Felipe Massa: A Career in Exceeding Expectations

The year was 2002, the location was Melbourne Australia, the car was all shades of blue and the helmet was neon green. Inside the cockpit a young man from Säo Paulo Brazil prepared himself for his Formula One debut in Australia, the beginning of a 14 year career that would take him places he could never have imagined. His name was Felipe Massa.

Similar to Massa, 2002 was my F1 rookie year too — that was the year the love affection began. I didn’t know much about the sport, the teams or the drivers so I didn’t really know who to root for at first. But one of the things that helped me make up my mind when it came to a driver was his helmet. When I was younger drivers helmets were very important when choosing what drivers I liked. If you weren’t at least quick, you had to have a cool helmet otherwise it was a no from me. Silly I know, but hey, helmets needed to look cool you know?

But Felipe’s helmet was one that grabbed my attention — mainly because it’s so flipping bright. It’s hard to mistake him for anyone else.

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Massa’s standout helmet moved him up the popularity ladder in my young eyes, but it also helped that Felipe was an exciting driver to watch. His pace was evident from the very beginning of his career in Melbourne where he qualified ahead of his more experienced Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld — qualifying in 9th place for his debut race. Sadly, Massa was caught up in the first corner carnage that made the 2002 Australian Grand Prix one of the most memorable of its time.

It was an unfortunate end to Massa’s debut, but he had given everyone a very brief glimpse of his potential pace.

In only his second race — in Malaysia — Massa would score his first world championship point with a sixth place finish, having started from 14th. This was much more impressive than you may think because in 2002 the point scoring system is very different than it is today. Instead of points being awarded for positions 1 through 10, as drivers are today, only the top six finishers received points. This is how the points scoring was broken down:

1st place: 10 points
2nd place: 6 points
3rd place: 4 points
4th place: 3 points
5th place: 2 points
6th place: 1 point

So that’s only six possible positions where drivers can score points, and in 2002 there were three teams who were a cut above the rest of the field. First and foremost, Ferrari dominated but after that it was a fight between Williams and McLaren. Obviously since there are two drivers per team and three teams a cut above the rest, barring retirements and the such those six cars were almost always guaranteed a points finish. Sauber had a decent car, but if they happened to be in contention for points they would be duking it out with Renault, and Renault had the better car.

Fortunately for Sauber in Malaysia, retirements for most of their point scoring rivals — Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello, both McLaren drivers, and the Renault of Jarno Trulli — meant that the team would score a double points finish at Malaysia, with Heidfeld finishing in fifth place ahead of his teammate Massa in sixth.

In his first proper grand prix (since his official debut in Australia was ended after one corner, let alone one lap through circumstances that were beyond his control, not much of a race, to be fair) Massa had managed to score a point and he was delighted.

“Scoring a point in my second grand prix is fantastic. It’s a fabulous feeling”

Massa would pick up a fifth place finish in Barcelona at the Spanish Grand Prix and a sixth place finish at the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, ultimately ending up with four championship points in his rookie season, good enough for a 12th place finish in the drivers standings. A pretty good result, considering that his more experienced teammate in Nick Heidfeld scored only three points more than Massa yet finished 8th in the standings — Massa was not that far behind.

But overall it was very much an up and down rookie season for Massa. He would have some decent races but consistently made mistakes and Sauber did not retain him for the 2003 season, replacing him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

I have a book at home here (a book I’m guessing was bought for me since I can’t imagine where the income to make such a purchase would come from when I was only 8 or 9 years old), it’s the Formula 1 Yearbook.

In this book, they go through each driver’s bio, with a little aside written about each driver. Here was Massa’s (don’t mind my messy desk):

As a 14124062_1462070750473659_2075897718_okid he used to hang around the Säo Paulo paddock helping out the Benetton team and, just like Raikkonen, his rise to F1 was meteoric. This was the second time (Kimi Raikkonen in 2001 being the first time — GC) Peter Sauber had bet on youth, but this time it did not work out. While the Finnish baby-driver was pinched by McLaren, in this case, he got so fed up with all the broken cars that Felipe Massa was given his marching orders. He is very quick and a natural, but like many drivers from the lower formulae, he lacks a grasp of what the job involves, which often found him walking back from a crash. Visiting the factory ought to be a time for meeting engineers, not chatting up the secretaries. In short, he’s a nice guy but the grey matter is lacking.

This was the story of Massa’s early career: a quick driver but always had a mistake in him. He couldn’t bring the car home consistently like someone like a Coulthard, or even his teammate Heidfeld could.

Massa went off to be Ferrari’s test driver for 2003, an experience Felipe compared to university:

“I have learnt and am learning a lot. For me, Ferrari is proving to be an incredible school. Working with Michael, Rubens and Luca is like going to university.”

“The experience I am acquiring this year is very important, especially as I go to all the races and attend all the meetings. The more time I spend with the team the better it is for me.”

He also praised the professionalism of one Michael Schumacher:

“Michael is really on the ball. He is always very nice when he speaks with the engineers. Everyone knows he is the best driver at the moment, but he is always very laid back and takes things calmly. When things get difficult, he knows how to be cool and clear headed.”

“It is very interesting because when he is concentrating his expression never changes. His professionalism is almost unbelievable and he knows everything about the car and wants to know everything that’s going on. He is the heart of the team.”

That particular motorsport.com piece ended with this:

It has been speculated that Massa will take over from Barrichello in the future to be groomed as a replacement for Schumacher when the German finally decides to call it a day. Also, the rumour mill has it that Massa will retake his race seat at Sauber next year, to give him more race experience.

On top of this, Massa was managed by Nicolas Todt, who just so happened to be the son of Ferrari team principle (and now current President of the FIA) Jean Todt.

And sure enough, Massa would retake his seat for the 2004 season with Sauber, the team who, oh by the way, also happened to be powered by Ferrari engines…

Massa gained some valuable racing experience with Sauber over the next two seasons, and while his consistency improved he still made the occasional driver error that meant you couldn’t fully trust him.

To the surprise of many — and to the surprise of none at the same time — it was announced in 2005 that Massa would be driving for Ferrari in 2006 alongside seven time world champion Michael Schumacher, to become his protégé. Quite an incredible development considering that this was a driver that Sauber had decided to not re-sign after his rookie season. Now, only three years later, he would be racing for the most famous F1 team in the sports history alongside arguably its greatest driver of all time in Schumacher.

But a new car didn’t mean a new Massa. Sure, he stuck his Ferrari on the front row in his first qualifying outing for Ferrari at Bahrain, but the mistakes he was prone to make hadn’t been ironed out. In his first race for Ferrari he just lost the back-end heading into Turn 1, almost taking out Fernando Alonso — I mean, he just drops it. This is not something you should see out of a Ferrari driver. That sort of mistake does not go down well at Maranello or with the tifosi (the Ferrari fans). They expect the best from their drivers.

Felipe still had a lot to learn.

(Hilarious American F1 commentary, by the way. Ha-ha.)

But things really turned for Massa’s career during F1’s North American trip. He drove a fantastic race at Indianapolis, finishing second behind Michael Schumacher while providing exactly the kind of rear gunner drive that Schumacher needed from his number two.

And these strong performances from Massa would continue for pretty much the rest of the season: third in France, second in Germany, he won his first grand prix in Turkey, second in Japan, and finally — to cap off a brilliant second half to the season — a home victory in Brazil where he was the class of the field.

Though Schumacher retired after the 2006 season (announcing his retirement after winning the Italian Grand Prix), the one year Felipe got to spend with Michael as an understudy — while also actually racing, rather than being the team’s test driver —  was career changing for Felipe.

What stood out to me was the relationship between the two drivers, you could sense a real bond between the two. Schumacher was so happy for Massa when he scored his first podium at the Nürburgring and again for his first win in Turkey — even though Michael himself endured a very frustrating race where he was unable to pass his main title rival Fernando Alonso. He had every right to wear a long face on that podium in Turkey, but was genuinely happy for his teammate.

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Massa would line up on the 2007 grid without his mentor, but the driver that took to the grid in 2007 was a totally different driver to the one that took to the grid at Bahrain in 2006. You could trust him now.

Massa found himself in contention for the 2008 title — a season where he won six grand prix — but he suffered what proved to be an ultimately devastating blow in Hungary. He comfortably led the race with just three laps remaining only for his engine to fail. While his title rival Lewis Hamilton finished fifth in that race, those 10 points Massa missed out on made all the difference by the time the season’s climax in Brazil arrived.

Massa won the final race of the season in his native Brazil — he did everything he had to do that day to take home the title in front of his adoring fans — but Toyota’s Timo Glock (who was ahead of Lewis Hamilton to begin the final lap) had decided to stay out on dry tyres when most of the field pitted for intermediates when the rain returned and his pace was horribly slow. Glock was subsequently passed by Lewis Hamilton heading into the last corner of the last lap of the season and Hamilton would the take the fifth place he needed to take the 2008 title, edging Massa to the title by a single point.

What an absolutely gut wrenching way to lose the title, I still feel a little sick thinking about it. I mean, how much closer can you get to winning a title and not win it?  I mean, the San Antonio Spurs in 2013 come close, but I think this is closer, and more gut wrenching. The Spurs at least had a Game 7 in which they could try and close the series out. This was it for Felipe.

Imagine the contrasting range of emotions. There’s the incredible jubilation of winning your home grand prix — knowing that when you’ve won the race that your rival is behind to the point where, as it stood, you were the world champion. And to then have it ripped away from you at the last second… I couldn’t imagine the thought — it’s literally soul destroying.

They say a picture says a thousand words. This picture portrays the pure joy of winning your home grand prix and doing everything you could do on the day to win a world title, but the crushing disappointment of losing the title at the very last turn.

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When you lose the title by a single point, it’s easy to look back at every race and think “If only he had finished this race, if only he hadn’t tried that strategy…” and so on. But if only Felipe’s engine had held on for three more laps in Budapest…

How cruelly ironic that incredibly rare Ferrari engine failures would cost both mentor and protégé world titles. For Schumacher, if his engine had not let go in Suzuka in 2006 — while he was level with Alonso in the standings and ahead of him during that race — we may be talking about Michael Schumacher the eight time world champion. Same goes for Felipe, if his engine hadn’t let go when it did…

But Massa doesn’t look at the Hungarian Grand Prix as the place where the title was lost, but rather the Singapore Grand Prix. From his column at motorsport.com where he explained why he was retiring:

The 2008 season is also linked to the worst moment of my career. I am not talking about the incident that happened in Hungary the following year, because I do not remember anything that happened in Budapest.

But I remember very well when I learned what happened at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix – and I am referring to ‘crashgate’.

Without that incident I probably would have won the world championship, and I know that I didn’t make it for reasons that are not related to a driver error or a team problem. So it is more difficult to accept.

In Brazil at the end of the season I knew I had done my best. I won the race and I had nothing to regret about what I had done – and this helped me accept the lost title by just one point. What happened in Singapore I learned much later, and it pained me much more.

‘Crashgate’ refers to the decision taken by Renault’s Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore, who told Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash on purpose to bring out the safety car, which played right into Renault’s hands whose driver, Fernando Alonso, benefitted greatly from and won the grand prix. Massa happened to be leading the grand prix when Piquet crashed. He would finish the race 13th while Hamilton finished 3rd.

While it was so disappointing to see Massa lose the drivers title in the way he did, who could’ve imagined he would’ve ever been in that position in the first place? After the many spills in 2002, could you have ever imagined Felipe Massa to be in that position? He had reached heights very few pegged him to reach when he first set off in Melbourne in 2002.

Many pegged Massa to take the final step needed to take the title in 2009, but all did not go as expected. The car just wasn’t up to snuff, as Jenson Button and Brawn just ran away in the early stages of the 2009 championship, winning six of the first seven grand prix.

But struggling to contend for the 2009 title would turn out to be the least of Massa’s problems. In qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Massa was struck on the head by a suspension spring (while travelling at 162 miles per hour) that had fallen off the Brawn of Rubens Barrichello, knocked Felipe out and he crashed head on into a tyre wall.

This was so scary to watch, I  was so worried. I initially feared he was dead. Massa’s condition was initially life threatening, but he made a very quick recovery and returned to his native Brazil the following week and would make a full recovery.

Massa’s mentor, Michael Schumacher, was very concerned for his protégé when he had his accident and expressed his relief when he went to see Felipe in hospital.

“Good that I finally made it to see Felipe, I feel better now. Even if I was in close contact with him via Nicolas and Jean and informed about everything, it still is better to see it with your own eyes.”

“I am surprised at his extreme positive condition, as the accident was only one week ago. We sat together for around three hours and were chatting with each other. I really feel relieved now.”

Michael also discussed some of his emotions after the accident and how close he was to Felipe in this fantastic video.

Michael was willing to come out of retirement to fill in for his fallen friend, but injuries he sustained in a motoring accident earlier that year prevented him from doing so.

The relationship between mentor and protégé is one that really moving to me personally. The mentor (and all of his experience) takes the young apprentice under his wing and shares with him what he has learned in his many years of experience. As the apprentice gets older and older, the mentor finds his protégé catch and eventually surpasses him in ability. The mentor’s once powerful abilities begin to wane as he grows older and the day will come where now his one time protégé has to continue without his mentor. Even though that day is always inevitable in every mentor-protégé’s relationship, that bond is very special.

This is one of my favourite photos typifying such a relationship. It’s Los Angeles Lakers and NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabaar with his college coach John Wooden — from when Wooden coached Kareem at UCLA, to Kareem escorting his coach at a game, many years after Kareem had become one of the greatest NBA players of all time.

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Again, some images speak a thousand words…

It’s one thing to see your mentor come to pass when he has become old and feeble, but it’s another when that mentor is taken early. The student should always outlive the mentor.

In 2013, Massa’s mentor, Michael Schumacher, was involved in a skiing accident in the Alps and he slipped into a coma, his life was clinging by a thread. These two possessed a special relationship. There’s so many great photos of these two together that really warm my heart — from when Massa and Michael raced together, to when Michael returned to F1 to race with Mercedes in 2010.

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I really love this one.

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Here’s a picture of the two of them together in 2004, while Massa still raced for Sauber.

Just as Schumacher was by Massa’s side when he was in hospital, so was Massa when Michael had his accident. Massa said he never stopped thinking about Michael and prayed for him daily.

“I pray everyday for him and will never stop thinking of him until he is ok”

Massa said he would spend hours talking to Michael when he was in a coma, just trying to share some positive energy, something that helped him when he was in hospital.

And you would have to assume — given how secretively Michael’s whole situation has been handled — that Felipe was that important to Michael that his family and management would allow him to visit his fallen mentor in his medically induced coma.

To see a friend fallen like that, I couldn’t imagine the thought…

But life goes on, Massa was a Williams driver by this point and while he turned in two great seasons for Williams in 2014 and 2015 he has struggled in 2016. He said in an interview for F1.com that he didn’t simply wanted to make up the numbers in F1 if he couldn’t be at Williams for 2017.

Q: Is Formula One an option at all for you, then? You have been in the sport for so long – you have seen it all, done it all…

FM: Let’s put it this way: I want to be in Formula One to matter! I am definitely not here to make up the numbers. I am here to give my talent and my work to achieve results. If I don’t have that I will look for different things. So everything is moving! (Laughs)

As the season progressed it became increasingly likely that Massa was not going to be retained for 2017, and he announced his intentions to retire from F1 at the end of this season.

But where Massa announced his retirement plans was no coincidence. In 2006, the Italian Grand Prix was where Michael Schumacher announced his plans to retire and 10 years on his one time protégé announced his retirement plans in the same place as his mentor did — the Italian Grand Prix.

“Michael was a big feature on my career. I decided to do this (announce my retirement) here because of him.”

F1.com posted a great article about some of Felipe’s career numbers. Here are some (correct prior to the Italian Grand Prix):

11 total wins, joint 27th of all time.

11 wins for Ferrari — tied for fourth most in Ferrari’s history (along with Fernando Alonso) and only behind the 72 of Michael Schumacher, the 15 of Niki Lauda, and the 13 of Alberto Ascari.

41 career podiums — good for 21st all time.

By the time he reaches the season finale in Abu Dhabi he will have entered in 250 races. That’ll be the eighth most in F1 history.

16 pole positions — joint 18th all time.

15 poles for Ferrari — only Michael Schumacher and Niki Lauda have scored more for Ferrari.

If you were a time traveller, paid me a visit in 2002 and told me these would be these are (roughly, depending if he’s able to add to these numbers) stats that Felipe Massa would finish his 14 year F1 career I wouldn’t have believed you.

Felipe Massa’s F1 career is one that exceeded the expectations that people placed on him. But it has also been a career that exceeded everything Felipe himself could’ve dreamed of. From his motorsport.com column:

I never imagined that I would one day of course race for Ferrari and Williams. When I was little I saw Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna driving for the English team – and it was a dream to think I could follow in their footsteps.

And from his retirement press conference:

“I am very proud to have raced in F1 for so long. I achieved a lot more than l expected. Even if l lost the championship by a point l am very proud of my career and what l have achieved.”

Felipe Massa, I will miss not seeing you on the track next season. As long as I have known and loved F1, I have known you to be there. Whatever your career holds for you next I look forward to hearing about it. You’ll always be the 2008 world champion in my eyes…

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