While the rest of the world has its attention on the upcoming shoot-out for the 2007 Formula One world championship in Brazil this weekend between McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, the Italian team caught everyone on the blind side yesterday by announcing that Felipe Massa will remain with them through to the end of the 2010 season.
The timing of the announcement has come as a complete surprise. Alonso has been linked with a move to Ferrari after his well documented problems at McLaren, and recent reports have suggested that Massa, who has been contracted to Ferrari since 2001, would leave the Scuderia to make way.
Rumours in China last week strongly suggested that Alonso has signed a pre-agreement with Ferrari valid from 2009 onwards, so the Massa deal, which entails the team taking up an option for 2008 and renewing for two years after that, mean the Brazilian would be entitled to a massive pay-off if the team still wished to pursue the Spaniard to partner Raikkonen.
Massa made his debut as Raikkonen's replacement at Sauber-Petronas in 2002. He partnered the now retired seven times champion Michael Schumacher at Ferrari last season before teaming up with Raikkonen this season. To date, he has taken part in 34 grands prix for Ferrari, winning five times, finishing on the podium 16 times, and scoring points on 25 occasions. He has taken pole position eight times, set the same number of race fastest laps, and has scored a total of 166 points. He was a contender for the title this year up until the recent Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji.
"Everyone here is astonished," said Jayme Brito, a producer with Brazil's national TV Globo network. "It is not the proper time for such a thing, and there is a strong suspicion that it may be a smokescreen for other things."
One such suspicion is that the signing is a retort by the beleaguered Ferrari president, Jean Todt. His son, Nicolas, manages Massa, and it is known not just that Todt annoyed the Ferrari chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, when he signed Massa as a race driver for the 2006 season without consultation, but also that Di Montezemolo wants to see the end of the Todt era altogether.
If, as expected, Todt leaves Ferrari at the end of the season, then the Englishman Ross Brawn is likely to return from sabbatical to act as joint technical director and team principal alongside the present incumbent, Mario Almondo.
At the end of the season Alonso could switch back to his former team, Renault, where he won his two world titles.