Will Ferrari let Felipe Massa become F1 champion?
(AP) -- If Kimi Raikkonen is the grumpiest driver in Formula One, Lewis Hamilton the naturally quickest and Jenson Button the English charmer, then the most resilient is Felipe Massa.
And what if the Brazilian, who came within a whisker of winning the world title in 2008 and then of possibly losing his life in 2009, proves this year he is again championship material, back to his best after three ho-hum seasons?
How will his team react? If Massa's quick pace in the first two races continues this weekend at the Chinese Grand Prix and beyond, would he be allowed to take Ferrari's No. 1 spot from its star, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso?
In 11 seasons and 200 Grand Prix, no teammate of Alonso's has out-qualified him for five consecutive races. Massa would become the first if he qualifies quicker than Alonso on Saturday in Shanghai, having also gone faster than the Spaniard in Australia and Malaysia and in the final two races last season, in the United States and Brazil. (For the record: Jarno Trulli, who was Alonso's teammate at Renault, and Hamilton at McLaren in 2007, out-qualified him at four consecutive races.)
To which one could legitimately respond: "So what?" Qualifying well loses its importance if not followed by a strong drive and actual points in the race on Sunday.
Still, Massa's recent qualifying performances and the fact that he has four points more than Alonso going into the third of 19 races this season both suggest one thing: Massa has his mojo back.
"He was very confident from the end of last year because the results he had in the last two Grand Prix made him very, very confident. He knew he would start 2013 very, very strong," said Dino Altmann, the chief medical officer at Massa's home race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, and his family doctor.
Altmann, speaking by phone from Brazil, said he exchanged messages with Massa after he placed fourth in Australia and fifth in Malaysia and last saw him earlier this year, before preseason testing.
"He told me that the car this year is really very friendly to him and he's very happy with all the developments," Altmann said. "Last year, he began the year working psychologically to become stronger and the result came in the middle of the year. So from them on we could see Felipe coming to his best at the end of the year and I think (that) changed everything and he's now very, very confident. If you talk to him, you can really remark that it's a different Felipe than he was last year or the previous years."
Two events, in particular, mark Massa as a survivor - one he can't remember and the other must have felt like a gut punch.
The first was the 2009 crash. A heavy spring detached from a car in front of him during qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix and thumped his helmet at high speed, leaving him with a concussion and fractured skull. Massa has said he can't actually recall what happened - perhaps a blessing because the footage on YouTube still sends shivers down the spine.
The second was at the German Grand Prix in 2010. Massa, racing on the anniversary of the crash, looked as if he could win when Ferrari none too subtly suggested he should shove over and make way for Alonso, who took the victory. The nudge-nudge, wink-wink radio message to Massa from race engineer Rob Smedley - "Fernando is faster than you" - has since become a T-shirt and a ringtone for mobile phones. Ferrari was fined $100,000 for orchestrating the pass.
"He was devastated with that," Altmann said. "From Hockenheim on, I think his confidence was very, very poor because at that time he thought he was in the same level as Fernando Alonso on the team, and that was the point where he really understood that he was the second driver."
"From then on his lack of confidence, I think, was the big issue for his driving," he added.
Massa hasn't won since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2008. That was the race when it seemed for a few moments that he had done just enough to win the world championship until Hamilton made up a place on the last corner of the last lap to give him the title in the most dramatic fashion, by a single point ahead of Massa.
That was also the last year Ferrari won the constructors' title. To now win it back, the team needs Massa to steadily harvest points with Alonso.
If, later this season, Ferrari also finds itself having to choose between which of those two to support in a fight for the driver's title, then that would be a pleasant problem to have. Smart money would be on Alonso.
But, for now, it's simply heartwarming to see Massa again performing well, instead of wondering whether he was becoming a dead weight Ferrari should jettison.
He's been through a lot. But, clearly, he still has a lot to give.