough for Hamilton to beat Massa by a single point) was the most dramatic final lap showdown in the 59-year history of the championship.

Massa does not cry over split milk, so losing the championship didn’t leave him miserable during the offseason.

“I’m not the kind of guy who takes what’s happened and brings it with me for my life, because if you do that, you become a frustrated guy,” he tells Autosport. “So I take it as experience, and a life experience.”

“Sometimes life gives you something you don’t expect, but for a reason. Even if you look at what happened with Lewis (Hamilton) in the first year, and then suddenly he became champion. Maybe he deserved to win more in 2007 than in 2008, but that’s the way it is.

So did losing the championship make Massa stronger? “Definitely,” he replies. “We need to take it as a good example to make you even stronger, not as an example to make excuses. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake, and that’s it. I think that’s also a good proof that the championship was great - we were fighting until the last corner - and we almost won. Almost is not enough, but I think we showed that we were very, very strong during the whole season.”

Massa was a gentleman in victory and in defeat after the race in Brazil. His sportsmanship and mature demeanor earned him a lot of respect. He has carried over everything he learned in 2008 into this season.

“Felipe is very fresh and has a lot of desire,” Domenicali says. “He really matured last season.” If the car is up to the job, Massa will be a title contender again this year.

When Massa first came into F1 with Sauber in 2002 he was a wild child – fast but erratic. Spending 2003 as Ferrari’s test driver calmed him down a bit, but he was still a somewhat of an unproven quantity.

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