Has there ever been a driver who's so improved his craft and his reputation within the sport? I speak, of course, of Felipe Massa.
I've been shooting Formula One for eighteen years now, and for my part can't think of another competitor who's worked so hard to improve his technique – and, as a result, found himself in serious contention for the world championship.
While standing trackside working as a photographer, one becomes very aware that the viewfinder through which one frames the picture acts as natural calibrator, showing very accurately the different lines taken into, through and out of corners by the car/driver combos. Many people, distinguished journalists included, mistakenly believe that drivers don't really have styles and merely drive the cars. Well, they're wrong. A ten minute spell spent at any number of different vantage points on a lap will provide the viewer with an insight into the very different techniques employed by the various pilots.
Just look at the way Lewis Hamilton elegantly tests the boundaries of the friction circle, and compare it with the abrupt steering technique deployed by the world champion Fernando Alonso. Check out the beautifully smooth style of Jenson Button, a deftly harmonic interplay of accelerator and brake pedal that’s at its most effective in changeable conditions, with the harum-scarum randomness of Sakon Yamamoto. While shooting at turn three of Istanbul Park last Friday morning, it was almost frightening to watch Yamamoto san negotiating the corner.
After a long-ish, constantly-turning-to-the-right climb from turn two, the drivers downshift and brake into the quick left-hander, balancing braking, steering and weight transfer before dropping to second gear for the tight, steeply downhill right of turn four. Yamamoto really couldn’t get to grips with it and never took the same line twice, making full use of the asphalt run-off. The stand out guy was Kimi Raikkonen, almost matched by his team-mate, Massa.
What a difference a few years learning from Michael Schumacher has made. Massa, in recent interviews, has made no secret of his schooling by Schumacher and he's obviously learned well. A few years ago things were very different. In Montreal, while I was working the exit of the turn six/seven chicane, lap after lap the most notably out of shape was the Sauber-pedaling Brazilian. Where most drivers consistently hit the same mark, Massa took a different route every time, laying thick black stripes on his way out of the corner. As I've outlined above, one gets to know the differing routes taken by the drivers through the corners, and can place the position of the lens relative to the likely trajectory – something not possible with the Massa of old. Compare his current style with his pre-Schumacher one and it's incredible just how much he's refined his driving.
Personally, I think Felipe should be applauded for his ability, and his willingness to learn from one of the greats – a very rare commodity indeed within a sport of particularly arrogant competitors, none of whom employ coaches (with the possible exception of Lewis Hamilton, who has worked with ‘head doctor’ Kerry Spackman). I assume they believe they’re beyond improvement. In what other top-line sports do the highest achievers presume themselves to have reached a standard that’s beyond the abilities of a coach to help them surpass? Even Tiger Woods has a coach.
Please take a few minutes to enjoy my pictures from the recent Turkish Grand Prix by clicking on the link above.