Felipe Massa has mounted an ardent defensive campaign to keep his threatened seat at Williams for the 2018 season.
Massa was aroused from the briefest of retirements this season, having bid farewell to the sport at the end of 2016, to replace the suddenly outbound Valtteri Bottas, who moved to Mercedes during the offseason.
With new regulations creating cars more akin to those with which Massa made his Formula One debut, the Brazilian initially proved stiff competition for his midfield rivals before the Williams team’s competitiveness turned flaccid in part thanks to a series of upgrades that failed to deliver on their expected potential.
Nonetheless, with Williams in the enviable position of having the most competitive 2018 seat yet to be signed, management has decided to flirt further afield for alternatives rather than simply re-sign Massa for a lack of obvious options.
Massa, however, as an elder statesman of the sport and an almost champion after his 2008 title campaign with Ferrari, believes that he is the only realistic choice if Williams is serious about penetrating the top three in the standings.
Speaking after qualifying ninth for the Japanese Grand Prix, nine places ahead of rookie teammate Lance Stroll and, crucially, in front of chief midfield rivals Renault and Toro Rosso, Massa warned of the consequences of breaking consistency.
“I think it’s frustrating that the team is trying to go for a direction that can really be much worse for the team than keeping the same [line-up],” he said.
“If the team changes something, they could pay more than maybe it will cost to keep me.”
Pressure on Massa has increased markedly this week with confirmation that Williams will be conducting a private test of chief candidates Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta using a 2014 car, leading to rumours that the team has already decided to push Massa into retirement for a second time.
Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe, speaking at Friday’s FIA press conference in Japan, denied that is the case.
“Of course Felipe is very much in the frame,” he said. “[He’s] very, very high o our list of possibilities, but we owe it to ourselves to take a look around and see what could be the best option for the team going forwards.”
Massa said he believed that Lowe would be on his side in any management-level debate about his future.
“To be honest, I really like Paddy, and Paddy knows what’s better for the team for sure,” he said, but added that he understood the choice could come down to matters unrelated to driving.
“Maybe it’s not 100 per cent his decision and they need to get the decision related to some other stuff — unfortunately money is part of this game and unfortunately not in the right way for the professional drivers and the professional teams.
“That’s why I think if Williams keep the direction they have now, they are behaving like a professional and top team. If they’re not, maybe they’re thinking about different things.”
Massa’s hard defence contrasts with his attitude early in the season and even at this stage last year, when he was engaged in a farewell tour. Though it was widely understood that Williams’s preference for Lance Stroll and his financial backing played a significant part in its decision to push Massa towards retirement, the Brazilian accepted it gracefully.
The 36-year-old similarly remained uncommitted to a 2018 extension earlier in the season, but as he has adapted to the car, Massa has found it to suit his driving style and reinvigorate his passion for racing.
“I am totally motivated to carry on,” he said. “I feel that I am taking the best out of the car. I feel really comfortable driving this car. I think the car from this year is for my driving style.
“The car from the last three years — without the grip, just going sideways with the terrible tyres — is not a great pleasure. Maybe for my driving style I cannot really give the best. But now I can.
“I think maybe when you feel you are giving the best you can give, you are more motivated and you feel that you are more into the top.
“I want to carry on because I still believe I can give a lot. I’m having pleasure. I’m giving pleasure to myself.”
Williams is expected to do this decision slowly given the lack of alternative seats. Unless Kubica and di Resta were to test poorly, a choice will likely be made late in the year.