Smith: A class act on- and off-track, Massa is ‘The People’s Champion’ of F1

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The press conference on Thursday at Monza where Felipe Massa announced that he would be retiring from Formula 1 at the end of the season acted as an apt microcosm of the Brazilian’s time in the sport.

Classy. Dignified. Grateful.

Rarely is a bad word spoken about Massa. Whereas some drivers become villainized as a result of rivalries, championship battles and general competition, Massa was something of an exclusion. His presence has brought many smiles and much warmth up and down the paddock since making his debut back in 2002 with Sauber. It will be a poorer place for his absence.

While Massa’s decision may not have been much of a surprise, it was nevertheless significant. He may not have become world champion, but he will be remembered for more than just trophies and statistics. His legacy will be greater than that.

Felipe Massa may not have won a title, but he certainly won the hearts of many throughout his F1 career.

The early part of Massa’s F1 career was typical of many young, up-and-coming drivers: fast, but error prone. Mistakes during his debut season with Sauber in 2002 led to the team replacing him for 2003, but the Brazilian landed on his feet, striking a deal to become Ferrari’s test driver.

Massa returned to Sauber for 2004 and 2005 where he was quietly impressive, prompting Ferrari to pick him up in 2006 as a replacement for Rubens Barrichello. Under the wing of Michael Schumacher, Massa went from strength-to-strength. He claimed his maiden F1 victory at the Turkish Grand Prix, and another win would follow later that year in Brazil – the first home victory at Interlagos since Ayrton Senna in 1993.

The two seasons that followed saw Massa operate at the peak of his powers. Schumacher’s decision to retire meant the Brazilian stayed on for 2007 alongside the incoming Kimi Raikkonen, who took up the unofficial ‘number one’ role and took the fight to the McLaren pair of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.

Massa’s involvement in deciding the championship that year cannot be understated. Heading up a Ferrari one-two ahead of the final round of pit stops, Massa eased his pace to ensure that Raikkonen would emerge from the pits ahead. Raikkonen won the title by a single point in no small part thanks to Massa.

There are a number of flashpoints through Massa’s career that tell a similar tale of consciousness and a greater awareness to aid the team. But 2008 was so nearly ‘his’ year.

With Raikkonen off the boil, it was left to Massa to take on Hamilton and McLaren in a title battle that will forever be remembered for the showdown at Interlagos.

Massa did all he could that day. In changeable conditions, the Ferrari driver was exquisite, leading all but seven laps en route to a second victory at Interlagos. Hamilton had been sitting pretty in fourth place before a late rain shower forced a charge to the pits and a change in tyres. Sebastian Vettel – then a precocious youngster with Toro Rosso – battled past before Timo Glock decided to stay out on dry tires, leaving Hamilton P6 in the closing stages.

When Massa crossed the line, he looked to have won the title. Jubilation broke out in the grandstands and the Ferrari garage – Brazil looked to have its first title victory since Senna.

And then heartbreak. At the final corner on the final lap of the final race of the season, Hamilton slithered past the ailing Glock. The title was won by a point.

For 38 seconds, Massa was world champion. But what followed was of greater significance.

Massa didn’t get out of his car and vent his frustration, angry at losing in the bitterest of circumstances. Instead, he went and thanked his team before getting up on the podium, greeting his fans in the fading light. Fighting back the tears, he held his hand to his heart and thanked the crowd.

It was the most magnanimous, soulful title defeat F1 has known. Massa exuded nothing but grace on the podium that day.

But there was a bigger fight to come. After a rough start to the 2009 season that had seen Ferrari struggle to acclimatise to the new technical regulations, Massa was struck on the head by a suspension spring from Barrichello’s car during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. The blow left Massa with a severe injury to his head above his left eye, requiring urgent surgery in Budapest. He was able to return home to Brazil one week later, and after passing a series of tests got back behind the wheel of an F1 car later in the year ahead of a full return to racing in 2010 with Ferrari. Every year since the crash at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Massa has gone to see the hospital staff and doctors who treated him.

Exactly one year on from the accident, Massa was again the centre of attention. This time, it came in the German Grand Prix when he was controversially given the call to move aside for Ferrari teammate Alonso, giving up a possible race win. The ‘Felipe, Fernando is faster than you’ message has become notorious in F1, with the incident also igniting the debate about team orders. Once again though, Massa was dignified throughout the affair.

It would prove to be Massa’s last true shot at a race win with Ferrari. The Brazilian was a competent, solid teammate for Alonso as the Spaniard led the team’s charge, but at the end of 2013, with Raikkonen returning to Ferrari for 2014, Massa’s departure was confirmed.

Once again, Massa took lemons and made lemonade. Securing a seat with Williams was significant for the driver and the team, acting as a partnership between two parties both looking to rekindle past glories. While they may not have won races together, Massa helped Williams to third place in the constructors’ championship for both of the past two seasons, and even took his first pole in over five years in Austria in 2014, breaking Mercedes’ dominance that year.

Quite what the future holds for Massa remains unclear: WEC, Formula E, and even an ambassadorial role at Ferrari have all been suggested in the hours following his announcement.

One thing that is clear is the gap that Massa will leave in the paddock. A cheeky, cheery, classy chap, perhaps we could all do with being a bit more like ‘Felipe Baby’ (as his long-standing engineer Rob Smedley called him).

So thank you, Felipe. For showing an immense strength of character and resolve. For warming the paddock with your smile. For inspiring generations of future racers in Brazil. For acting with a level of dignity all-too-rare in modern-day sport.

Felipe Massa. The People’s Champion of F1.