Just deserts

October 13, 2008

There has been a discussion recently – unsurprisingly eminating from the UK – about whether or not Felipe Massa would be a desrving World Champion.  Is he too inconsistent?  Does he have sufficient class?  All of this muttering isn’t entirely motivated by Lewis Hamilton-related anxiety, I don’t think.  It’s also a hangover from the previous generation of drivers, where Schumacher, M. was so clearly superior to his rivals that the debate could focus on who was his closest challenger.  Formula 1 these days, however, is dominated by a new guard, without a clear class leader.

Fernando Alonso is, perhaps, the most complete product – which I think is a fair assessment, and one also born out by the statistics – but his reputation took a hell of a knock in 2007 when he was matched, blow for blow, by Lewis Hamilton in his rookie year.  Raikkonen is perhaps the quickest driver outright, but there are question marks about his reliability and motivation.  Hamilton combines Raikkonen’s speed and Alonso’s competitiveness, but has a streak of impetuousness which is all very much his own and may still cost him another World Championship at the last gasp.  But it is drivers like Vettel or Kubica, rather than Massa, who are talked of as being the most likely gatecrashers.

Massa is currently the 4th most successful driver in the field on statistics alone – behind the vastly experienced David Coulthard but ahead of the similarly worn-in Rubens Barrichello.  He is also, undeniably, hugely fast.  His reputation really begins to suffer when his race craft is called into question.  He spun out of the first two Grands Prix of this season, as well as adding five more to his tally in the British round alone.  In Turkey, Monaco and Germany, Lewis Hamilton passed him like he wasn’t even there, and would probably have done the same in Japan had Massa not gotten a little bit liberal with the kerbs in his defence.  Some of the revulsion at the Belgian Grand Prix’s post-race shenanigan probably boiled down to the fact that it was Massa who picked up the win.  Massa, who had been tooling around, steadfastly behind the leaders in the world’s most inevitable-looking third place, rather than the cavalier, swashbuckling Hamilton and Raikkonen, duking it out at the head of the field.  I think that people also look back at his early days in the sport, where Massa was uniquely wild and woolly, never on the same line for a corner twice.  Whilst the latter thing was hugely helped by his experience in 2006 as Michael Schumacher’s teammate, this mixture of question marks and snobbery has cost Massa a place at the top table, something even a world title is unlikely to change.

It’s a little bit unfair, if you ask me.  Whilst the criticisms of his racing are empirically verifiable, so is his growing maturity and ability to get the job done when the chance presents itself.  This is not a combination unseen in World Champions previously, nor would Massa be the last example.  Damon Hill had much the same arguments put against him during his time, but the general consensus is that in retrospect, it would have been an unfair reflection of the era had he not won a title – even if it was just the one.  When I look at Massa, I see a driver who – like Hill, Jody Scheckter, Nigel Mansell, James Hunt or Keke Rosberg – has “one-time World Champion” written all over him.  Too good, too fast, too skilled to not win one in his time, but probably not complete enough a package to win multiple crowns.  Lewis Hamilton increasingly demonstrates the same characteristics, but because of the cloud of excitement and wheel-to-wheel madness he brings with him, far fewer people even think of arguing that his place in the pantheon would not be merited.  Both men, however, still have youth and inxperience on their side – Hamilton moreso than Massa – and could yet buff away the untidy edges.  Lest we forget the flaws in Michael Schumacher which bitter experience helped to address, to turn him from a young double-champion thrust into the limelight by Ayrton Senna’s death, into the winning machine which history now remembers.

So, two rounds to go, twenty points available and three drivers still in it.  Hamilton, with the 5 point advantage, is the only driver who can wrap things up in China, leaving Brazil as a nice end-of-season jolly.  Of course, last season at this stage, he took a gap of 12 and 17 points respectively over Alonso and Raikkonen to Shanghai and still emerged one point in arrears at the end of the year.  Massa has the advantage of the stronger teammate, and also has countback on his side – he can currently win the title if he and Hamilton finish the year equal on points, by virtue of his five wins to Lewis’ 4.  Robert Kubica is the rank outsider, 12 points behind Hamilton and 7 behind Massa.  His key advantage is that of consistency – he has scored points more times than anyone else this year – allied to the fact that there’s every chance the two men in front of him will spend the final two race weekends of 2008 losing control of more or less everything they have.  It is difficult to see Kubica winning the title, though, without another race win this year.  Even if neither Hamilton nor Massa troubled the scorers again this year, Kubica needs at least a 2nd and a 3rd-place finish.

My heart says Hamilton.  My – aching, nervously twitching – guts say it will be Massa.  The brain doesn’t have a clue, beyond the simple statistical fact that were it to be Hamilton or Kubica who prevails, they may very well be invoking the spirit of Keke Rosberg.  It was Rosberg who, 26 years ago, was the last driver to win the world crown without taking a single fastest lap in the season.  It was Rosberg who was the last driver to win the world crown without having won a race prior to his triumphant season.  And it was Rosberg who was the last man to win the World Championship with but a single win during the season.  In other words, even my old fallback – statistics – seems to be against me.

Who will be the most deserving winner?  They all know that going in to the first round, and they should bear it in mind now more than ever.  The one who will win the most points.  There are no bonuses for artistic expression in Formula 1.

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