Felipe Massa has admitted that former team-mate Michael Schumacher will become just another rival when the lights go out at the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix in March, despite their enduring friendship off the track.
Schumacher proved an excellent mentor for the Brazilian when he joined Ferrari as test driver in 2003 and, having briefly been team-mates on track in Schumacher's final season, their relationship almost proved enough for the German to step in as his replacement following last July's near-fatal accident in Hungary. Now, however, Schumacher is with Mercedes, having been tempted out of retirement by the chance to return to the marque that gave him his big break, and will be among those looking to break Massa's heart in 2010. Despite that, however, the Brazilian insists that nothing has changed - away from the track, at least.
"Michael is a friend and he was an important team-mate for me to grow and improve," Massa confirmed to reporters at Ferrari's annual Wroom
media event, "We're still friends in life but, on the track, he'll be a competitor I have to beat, just like all the others."
Asked whether Schumacher made the right decision to come out of retirement - and with a team other than Ferrari - the Brazilian admitted that the proof would only come as the season progressed.
"It's difficult to say if he made the right choice, because I don't know what you feel when you stop racing after a whole life on the track," Massa admitted, "I think that his comeback will help this sport - he's a great talent and I think that he can be competitive immediately - but it will be weird seeing him racing with another team after all the years with Ferrari, although there weren't the possibilities for his return.”
Any hope that Schumacher may have had of making a comeback with the Scuderia were dashed by the agreement Maranello signed with Fernando Alonso - and by the quashing of Ferrari's proposal for three-car teams - but Massa concedes that he is happy with his new team-mate, even if they had one run-in in the past.
"During my career, I've always had extraordinary team-mates, and this is what enabled me to learn and to improve, because you can learn a lot from a different driving style, from the way he sets up the car, how he goes into corners and how he brakes," he explained, "I'm sure that we'll work together very well, because this will help us both - and also the team - regarding the car's development.
"Naturally we'll both fight to stay ahead, because that's our sport, but Fernando is an extremely talented driver and I'll try to help him with my experience in Ferrari. We had a discussion in 2007, after the Nürburgring race, because he accused me of unsporting behaviour, but we cleared that - he apologised and that was it. Over the last few days, we've spoken about our ideas regarding the car's development and, it's amazing.... Although I always worked very well with Kimi [Raikkonen], I've spoken more to Fernando over the last three days than with [Kimi] in three years.”
While he clearly appears optimistic about being able to battle Schumacher and Alonso - and presumably the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel - for the 2010 title, Massa is a little more circumspect when it come to actually predicting the outcome.
"Although it's still early to say, because I don't know the new car's performance and we don't know where we stand compared to the other teams, I think that it was the right decision to start developing the car mid-season last year," he reasoned.
“The races without refuelling are an important change, but we are working very hard with Shell to improve the consumption as much as possible, without penalising the performance. The race strategy will depend a lot on the position on the starting grid and, in certain situations, it will be important to be aggressive over the first five laps to gain positions while, in others, we might need to apply a calmer strategy. Obviously, it will depend on the circumstances.”