Massa could still have key role to play in F1 title race
Felipe Massa could not have made his intentions for this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix any clearer.
"I expect to win the race," he said after arriving at Interlagos on Thursday. "I see myself taking points from other drivers who are fighting for the championship."
Given his recent record at his home track, Massa has every reason to bang the drum for his side of the Ferrari garage.
He has started his last three races at Interlagos on pole. He has won twice and sacrificed another certain victory in 2007 to allow former team-mate Kimi Raikkonen through to become world champion ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who was then at McLaren.
Last year, he did not race here as he was still recovering from the accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix in which he fractured his skull.
But he did attend the race, and waved the chequered flag at Mark Webber, who pulled off a commanding win for Red Bull which then became lost among Jenson Button's championship celebrations.
Massa is not alone in talking up his chances on Sunday.
In the words of a rival team principal very much in the title hunt: "Massa could be the joker this weekend. He's strong here."
But then came the put-down which will be forever aimed in his direction because of that now-infamous team radio message - "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understand?" - during July's German Grand Prix.
Massa has not enjoyed the best of seasons. Photo: Getty Images
"Massa, winning this weekend? No chance! With Alonso going for the title, there can only be one Ferrari winner," said the same source.
Nevertheless, Massa, who claimed that it was his decision to move aside to let his team-mate win in Germany, could find himself a key player.
The furore over Ferrari's team orders at Hockenheim - the sport's biggest headline story of the season, with a review of the ban pending at the end of the year - has given an extra edge to this dramatic five-way title contest.
If Massa turns in a strong front-running performance here, that could force some tough calls on the team bosses at Red Bull and McLaren, who still have both their drivers in the championship mix.
After Mark Webber's spiky rebuke to Red Bull over a perceived lack of equal treatment with Sebastian Vettel, that pit-wall group will certainly be one to watch.
For Ferrari, with only Alonso in contention, there's one less complication - and a simple strategy to follow.
If Massa is in a position to help the team achieve their goal - Alonso becoming world champion - they expect him to do so. Remember, Alonso is the only driver who can wrap up the title on Sunday.
With Alonso joining the team for 2010, Ferrari chose to keep faith with Massa despite uncertainty over his recovery from his accident and instead to pay off Raikkonen a year before his contract expired. Massa will be expected to repay that loyalty.
Massa himself was quick to remind the media on Thursday about how he had served the team interest here by helping the Finn to the title three years ago.
How he executes any repeat manoeuvre this year - with the furore over team orders still in the forefront of everyone's minds, and in front of a home crowd angered by his subservience in Germany - remains to be seen.
But the more immediate question is whether Massa will be competitive enough to play his supporting role this weekend.
Or will he produce another like at the last race in Korea, where the gap to his team-mate was little short of a second, the biggest of the year?
I understand that Massa's race engineer, Rob Smedley, with whom he has such a strong partnership, was so frustrated by his driver's efforts in Korean qualifying that he let him stew overnight before discussing the session or race strategy.
That cold shoulder treatment apparently had the desired impact on race day, when Massa did not put a wheel wrong in the tricky wet conditions.
As you will see in the interviews with the pair in the BBC One qualifying show on Saturday, Massa draws great strength from Smedley's expertise.
"He's always telling me things I need to do, he knows what I'm thinking," reveals Massa.
"He can make me drive faster."
Sir Jackie Stewart, who rated Massa's drives last year before his accident as his best, believes the 29-year-old has yet to come to terms with Alonso's superiority within the team and the fall-out from Hockenheim.
"I have to believe that Alonso went to Ferrari as number one, either written or agreed," he said.
"That result in Germany was a huge disappointment. But I suspect Alonso would have driven away anyway if he'd got past because he'd been quicker all weekend.
"And Massa will continue to lose out if his own performance is not good enough."
That view holds water among some within Ferrari who feel that Massa has not done himself justice this season because he has been unsettled by Alonso's pace.
The Spaniard has been consistently faster in qualifying, with his average advantage slightly more than 0.3 seconds.
There was friction between the pair after the Australian Grand Prix when Alonso felt Massa had cost him victory by needlessly holding him up. And that culminated in Massa's blatant switch of positions in Germany.
If the Brazilian is going to redeem himself in the eyes of his public, he will need better reliability than he had in second practice today when his car stopped on the track with a gearbox problem. It cost him almost half an hour's running time.
Because of his extensive experience of this track, that may not prove as damaging as Red Bull's early demonstration of impressive performance.
Ferrari and McLaren typically come on stronger in races, and their extra speed down the two long straights could counter Red Bull's pace through the in-field section of this bowl-like circuit.
But if Massa's confidence is stuttering and the conditions are unpredictable - heavy rain, like last year, is forecast for qualifying - he may find himself playing catch-up on the title contenders he's meant to be beating. Just like he has done all year.
And despite those best intentions, his team-mate will be left to take the fight to the front on his own.