Can Massa survive against rising star Bottas?

Massa Bottas Williams

Valtteri Bottas has enjoyed a standout 2014 campaign, and team-mate Felipe Massa has his work cut out to keep pace with the flying Finn.

Several drivers have impressed during the first half of the current F1 season. Clearly both Mercedes pilots are on top form, while Fernando Alonso has been working his usual magic in a sub-par Ferrari. At Red Bull Daniel Ricciardo has given Sebastian Vettel the fright of his life, while youngsters Daniil Kvyat, Kevin Magnussen and Jules Bianchi have all shone on occasion too.

But the real star of 2014 has been Valtteri Bottas. The 24-year-old Finn has shown champion-of-the-future form in his Williams, bagging a hat-trick of podiums that was capped by fending off Lewis Hamilton for P2 at Hockenheim.

All this from a man with just 29 grand prix starts to his name who skipped the traditional F1 feeder series, GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5. Bottas currently has 91 points and sits fifth in the world championship, ahead of Vettel and within striking distance of third-placed Ricciardo.

2014 has been less successful for his Williams team-mate Felipe Massa, particularly on Sunday afternoons. While the Brazilian has often qualified well - notably grabbing pole in Austria - he has tended to be out-raced by the young Finn.

In last weekend’s German Grand Prix he was eliminated in a huge first-corner shunt following a collision with Magnussen. But while most observers, and crucially the stewards, saw it as a racing incident, Massa hit out at the Danish rookie afterwards. It sounded distinctly like a man who was rattled trying to claw back some dignity.

And as Bottas continues to gain momentum, the inevitable question must be asked: can Massa keep up with the rapid youngster?

Felipe switched to Williams after an eight-year spell with Ferrari. He nearly clinched the world title for the Scuderia in 2008, but since his serious head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix he has not won another race. He also suffered a bruising four-year spell as team-mate to Alonso during which the Spaniard won 11 races to Massa’s zero. And of course, there was the hugely uncomfortable “Fernando is faster than you” call at Hockenheim in 2010.

Presumably Massa thought he’d have an easier ride against Bottas, who showed only flickers of his true ability in 2013. A single top-10 finish was the Finn’s only reward for the season, though most felt he’d show better in an improved car and with the vastly experienced Massa replacing Pastor Maldonado as his team-mate.

But three straight podiums is more than anyone, save for the quietly confident Bottas himself, could have dreamed of.

He's certainly put Felipe in the shade. But then Massa has never been completely convincing as a top-line F1 driver. His rookie season in 2002 was littered with errors, leading Sauber to drop him, and he was fortunate to receive a second chance at the Swiss squad in 2004. He was then promoted to Ferrari almost by default and, 2008 aside, has never strung a genuinely impressive season together.

There have been flashes of brilliance. He matched Alonso at Ferrari on occasion - more than can be said for Kimi Raikkonen this year - and was on pole in Austria just a few weeks ago.

But there is no question that he is a man approaching the closing stages of his F1 career. He is happily married with a young son, and he has already cheated death once. His hunger simply cannot match that of Bottas, who is nearly 10 years his junior and with everything to prove. He undoubtedly remains passionate and driven, but he cannot hope to equal the intensity with which a young F1 go-getter approaches the sport. A man in Massa’s position needs to make up for that with his experience.

But, thus far, he’s failed to do so. It is he rather than Bottas who is becoming involved in accidents, and the Finn has had the edge over a race distance. Compare this with McLaren. Though Magnussen has been faster in qualifying, Jenson Button has used his experience to ensure that he is the team’s top points scorer. Magnussen has the hunger, but Jenson has countered that with his know-how. Felipe should be doing the same.

It’s true that Massa has been unlucky on a few occasions, not least in being eliminated at Silverstone by Raikkonen’s spinning Ferrari. But he should have beaten Bottas in Austria and bagged the team’s first podium of 2014. He could also have avoided his clashes with Sergio Perez in Canada and Magnussen in Germany. You can be sure that Jenson would have.

Rumours have emerged recently that Williams are interested in signing Fernando Alonso for 2015. It’s unlikely, but if the move comes off it will be a disaster for Massa. He will either be dropped and face a very uncertain future, or have to contend with the brilliant Spaniard once more. You can bet that neither scenario would fill Felipe with enthusiasm.

Even in the more likely event that he and Bottas are retained for 2015, the future does not look all that rosy for the Brazilian. As Bottas’ confidence and experience continue to build, he will become an even more difficult man to beat. Massa’s final few seasons in Formula One may see him relegated to de facto number two.

Then again, that’s not a role he’s unfamiliar with.