Felipe Massa – The Affable Racer from Brazil

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SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 12: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams waves to the crowd at his final Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 12, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Felipe Massa retired from Formula 1 for the second and final time at the end of the 2017 season. Massa ended his career as the lead driver of the Williams F1 team. Massa drove for the Scuderia Ferrari and the Sauber F1 teams, before joining Williams.

Felipe Massa – The Affable Racer from Brazil

Felipe Massa, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken driver from São Paulo, Brazil, was a popular figure in the paddock during his long career in Formula 1 (2002 – 2017). The drivers’ championship eluded him by a whisker in 2008. Massa won 11 Grands Prix in all for the Scuderia Ferrari team.

Initial Racing Years

Felipe Massa was born in São Paulo and began cutting his teeth as a racer driving karts as an eight year-old in Brazil. The Brazilian continued racing in South America, before moving to Europe at the start of the millennium. Massa spent two years driving in the Formula Renault and Formula 3000 series. In 2002, noting his raw talent, Peter Sauber offered him a race seat in his Formula 1 team.

Though his performances were decent in that season, there were flashes of rawness and he finished with four points. The year of 2003 was spent sharpening his skills as a test driver for Ferrari. Sauber re-signed him for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Keeping a keen eye on their protege and seeing him mature as a race driver, Ferrari promoted Massa. In 2006, the Maranello-based team picked Massa to fill in the shoes of Rubens Barrichello.

The Ferrari Years

It was a dream come true for the young Brazilian when he was asked to pair up with the legendary Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari team. It was with Ferrari where Massa spent the prime years of his career. He experienced both the highs and the lows here that defined his legacy in the sport.

Not many expected Massa to challenge Schumacher for race wins or poles in their first season together. But he managed to surprise the critics with race wins in the Turkish Grand Prix and his home Brazilian Grand Prix. Thereafter, Schumacher retired and Kimi Raikkonen came in as his teammate. Massa performed well, but Raikkonen won the championship in 2007. Massa finished fourth in the championship.

The Championship Missed By a Whisker

The Brazilian raised his game in the 2008 season, which became his annus mirabilis. Massa was in genuine contention for the title until the last lap of the last race of the season at Interlagos, Brazil. He came agonizingly close to being crowned the drivers’ champion. He crossed the finishing line in the lead with his rival Lewis Hamilton far behind the requisite 5th place needed to clinch the title.

However, destiny had other plans, as Hamilton overtook Timo Glock seconds before the finish line. The Briton regained the 5th place in the ever-changing wet conditions. Hamilton clinched his first championship by one point. This denied Felipe Massa a place among the greats. It was an agonizing heartbreak for Massa before his home crowd. This made a lasting impression on both his own mindset as well as his enduring legacy in the sport.

The Horrific Accident

For the rest of his career, his stature had been enhanced among his peers, but destiny did not give him another chance to win the drivers’ title. In 2009, Massa suffered a freak incident in qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix. A suspension spring fell off Barrichello’s Brawn car and hit Massa in the head after piercing through his helmet – a life-changing injury.

Massa returned to racing after a miraculous recovery. The post-injury Massa could never rekindle the form which made him one of the front-runners of the sport. In the remaining years at Ferrari, he had to reluctantly play second-fiddle to Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard had firmly established himself as the lead driver for the Maranello-based team. Massa did not win again in his career.

Swansong at Williams

In 2014, tired of being the second driver behind Alonso for years at Ferrari, Massa switched to Williams. He became the lead-driver there and had the added incentive of re-partnering with his longtime friend and race-engineer Rob Smedley. Massa could race in a more relaxed frame of mind at Williams.

Massa had some good races for them partnering Valtteri Bottas and announced his retirement at the end of the 2016 season. But a twist of fate brought him back on the grid in 2017. Bottas was poached by the Mercedes AMG F1 team, when the newly-crowned world champion Nico Rosberg (2016) announced a shock retirement from the sport. Williams wanted an experienced driver to partner and mentor the rookie Lance Stroll in 2017. So Massa was persuaded to come out of retirement.

However, at the end of the 2017 season, Massa announced that he would be retiring for the second and final time from F1 and would explore racing in some other category. Massa was accorded an emotional farewell on the podium of the Brazilian Grand Prix by his predecessor Barrichello. The home crowd at Interlagos and fans around the world gave him a warm send off.

Felipe Massa will be remembered as an enduringly affable and gentleman racing driver. He did well to show his potential in the sport by coming excruciatingly close to winning the championship. Massa’s final tally in F1 stood at 11 wins, 41 podiums, 16 pole positions and 15 fastest laps. A good record by any standards, but the drivers’ championship was missing. Massa was always a team-man which endeared him to the Tifosi, while his skills and personality made him win fans all over the world.

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