Remember this? The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. The year’s title decider, and a race regarded by many as one of the greatest of all time. Never before has a championship been decided quite so dramatically, or so heartbreakingly. The champion crowned on the last corner of the last lap is set in stone as one of Formula One’s all-time greatest stories. But that’s all beside the point. All I really care about is Felipe Massa. I do wonder where he went.
Felipe Massa has long been one of my favourite drivers. I won’t lie, part of that comes down to me having spent most of my life as an avid Ferrari fan (until I withdrew into the closet to live a more ‘neutral’ life in Formula One), but it’s undeniable that his seemingly easy going and friendly demeanour ranks him amongst the more likable characters in the paddock. Plus he has an excellent stereotypical South American accent. What’s not to like?
There was also his talent. He spent only three years at Ferrari’s work experience team of choice, Sauber, during which he kept himself roughly on par with his teammates – eventually outscoring former World Champions Jacques Villeneuve in his final year. His internship complete, he was called up to begin his duties for the Scuderia alongside Schumacher MkI. Within five rounds he was on the podium, and won two races by season’s end.
Then 2008 happened, and Massa really came into his own. He took six Grand Prix wins on his way to… second in the championship by – a single point. Cruelly, in terms of retirements, the only thing separating him from victor Lewis Hamilton was a single engine failure during round one in Australia.
Lewis Hamilton, 2008 World Champion
He won the race in Brazil, but Hamilton’s fifth place secured him enough points to win the real prize. And this, of course, was when the headlining photo was taken. Massa, only barely holding himself together, shows solidarity with the Brazilian fans who appear to be every bit as shattered as he is. It’s one of the most striking images Formula One has ever produced (or, at least, the original one from the FOM television feed is, which I can’t find on the internet. Use your imaginations), and I confess that it was from this point that I fell in love with the sport.
I suppose, in many ways, Felipe Massa is now inextricably tied to that moment for me. He was symbolic of everything that I loved about Formula One – the passion, the drama, the excitement – and has since been one of the drivers I have a (professional) bias towards.
Fast-forward three years, and the man in that photo is gone. I’m not sure where, but I haven’t seen him sitting in one of those red cars for a little while now. And this hurts me. I want him back.
The world does love to speculate as to where, exactly, Felipe has wandered off to. Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari president, half-joked that in 2010 Massa was ‘fed up and sent in his brother’ after his disappointing season, and one that paled in comparison to that of new teammate Faster Than You Alonso. 2011 yielded even poorer results. He maintained sixth in the championship, but scored fewer points overall. Worse still, he failed to take a podium place all season.
The logical divider is Hungary 2009. Felipe Massa suddenly had his season terminated when a loose component flew into his cockpit and knocked him unconscious during qualifying. So heavy was the impact that, were it not for the latest generation helmets, Felipe would almost certainly been in a significantly graver condition. Thankfully, however, he was all set to return in 2010, having sat out the remainder of Ferrari’s uninspiring 2009 campaign.
Massa’s helemt, post-Hungary crash
But he never really came back, did he? His second place in round one was his equal best placing of the year. He looked hardly a shadow of the Massa that fought so valiantly in 2008. Why?
‘What’s gone wrong with Felipe Massa was his Hungary accident,’ says Olav Mol, lead commentator for RTL Netherlands. ‘I always said after that that Massa is the guy who, after an accident like that, loses his speed.
‘Don’t forget, this guy’s also a dad nowadays, and that is different. There’s more in life.
‘You can also see it in his interviews – when he talks, it’s just like “okay, I’m going to say this and I’m going to say that so I look strong”. But on the inside, he’s too much of a nice guy, he’s not a killer in the car.’
There’s something strangely romantic about the concept, too. Racing drivers are a curious breed of folk. They’re not like us. They have an unusual ability push fear and doubt from their minds. The best drivers are so straightforwardly single-minded in the car. All extraneous influences are eliminated until all that exists is the car and the road.
Like a hero falling from grace, Mol thinks that Massa has lost this ability. His crash forced him to put his life into perspective, to see it how the rest of us do – and it’s compromised his ability to think clearly in a race.
‘Don’t forget, this guy’s also a dad nowadays, and that is different. There’s more in life.’
‘It gets into your system, I’m sure that gets into your system somewhere,’ elaborates the Dutchman. ‘These aren’t things you can bypass with your brain. It’s something that’s inside you – there’s more than you and your wife or girlfriend in your life – there are kids and there’s the rest.
‘I think that at least takes a tenth or a tenth-and-a-half off certain moments in racing. When it gets really dodgy on the race track, when it gets really tricky, that’s when sometimes those things don’t help.’
We can say this about Lewis Hamilton this year, too. From his debut, Hamilton’s been a mighty driver – and still is. But his own personal problems were so large, and so intense, that he couldn’t brush them away come race day. They plagued him, and his driving suffered.
‘That’s what I also say about Michael Schumacher nowadays racing,’ concurs Mol.
‘In the old days, when Schumacher went to the circuit, he said to his wife Corinna “bye, see you on Monday or Tuesday”. Nowadays, when he goes to the circuit, there are little kids in his house who say “dad, be careful please”.
‘Eventually, that just gets to you.’
Massa and Alonso, best buddies for life
Of course, it doesn’t help that the Ferrari he returned to was one different from that which he left. It had bigger hats. And was more Spanish. Fernando had finally come to town, and all of Ferrari were making him most welcome.
With the double Champion doing the predictable thing and stamping his authority all over Maranello, there was little for Massa to do but prove himself equal on the track. But he couldn’t. The one-time almost Champion simply could not muster the pace the fight back. And, as if to emphasise the point, when he did manage to find some small bit of momentum, he was forced to hand over what looked to be his first comeback win to Alonso in Germany – an enormous, further, psychological blow.
‘On the other hand, it makes Ferrari how they want to be. Ferrari always wants to have a definite number one driver,’ says Mol. ‘They even put it in contracts over the last decade – Barrichello just couldn’t win races because it was part of his contract.
‘Nowadays, they don’t have a problem with Alonso because his status in the team is very, very clear.’
And that, I’m afraid, is how things might stay at Ferrari. It remains an incredible struggle for Massa to rekindle his confidence when he’s constantly being beaten, if not embarrassed, by his teammate – and while his confidence eludes him, so too will his speed, and, eventually, his contract extension. As many have predicted, then, 2012 looks to be the Brazilian’s final year at the Scuderia.
‘To me, it’s a surprise that they keep him, but that’s also a bit Ferrari’s style,’ thinks Mol. ‘I would’ve let him go for next year.’
This makes me sad. 2009 offered such hope. Massa was ready to fire – to right the wrongs of 2008 when his title was taken from him in his own country. Then everything fell apart.
I miss Felipe Massa. I wish he’d come back.
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