With his (second) home farewell now behind him and one more race to go, the time is nigh for Felipe Massa to finally close the curtains on his career in Formula 1 – and what a career it was.
With 11 wins (27th all-time), 16 poles (19th), and 41 podiums (21st) to his name, there’s no denying his place in F1 history, but perhaps more than any other modern driver, to reduce Massa to his results is to do him a grave injustice.
Since debuting as a 20-year-old in 2002 with Sauber, Massa has run into more obstacles than most of the grid combined, and it has been only through a singular perseverance and fighting spirit that he has been able to clear them. Indeed, looking back at his career, the highs and lows he’s had to deal with makes for one hell of a list:
- After enduring an erratic rookie season, he was dropped by Sauber for 2003. Returning in 2004, he raced for another two seasons with the team before BMW bought them and brought in Nick Heidfeld to replace him
- Signing with Ferrari for 2006, he scored his first win at that year’s Turkish GP, but mostly spent the first two years playing second fiddle to Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen. In 2008 he surprised everyone when he out-performed the Finn, taking six wins, and would have won the title had Lewis Hamilton not passed Timo Glock on the last corner of the last lap of the last race
- In 2009, his season was cut short when he suffered a life-threatening injury in qualifying for the Hungarian GP, after a loose spring from the Brawn of Rubens Barrichello struck him in the head. He would sit out the remainder of the season
- Fit in time for the start of the 2010 season, he was partnered with Fernando Alonso, who was immediately installed as the team’s number one driver. Most infamously, this lead to Massa having to concede his lead in that year’s German GP to Alonso after ‘coded’ team orders from his engineer, Rob Smedley. He would remain win-less until being dropped by the team after the 2013 season
- Making his way to Williams for 2014, he was partnered with Valtteri Bottas, and largely held his own against the highly-regarded Finn, while also recording the team’s only pole to date in the V6-turbo era, at the 2014 Austrian GP
- In a decision that was perhaps not completely of his own volition, he announced his retirement at the end of the 2016 season, but was granted a reprieve after Bottas left for Mercedes, and Williams’ sponsors Martini required the team have a 25-or-older driver to partner newcomer Lance Stroll. 2017 has seen him comfortably out-pace the young Canadian, and yet at 36, he is once again hanging up his boots
If you wanted to make a movie about an F1 personality, you couldn’t do it for Massa – you’d need at least a few seasons on television at least. That said, the standout for most people is undoubtedly the double-whammy of the 2008 title loss and 2009 injury.
It’s not even really an argument when discussing the worst heartbreaks in F1’s 67-year history – Massa takes the cake. On top of that, as gruesome as it was, his head injury is probably still underrated – as any boxer will tell you, it’s hard to come back from a ‘one-punch’ knockout, and those that do are rarely the same afterwards.
Despite it all, Massa has somehow maintained his easygoing demeanour, and taken his lumps with the sort of quiet grace rarely seen in any sportsmen, but especially F1 drivers. As such the reception he received in Brazil was completely unsurprising, and it’s clear the adoration of his fans is only matched by the respect of his peers.
If Abu Dhabi is to be the Brazilian’s last race, it will be an end to a story that is unique in F1 lore. The results say Massa will always be a nearly man, as famous for what he didn’t do as what he did, and yet it doesn’t matter.
Felipe Massa is a winner at life, and that is the only result that matters.