Felipe Massa announced at Monza that he is to retire from Formula 1 at the end of this season, thus concluding a 15-year career that will primarily be recalled for that last-moment heartbreak in Interlagos 2008. For a brief few seconds after crossing the line as race winner, he was poised as world champion. Then Lewis Hamilton made an overtake on Timo Glock for fifth place at the final turn of the final lap of the season – and the course of history changed. Massa’s reaction on the podium was heartfelt and dignified.
In a just world Felipe would not have even needed to rely on Hamilton’s finishing position in Brazil. Had the Renault team not engineered a professional foul in Singapore a few races earlier to subvert the race, Massa would surely have won that evening – rather than having a panicked Ferrari team leave his fuel hose attached in the pitlane. This was on top of the engine failure a few laps from home when leading in Hungary, having shimmied past Hamilton in brilliant fashion at the start.
Singapore 2008 was when Massa had the world title stolen from him. He remains adamant about that and insists he feels worse about it than the serious injury suffered at Hungary in 2009. Although Massa’s recovery from that was rapid and he was back in the car for 2010, it took a long time before his performances were anything like as consistent as before. But by the time he arrived at Williams in 2014 he was much the same feisty, if occasionally ragged, performer as he’d always been.
Two Ferrari moments, Monaco 2008 and Hockenheim 2010: one defined his ascension to a new level, another his demotion.
He’d always struggled at Monaco, right from his rookie appearance there as a Sauber driver in 2002, and in ’08 during the practices and into qualifying it was obvious from the telemetry comparison with team-mate Kimi Räikkönen that his main area of struggle was Ste Devote. Before Q3: “Just try braking later, man!” said Rob Smedley, officially his race engineer, but also much like an elder brother, such was the closeness of their relationship.
“I can’t. It feels like I will crash.”
Smedley pointed out that there was an escape road there and that if he felt he was arriving too fast for the corner to just use it. So Felipe screwed up his courage, waited for a moment beyond when he wanted to brake, turned in – and a whole new world opened up. There was grip there and he sailed through on a new confidence wave. He drove the rest of the lap thus inspired and put himself on pole despite a fuel load heavier than Räikkönen’s. He was still giggling in surprise as he walked into the press conference. He outscored Räikkönen six-to-two in both poles and race wins that year.
Hockenheim 2010. Saturday evening post-qualifying. Massa sat at the dinner table with Smedley and Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari’s team principal. As Massa excused himself for a few moments, the engineer questioned the boss why he hadn’t brought up the subject yet. The subject of tomorrow. Stefano couldn’t bring himself to do it, was too nice a guy to tell Felipe that if he found himself in front of Alonso in the race (as looked feasible given their grid positions) he’d have to move aside. He just hoped the situation wouldn’t arise. Inevitably, it did.
This went back to Melbourne, the second race of the year when Fernando had spun at the first corner, restarted near the back and fought his way through the field – only to have his comeback pulled up short as he encountered Felipe. Feeling he was faster, he urged the team to move Massa aside but they declined. Alonso was furious that he’d had to settle for fourth on a day when victory was feasible. At a subsequent summit meeting, Domenicali agreed that in such a situation in future Massa would be moved. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell Massa. Until Hockenheim the situation didn’t arise. Then the infamous ‘Fernando is faster than you’ message from Smedley. That was a psychological blow that in his remaining time with Ferrari took a long time to recover from. But by the end of his time there, there was evidence that his physiological and psychological barriers were dissolving and the top driver from before was becoming much more visible again. This is the driver that Williams contracted.
Massa’s pole in Austria 2014 for Williams was a real feel-good moment and for the first couple of seasons there was little difference in performance with team-mate Valtteri Bottas. But in the last year or so the performances have begun to drop off. Eleven Grand Prix victories is a record he can be proud of but it’s his strength of character for which he will be most fondly recalled.
Felipe Massa, the moral world champion of 2008.