It was clear Felipe Massa was a dead man walking when he faced the media after the Italian Grand Prix. He had driven a good race, as he always does at Monza, running second early on and doing his duty by letting teammate Fernando Alonso past before finishing fourth. But while the Brazilian did not yet know his fate, his demeanor told a different story.
Following the standard questions about his race came the inevitable inquisition into his future and whether he accepted that this might very well have been his last time at Monza for the Prancing Horse. Massa is a consummate professional and always answers such questions with far better grace than most would. He offered a measured analysis of what he offers Ferrari – experience going into a season of tremendous change thanks to the introduction of the new 1.6-liter turbocharged engines, his professionalism, his contribution to the team since 2006. But how he concluded his little speech was telling.
“I have shown enough what I can do,” he said. “I have shown how well I work with the team and everything, but I have shown enough to the other teams as well.”
This was not the first time Massa has shown himself to be open to the possibility of driving for another team should he be dropped by Ferrari. But it was the first time he has offered the scenario without being directly quizzed about it. He could see the writing on the wall and made it emphatically clear that, at 32, he feels he has a lot to offer. When he revealed on Tuesday that he would no longer be driving for Ferrari, he left no doubt about his intentions.
“For next year, I want to find a team that can give me a competitive car to win many more races and challenge for the championship, which remains my greatest objective,” he said.
Massa's determination to stay in F1 is all well and good, but before even thinking about the unlikely prospect of him mounting a challenge for the world championship, as he did in 2008, again the key question is, does anybody want him?
On the plus side, Massa has a wealth of experience. At the end of the year, he should have over 190 grand prix starts to his name stretching back to his first season with Sauber in 2001. He has worked alongside four world champions in Jacques Villenueve, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso and has gained a tremendous depth of knowledge about the way Ferrari works. He is also one of only nine proven grand prix winners on the grid.
As far as the cons are concerned, he has never recaptured the form he showed in the days before the accident in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix that came close to claiming his life. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that he is not quite the same driver in post-2009 trim, taking only eight podium finishes in the past three and a half seasons, which does not compare well to teammate Alonso's 11 victories.
With Ferrari (Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen), Red Bull (Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo) and Mercedes (Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton) all full for next year and McLaren set to continue with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez, Lotus is the team that now has the prize seat. Team principal Eric Boullier has already indicated Raikkonen's departure puts Romain Grosjean in a stronger position to stay on to ensure some continuity. Sauber driver Nico Hulkenberg is the leading contender for the vacant seat, but Massa's experience could appeal.
Speaking at the Canadian Grand Prix in June, Boullier did point to the value of experience. While discussing alternatives should Grosjean not cut the (Dijon) mustard, he highlighted the fact that developing young drivers is a tough task in modern F1 with testing opportunities are limited.
“Since F1 stopped testing, it's difficult for a young driver to step in,” he said. “Maybe if Romain doesn't deliver, I would prefer to go with an experienced driver like Mark Webber or Felipe Massa rather than go with a youngster.”
This comment was using Massa's name as an example so don't read too much into it, but it illustrates the value that is attached to the Brazilian's résumé. Commercially, he remains a potent force as well. If he does remain in F1 in 2014, he might well continue to be the only Brazilian on the grid (GP2 frontrunner Felipe Nasr is also trying to find a spot), which could work well for a team like Lotus. But given Massa's form over the past few seasons, it's difficult to look past the excellent Hulkenberg.
So to the teams lower down the order. Assuming Massa is willing to drop further down the grid, who would he fit in with? Force India favors bringing in younger and lower-profile drivers and already has Paul di Resta contracted and holds an option on Adrian Sutil. Both have driven well this year, so why change? Scuderia Toro Rosso is Red Bull's junior team, and it would be an astonishing reversal in policy for it even to consider Massa.
A return to Sauber, for whom he raced in 2002 and 2004-'05 is not out of the question. With 18-year-old Russian Sergey Sirotkin set for one seat, Massa's experience would be appealing. But Marussia driver Jules Bianchi, a Ferrari junior, is favorite for that drive and would be a good fit.
Williams is the other possibility. Although it has both Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas under contract for 2014, there have been rumors linking the Venezuelan to a move elsewhere. It's inevitable, given the value of the PDVSA sponsorship that demands a driver from Venezuela, that some would be sniffing around Maldonado but the team itself insists it has it signed up as a long-term partner.
And in the unlikely event that PDVSA is somehow poached by another team, any new driver would likely be tied to a new sponsorship deal. Can you really see Massa, an 11-time grand prix winner, becoming a pay driver? It would be unprecedented in recent times for such a successful driver to have to bring such a significant sum of money, although former Ferrari world championship challenger Michele Alboreto did flirt with a move to Benetton in 1994 to partner Schumacher thanks to a multi-million pound sponsorship deal.
Beyond that, Massa would be left with Caterham or Marussia, both teams with potential vacancies but currently rooted to the back of the pack. Would that be an appropriate way to end an illustrious career?
Five years ago, with next-to-no pay drivers in F1, Massa would probably have washed up somewhere in the midfield at a team like Toyota. But today, options are limited. Of all the vacancies, Lotus is the most appealing and he cannot be dismissed as a contender there. But for all his fighting talk about staying on and gunning for championships, the time is probably right for Massa to hang up his helmet – as a grand prix driver at least.
After all, Ferrari always needs drivers for its sports car programs, and what better choice than a man for whom Maranello is a second home?