An ‘Italian’ Stallion?

It had happened again. Just four laps into the German Grand Prix, Felipe Massa stood hopelessly and helplessly beside his Ferrari, his race over less than 10 minutes after it had begun because of a careless spin. One race after he’d shunted in practice at Silverstone. Which came one race after he’d binned it in qualifying in Montreal. Which came one race after he’d had two huge prangs at Ste Devote at Monaco, one of which (admittedly) was deemed not to be his fault.

Still, the pattern is clear to see. Harsh as it is to say it, the likeable Brazilian hasn’t been the same driver since he was so desperately unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Hungary four years ago, where an errant spring from compatriot Rubens Barrichello’s car hit his helmet with horrific results.

For a Ferrari driver, Massa’s performances in recent times have been historic – for the wrong reasons. His second place at Suzuka last season was his first podium in 35 races, snapping the longest top-three drought by a Ferrari driver in F1 history (Gilles Villeneuve, with 19 races between podiums, previously held that unwanted record). Massa has finished in the top three just three times in the last 49 Grands Prix. He’s 32 years old, and hasn’t won a race in five years.

If Massa’s seat at Ferrari became available for next year, who would replace him? The job description is clear yet complex – be fast enough to help the team win the constructors’ championship, not be too fast for number one driver Fernando Alonso, and be good enough to sweep up if the Spaniard can’t. Someone like Massa once was, basically.

Further up the pit lane, F1 chatter continues to debate the likely candidates for one prime seat that actually is available, alongside Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull. Some insiders say Kimi Raikkonen’s deal to join Vettel in 2014 is done; others say it’s just a matter of time. Either way, the Finn looks to be in the box seat to take the cockpit vacated by Mark Webber, which doesn’t bode well for the futures of Red Bull-backed neophytes Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo.

From an Australian perspective, where could Ricciardo go if Red Bull decides not to promote from within? Wait a minute: doesn’t he have an Italian surname? Doesn’t he currently drive for an Italian team? And doesn’t that team use a Ferrari engine?

Ricciardo is Australian through and through (just listen to how far into a sentence he can get before uttering the word “mate”), but he’s proud of his Italian heritage. Watch him (and his father Joe whenever he’s in earshot) ever-so-slightly grimace when another member of the British press butchers his surname and calls him “Ricky-ardo” (he’d much prefer an Italian “Reech-ee-ardo” if the flat Australian “Rick-ardo” won’t suffice). He understands the sport’s history, and is well aware that no Australian has ever driven for the Prancing Horse in F1. Alan Jones came closest, while Webber arguably should have pursued a door that was left ajar there before electing to stay at Seb Bull Racing. To believe one theory doing the rounds on the Nurburgring weekend, Ricciardo might have a chance of being the first.

Is talk of lining Ricciardo up for any vacancy at Ferrari should Red Bull’s driver development pathway again fail to promote from within simply a case of putting two and two together and coming up with five? On the face of it, you’d have to say yes. It’s undoubtedly a nice idea, but it’s hard to imagine it coming to fruition.

For one, Toro Rosso switches to Renault engines for next season, ending an association with Ferrari that has powered seven of its eight F1 seasons to date. Two, Jules Bianchi has a four-year association with the Ferrari Driver Academy, and has been doing a terrific job for the back-of-the-grid Marussia team this season. And, perhaps more pertinently, is Ricciardo a touch too quick for Alonso’s liking? We know how the modern-day Ferrari works, with a team built around a number one and a dutiful and slower number two. Austria 2002, “Fernando is faster than you”, and all of that.

Ricciardo has shown enough in recent races to suggest that he has a future further up the grid, but unfortunately for the significant Italian-Australian F1 fanbase (and anyone else in Oz with an appreciation of the history of the sport), it’s likely that future won’t be in red.

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