Felipe Massa changed manager last year, which is unexceptional except for the fact that no one seemed to officially know the name of his new representative until this week. Considering his remarkable comeback to racing it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that his manager's name was a Mr. Lazarus, although it turned out that Massa had in fact signed with one Nicolas Todt. I guess that's a name that has its uses.
I say remarkable because the Formula One history books are littered with the names of ex-drivers, men who looked great in the junior categories and then for one reason or another failed to live up to their reputations when they finally made the big game. Unless your name is Verstappen (and/or you have a large sack of cash to fan yourself with) once you are out of a race seat it is almost impossible to get back into the limelight - the overwhelming majority of drivers are pushed out rather than jump of their own volition.
One only has to look at the current woes of Allan McNish, Antonio Pizzonia and Justin Wilson to name but a few. Of course, none of these drivers have the son of the Ferrari team boss as a personal manager.
Late in 2002 when Peter Sauber announced that he wasn't going to renew Massa's contract the 22-year old Paulista's career looked to have stalled almost straight out of the gate. Fast but wayward was his team boss's opinion - the talent is there, but he should spend a year testing to polish the rough edges. Massa made no secret of his displeasure at the time.
At the recent launch of his team's new car Sauber stated that Massa had two offers for 2003 - a race seat with Jordan or a test seat with Ferrari. Massa wanted to race, but given the yellow-liveried cars patent lack of pace that wasn't an option, and wiser heads prevailed in putting him into a red driving suit. Massa spent the year pounding out laps on circuits around Europe in the long shadows of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, honed his craft and looked for the secret door back into a race seat. So with the benefit of hindsight does he now perhaps see his team manager's point?
"I think maybe," Massa allows, slumping back in his armchair and kicking his legs out in front of him in one of the upstairs bars at the Salzburg hangar (owned by team sponsor Red Bull) where the team held the launch on Monday. "For me I wasn't happy in that time because I wanted to carry on in the races.
"But I have to say I had a great opportunity to come to Ferrari and to have a very good year, to do a lot of mileage and to learn a lot. So I think on one side he was right, and on the other side I was not very happy at that time! But I think we have to think about now, and to learn the best way ahead, and now I just want to do my best, and that's it."
And he should be well prepared for that way ahead - Sauber will be using the same engine as Ferrari this year (the new engine rules for 2004 meant Ferrari obviously had no desire - or incentive - to design and engineer two different engines at the same time) paired with the gearbox he used all through last year. On top of which the outward appearance of his new car looks remarkably similar to the car he piloted last year, which could be useful for setting up the aerodynamics package.
(Later in the day new teammate Giancarlo Fisichella flagged this as a definite plus to the driver pairing: "It's quite important to have a teammate like Felipe who drove for one year for Ferrari - he has some information to give us, and you know there is a lot of collaboration with Ferrari, which is important.")
However, this is a big job to drop on the slender shoulders of the 22-year old driver. At Ferrari, Massa was used to almost unlimited resources and personnel to help him find his way, whereas he now finds himself in a team that is not exactly noted for their engineering and set-up abilities - Sauber annually starts the season well before sliding down the order as the other teams come to grips with their cars more efficiently than the Swiss team. This will be one aspect where Fisichella will be a big help - he has vast experience at pushing a recalcitrant car forward when by all rights it shouldn't.
And then there's all that talk about Sauber's miraculous new wind tunnel. However, it should be noted that they are still in the calibration stage - the new car was designed without it (in a government owned tunnel, no less), and it will take some time for parts to flow through and find their way to the car - Peter Sauber has flagged Imola as the start of this process, although there are still any number of problems that could arise before the tunnel is on-stream, quite apart from the learning process involved in coming to grips with such a specialised piece of kit. All of which means there will be increased pressure on Massa to get the set-up right using his experience from last year.
The obvious question mark is whether the year at Ferrari has had the desired effect in calming down the young Brazilian. "I think every year you learn in Formula One," Massa notes, "and after one year as a race driver for Sauber and one year as a test driver for Ferrari I think my ability is a lot better than two years ago. I think for sure Sauber is a great team with a lot of professional people, and the same with Ferrari. They are both huge teams, and to work with Michael and Rubens was great for me.
"I was at most of the races, in most of the meetings, and it was very, very important for me - it was like my university. Now I am just looking forward - after 15,000km with Ferrari I have to say it was a great experience. I think in Formula One experience is very important - you always learn, and you always grow up year by year. For sure it was a great experience for me at Ferrari, and now I am just happy to be back in the races and I just want to do my best, to get points for the team and to get the best result I can."
Q. Has Michael helped you with anything?
Massa: Yes, I think I learnt a lot. I think it's very interesting to see how they work with the engineers, how they talk with the engineers, and with everybody in the team. Even in the car how they talk, which way they go. Michael has I think 14 years in Formula One, has six titles - for sure it was great to have this kind of experience. I mean he's a great driver, he's very technical, and he's also very careful and concentrated and works very hard every time, even in the good and the bad situations. He's very strong, so it was good.
Q. Did you get a feel for how quick you are compared to Michael and Rubens?
Massa: Yes, and I was happy because sometimes I had some very good lap times. Sometimes I was at the very high level in terms of developments, but in the test we didn't really compare - in the test maybe you test one part, another driver tests another part - but to be honest I was very happy with my year at Ferrari.
There were, of course, a number of rumours about Massa's testing abilities last year, particularly when the battle over tyres heated up. Where there's smoke then fire can generally be found not too far away, and it seems likely that a driver who was dropped from a race seat because he was too ragged is not going to turn into a smooth, methodical driver overnight. It's a question mark that annoys Massa - he suddenly sits up straight and creases his brow before replying.
"I have to say in the first year it is very difficult to do much development - I didn't have much experience, I was just from Formula 3000 and I was only 20 years old, and you can't expect a huge amount from a guy like that. If I look back I have to say that my experience in 2002 was a lot lower than it is now, but it is very difficult to take a young driver and say you need to develop in the car.
"As I said when I arrived in Formula One I was only 20 years old, I had only had a few tests before, and it was not enough experience I have to say, and I think for sure I made a lot of mistakes but I also made some great results. People always look at the bad thing, but not always at the good things - I think for sure I had some up and downs but at least I made some points, which was not bad for the first year.
"I think now I have more experience, and for sure you always learn with your mistakes, and I think I learnt a lot - last year I had only a few mistakes, I didn't have any big crash, I spun only a few times, so I think you always learn. I think after two years I've grown up a lot."
One obvious aspect of the experience he mentions is his abilities with the media - the question about his testing aptitude was the only one which visibly ruffled his feathers. Massa, who only a couple of years ago when asked by a female journalist "can I get an interview?" shot back "can I get a blowjob?" before following her around all day to apologise, is now as PR savvy (or anodyne) as the top drivers.
Take, for example, the question of his possible return to Ferrari. Given his (and his manager's) links to the red team, the question marks about how long Schumacher actually intends to stay with them (and that, at the time, Barrichello didn't actually have a contract announced for next year), then clearly people are wondering if Massa is being groomed for a return to Ferrari, this time in a race seat.
It's an interesting story and Massa knows it, but he won't be drawn on the topic on the record, the shoot from the hip approach now transformed into toeing the party line: "I have a two-year contract with Sauber, and I'm very happy to be here and I'm looking forward to that very much. The future is always the future, and we can't always be thinking about maybe what will happen next year, what will happen the year after. I know that if one day I am driving for a top team like Ferrari then I would be very happy."
Massa has already started testing for Sauber, taking last year's car out in Jerez last month in between his continuing Ferrari testing programme. How much have the team improved since he left? "Actually it was already a step compared to the C21, my car in 2002. For sure comparing it to the Ferrari car I think it was some kind of difference in the aerodynamics side, and now we learn - I gave a lot of information to Sauber, and I think now for the new car maybe we can improve a lot.
"For sure the Ferrari was a lot better, in tractions and everything, but I'm looking forward to this new car a lot. I think it's too early to say, but I think we can improve. You know, I feel very happy to be back - I think after one year as a race driver, one year as a test driver it's a great feeling, and now I'm just looking forward to the next tests in the new car.
"I'm just happy."
Sidebar: The Sauber Gameplan
Predicting what to expect from Sauber is generally a simple thing - point to the middle of the field and that's where they'll be. The Swiss team seems to wear being the median point of Formula One as a badge of pride, and although their job gets a little more difficult every year, given the increasing manufacturer input almost across the board, it's an ambition they've pretty much met throughout their history.
The car is a difficult thing to gauge: they are running the same engine as the World Champions, along with their 2003 gearbox, and the aerodynamic styling of the car had some wags at the launch suggesting they could see the red paint showing through. All of which should be a Good Thing, except that the much heralded new wind tunnel is still not in operation, leaving the car to be designed using a public tunnel during normal work hours (ie. not the usual Formula One 24-hour work days). Sauber's development programme always suffers in comparison to the other teams, and even with their new tunnel this is unlikely to change.
The drivers are easier to ascertain. Fisichella is Fisichella - everyone in the paddock seems to rate him as one of the top three drivers in the field, although that hasn't helped him collect a drive in a top three team to date. He will, as always, get in and drive the wheels off the car and hope it stays together until he crosses the finish line, at which time he will get out and ask his manager if any of the big teams have called offering him a drive yet.
He is making no secret of the fact that he is looking at the Sauber drive as a stepping stone to a grander ambition (he has a two-year contract, with an opt out option after one year, just in case), and like every Italian he has dreamed of piloting a red car since some time before birth. Part of the appeal of his current drive is that he is paired with a known quantity for Ferrari, and the thought process is that if he beats Massa then they will have to at least consider him if a drive becomes free (Fisichella: "Of course my target is to beat him, everywhere, everywhere and every time - I'll do my best, and Felipe is a good guy, a quick guy").
Massa is, of course, a known quantity to the team, which will help (being the only Swiss team most of the employees are there for life - no need to worry about those sometimes awkward introductions then), as well as having some valuable information from their engine supplier. Whereas there is a lot of pressure on Fisichella to come out on top (at 31 this could be his last shot at getting into a top team), Massa has the comparative luxury of not having to worry quite so much - he has those solid gold Ferrari contacts, is still vastly less experienced at the end of the day, and at only 22 looks to now have a long future ahead of him.
So it's a battle between the smooth and consistent Fisichella and the exuberant and sometimes ragged Massa (or, as Peter Sauber put it when asked how his new drivers compliment each other, "we have one who has a lot of experience, and one who is maybe a little crazy!"). Fisichella should come out on top, although if Massa is smart he will camp out in the garage and study his teammate to hone his innate ability for the future. Unfortunately this battle will also be joined by BAR, Toyota and Jaguar, and they will all be fighting for whatever points the top four leave behind.
And Sauber will finish the year in the midfield. Again.