In all the chauvinistic excitement surrounding Lewis Hamilton's fight for the world championship it is easy to overlook the fact that Felipe Massa would be an equally worthy champion. Indeed, without the engine failure that cost him the Hungarian Grand Prix, or the pit-stop shambles that did likewise in Singapore, the Sao Paolo 27-year-old could already have clinched the title.
It was once fashionable to deride his inability to follow the same line on consecutive laps, and there is no doubt that he overdrove when he came into Formula One, as Kimi Raikkonen's replacement at Sauber-Petronas in 2002. But a year spent testing for Ferrari in 2003 worked wonders, learning as Michael Schumacher's understudy.
"I think in 2002 first of all I had a very difficult car to drive," he says. "Second I had zero experience. I was too young. It would have been much better to start as a Ferrari test driver, because in one year at Ferrari I learnt a lot how to work in many areas. In 2002 I did not so many tests, and I started racing already. Was very difficult. But I always had the speed, that was never a problem. But I didn't have the other things around the speed. I have to say I grew up a lot, and worked on what was missing for me."
But he rejects the idea that there was a new Massa this year. "I think 'new Felipe'? No. I am more experienced, more mature. That's clear. Every year by year you learn different things, you have more experience. You learn by the victories, you learn also with the mistakes. I think a little bit more mature for sure, but not a completely new Felipe.
"Last year I think I was the driver who did most pole positions, so I was very quick. I won three races, so I was competitive during the whole championship.
"To be world champion you need to be quick, you need to be consistent, you need to work well with the team, and you need to be lucky. So I think if you are missing one of these parts maybe you cannot make it. Last year I think something was missing.
A key figure in Massa's unexpected success is Middlesbrough-born engineer Ron Smedley, whom he describes as being like an older brother. "Mentally, Felipe is very strong," Smedley says. "In some situations it is very easy to let the head go down, when you are overdriving or there is self-doubt. But he has not done that at any point.
"I enjoy working with him immensely. We complement each other. He is easy to work with, a good lad, he has no airs and graces. He does his job. Fundamentally, that's why it works with him."
Felipe Massa is funny, articulate, honest and charismatic. If he succeeds the late Ayrton Senna as Brazil's first world champion since 1991, few doubt that he will fulfil the role with honour.Reuse content