So, it’s official – a driver once ‘paid-off’ by Ferrari to leave earlier than his contract dictated is to return to Maranello and, in the process, usurp a former team-mate who held sway in their relationship. But the impending arrival of Kimi Raikkonen at the Scuderia has unleashed a wave of nostalgia for one of Formula One’s most-loved contestants, Felipe Massa, as the sport prepares for the painful possibility that this might be the long goodbye for the little Brazilian from Sao Paulo.
As a young boy, Felipe Massa mucked in with the Benetton mechanics in the Sao Paulo pits, helping to clean out the garage of one Michael Schumacher – a little more than a decade later, the urchin was team-mate to the great German in motorsport’s most respected organisation. It was the start of a journey in the sport that would take Brazil’s new hero from unimaginable highs to some incredibly dark lows but, as the voyage comes to an end, it’s time to take a look back at Felipe’s greatest achievements.
5. 2008 Turkish Grand Prix
Turkey’s Istanbul circuit had been something of a happy hunting ground for Felipe in his early years at Ferrari. A maiden triumph at the 2006 event was followed up by an equally impressive 2007 win, and 2008 got off to a similarly promising start with a comfortable pole position on Saturday ahead of key rivals McLaren. An early safety car period threatened to blight Massa’s faultless getaway from the grid, but the Brazilian held his nerve in the face of an attack from Lewis Hamilton who was employing a three-stop strategy to Massa’s two, lapping considerably faster than the Ferrari man. Keeping Hamilton in sight was crucial to ensuring success, and the nerves on the pitwall abated as the McLaren man exited the pits from his final stop behind Massa and his scarlet F2008. Ten championship points and his third consecutive Turkish Grand Prix success elevated Felipe to 2nd in the title chase, a promising result at the start of what would turn out to be an incredible season.
4. 2008 Bahrain Grand Prix
There are distinct circuits that just seem to gel with Felipe’s driving style; Bahrain is another of his ‘speciality’ venues. A win in 2007 sparked his championship push, just as the 2008 race was to put him back in the fight after a double DNF in the opening races in Australia and Malaysia. Passing pole-sitter Robert Kubica off the line was only the opening salvo of a war of annihilation that Massa wreaked on his rivals, leaving team-mate Raikkonen and McLaren opponent Lewis Hamilton in his dust as he sped into the desert haze. A five second gap at the end of lap ten was his reward for an aggressive but tempered beginning to his stint, but as Raikkonen closed in things threatened to turn against Felipe; a swift ‘splash and dash’ on lap thirty nine prompted a comeback from the Brazilian as he pulled away from the Finn to record his second consecutive Bahrain victory and his first points of the year. Textbook stuff.
3. 2006 Turkish Grand Prix
It’s Istanbul again – but rewind the clock a further two years and young fresh-faced Ferrari rookie Felipe Massa is nervously awaiting the start of his very first Grand Prix from pole position. Team-mate to the greatest driver of all times in his last season at the top of his game, Massa’s task is simple; assist Michael Schumacher’s bid for title glory at all costs.
Events never quite transpire that way and, having already posessed the nerve to beat the German to pole, Massa proceeded to leave him in his wake as he romped off across the undulating circuit and into a comfortable lead. Not too comfortable though – Ferrari being forced to ‘stack’ their men when they made their final pitstops caused Schumacher to fall behind title rival Alonso, a potentially fatal choice by the Italian team’s strategists that could have proved fatal to the veteran’s hopes of an eighth Championship crown. None of this worried Massa, who continued serenely on to record his first Formula One victory.
2. 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix
Any F1 driver will tell you, there’s nothing that can quite compare with winning your home race. Brazil had been waiting thirteen years for a home victor, with Rubens Barrichello’s infamous Interlagos curse never allowing him to set foot on the top step in his native country. The late great Ayrton Senna’s 1993 triumph remained their only dim memory, until little Felipe Massa rocked up to the 2006 event in his scarlet prancing horse.
A 1.4 second qualifying margin at the head of the field was enough to send the expectant crowd into a frenzy as they prepared for the unthinkable – a successor to the lamented triple title winner could be just ninety minutes away. Lights out saw Massa maintain his advantage, but a safety car period immediately followed to clear away lap one debris and jeapordised Ferrari’s pitstop strategy. The restart was dealt with flawlessly, another ‘first’ for Felipe that just didn’t seem to phase him, and he set about re-establishing his lost edge on his rivals.
If you were watching the television that day, you’d be forgiven for asking ‘who’s leading the race?’. Such was the championship-deciding action behind him that Massa barely featured on the screens as he dismantled his opponents in systematic style. The lack of coverage is also a testament to the Brazilian’s excellence, with little or no undue activity surrounding his Ferrari until he crossed the line at the end of the 71st lap and quenched Brazil’s thirst for a winner. ‘Mob’ is too unkind a word for the jubilant scenes that followed.
2008 Brazilian Grand Prix
Before you cry ‘how can that be…?’, let’s examine the facts. For a few brief moments at the rain-swept Interlagos circuit on 2nd November 2008, Felipe Massa was World Champion. But for a fateful decision by Toyota’s Timo Glock to go for the wrong tyres in tricky conditions, Brazil would be lauding its title winner. Alas, it wasn’t to be the case.
Attempting to overcome a seven point gap to championship leader Lewis Hamilton as he arrived at his home race, the last of the year, Massa was not the Ferrari driver many expected to be in such a position come season’s end. As defending 2007 World Champion, Kimi Raikkonen had trailed off after a promising start to 2008 and duly been consistently out-paced, out-performed and out-thought by his less-experienced team-mate. 71 laps now stood between Felipe and title glory.
Pole position by now was merely a ritual for the Brazilian at his home track; 2006 and 2007 had proven his level of superiority at this circuit. Rain threatened to upset the form book, but Massa showed the chasing pack a clean pair of heels as he calmly set about doing his job – Ferrari’s pit wall would be keeping an eye on Hamilton, starting from 4th on the grid. In a repeat of his 2006 race, a safety car period threatened to reduce his lead to nothing but a cool head allowed Massa to maintain his advantage at the restart. Fastest lap after fastest lap as the rain continued to pour onto the circuit seemed to confirm the crowd’s dreams could finally begin to look like reality as Hamilton struggled in the murky conditions, slipping further down the field as he struggled for speed. Lap 54 was a crucial one – a 9.6 second lead was Massa’s cushion as Sebastian Vettel closed in on the ailing Hamilton, aiming to demote him to sixth – a position that would yield the championship to the Ferrari man. Light rain starting to return after a brief dry period turned the field on its head but Massa, calm as ever, quickly darted for the pitlane for intermediates to maintain his lead. On lap 69 Hamilton ran wide – Vettel was through and the 2008 World Championship was Massa’s as he crossed the line to the accompanying roar of the crowd, spirits undimmed even by the terrible conditions.
But wait, what was this? Hamilton 5th! How could it be? Both Vettel and Hamilton passed the struggling Glock at the very last corner to rain on Ferrari’s parade. The title was gone and as McLaren and Britain celebrated, Brazilian hearts fell.
Never before or since have I personally witnessed any sportsman face defeat with such humility – and Massa’s 2008 defeat was the most painful title loss in Formula One history. As Ferrari management and top brass reportedly ‘smashed up the television they were watching the race on’, Massa, the foot-soldier, prepared to reveal his depth of character to the world. Felipe wept openly as he pulled up against the marker bearing the ‘#1’ legend, a race winner on home turf drowned in sorrow as a nation cried with him. The visor went up, the gloved hand flew up to fight back the tears. Hand on heart, Massa faced the podium ceremony as a spent force, the crowd roaring his name as the Brazilian national anthem rang out across Sao Paulo. And as he finally turned to leave, there was more than pain and fatigue in his redenned, tired eyes.
There was pride.