Smith: Farewell, Felipe Massa – for real this time

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It is very rare for any elite athlete to get the chance to retire twice from their discipline, particularly in a business as unforgiving and cut-throat as Formula 1.

But in a simple video uploaded to his social media accounts on Saturday morning, Felipe Massa did exactly that, a little over a year from his first retirement announcement that was ultimately postponed after Nico Rosberg’s own decision to quit and Valtteri Bottas’ subsequent move to Mercedes.

Much as it was 12 months ago, Massa’s announcement was dignified and thankful with an eye very much on the future as he begins to plot for life after F1 in another racing series.

The feeling from fans was much the same: Massa has been a popular, warming and classy figure in F1 throughout his career, with few having a bad word to say about him. I penned a column on why he is the ‘people’s champion’ of F1 last year; there’s no need to say the same things again, because it is just as pertinent today.

But when Massa dropped today’s announcement, the predictable tongue-in-cheek tweets saying ‘we’ve heard this one before!’ and ‘not believing it until he’s not at pre-season testing’ came out. Yep, Felipe has retired again.

It is different this time though. Massa has taken control of the situation at Williams in order to bow out with grace and define his future, epitomizing his entire F1 career.

Massa wasn’t ready to bid farewell to F1 last year, explaining why his decision to return was so easy and straightforward to make. Williams made clear it wanted to put Lance Stroll in a seat, and with Valtteri Bottas experienced enough to lead the team, Massa was shuffled out.

Massa returned to F1 with a big smile on his face, particularly after getting his first taste of the 2017-spec cars that harked back to the high-downforce monsters from the early part of his career.

The results on-track have been so-so, with Massa sitting four points behind the rookie Stroll in the championship and recording a finish no higher than sixth – although Williams technical chief Paddy Lowe believes this is an unfair reflection of the intra-team battle.

“I don’t think we should dwell too much on the points in fairness to Felipe. He has actually had some major points losses that were not caused by him,” Lowe said in Mexico, as quoted by Crash.net.

“[In] Baku, a lot of people said it that day that ‘I could have won the race,’ but in Felipe’s case it genuinely was the case that if the car had not broken then he would have won the race.

“[In Mexico] it was a first corner contact so more unlucky, but Felipe has had a number of things like that and Lance far less so. It would be unreasonable to say that points reflect the full picture.”

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes on track during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Yet Massa is still finding himself on the way out after a season where internal team tensions have been seeping through the cracks of the Brazilian’s affable demeanor.

Massa always made clear he wanted to keep racing with Williams in 2018, but he had to feel wanted; he did not want to be a last resort for the team that was kept on for the sake of it. He’d already got his bonus year – why stick around if the team doesn’t really want you to?

There have been some big power shifts at Williams in the last 12 months, most notably via Stroll and the arrival of his significant financial backing that gives his family a big say in the goings-on at the team. Evidence of this came in the reported refusal to allow Robert Kubica to test at 2014-spec car at Suzuka in September.

Another big shift in the team’s management came with Lowe’s return to Williams, the team he started his F1 career with, as its new technical chief. Claire Williams remains a key figure as deputy team principal, continuing her father’s legacy, yet this is far from being a one-person team. There are plenty of figures having a say.

Massa’s most cryptic comments came in Malaysia, when he hinted that his on-track performances may have little say in saving his future at Williams.

“I was always a professional driver, and I stay and I will finish as a professional driver like I started my career. That is the most important thing for me, so the team knows what I can give,” Massa said.

“I would say definitely I have all the people that understand about motor racing on my side inside the team, engineers and everything. That’s what counts for me in the end.

“Then you have some other decisions that are not depending on the talent of the driver or what he can give to the team on the driving point of view. This is not up to me to say anything…”

The writing has been on the wall for Massa for some time now – but Williams refused to rule him out of the picture for 2018, insisting he was one of many, many options.

Williams certainly has the luxury of time given it holds the most attractive F1 seat still available for next season, but Massa always wanted a decision by the Brazilian Grand Prix. His emotional farewell to Interlagos last year was a rare, human moment in a sport often hidden behind race helmets and closed motorhome doors. To be denied the chance to do that would have been unfair on Massa, a driver who deserved so, so much better.

So that is why Massa’s second retirement announcement was different: it was a show of taking his future into his own hands, making clear he did not want to be kept hanging on when all the signs were he would not be retained.

He did not want to risk an awkward goodbye-without-a-label, such as that of Rubens Barrichello in 2011, or as Jenson Button almost had in 2014, where questions remained about their future that went unanswered until a later date.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 13: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams waves farewell to the Brazilian crowd during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Massa will now get the chance to say goodbye properly – and for good this time – to his home fans at Interlagos next weekend, with his final farewell to F1 coming two weeks later in Abu Dhabi.

It will not be a goodbye to racing, though. Massa has made clear he wants to do something next year, be it Formula E or DTM or sports car racing, or perhaps even Brazilian Stock Cars where Barrichello still races.

As for Williams? Its shortlist has just got a little bit shorter. Kubica is emerging as the strongest option, with sources indicating to NBC Sports he will feature in the post-Abu Dhabi Pirelli tire test, acting as a possible precursor to a 2018 race seat.

Kubica, meanwhile, would act as an excellent story for Williams, making it the team to deliver on a comeback most thought impossible after sustaining severe injuries to his right hand in a rally accident in 2011. It would be the team of focus through pre-season and at next year’s opener in Australia.

Paul di Resta is also in the running after his solid showing at late notice when replacing the unwell Massa in Hungary, while the likes of Pascal Wehrlein and Daniil Kvyat are also options.

None of the four front-runners are perfect. There’s a good case for Massa being a better pick than any of them.

Alas, we will instead be saying farewell to one of the paddock’s friendliest figures at the end of this month. Massa may be small in stature, yet his absence in 2018 will be glaring.

But he’ll get a send-off fitting of his achievements and contribution to F1 over the last 15 years – a proper goodbye and thank-you from the paddock that we feared may not happen.

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”