Sporting Life

For Felipe Massa, and his tribe, life is simply fast and furious

Felipe Massa thinks. Fast.

"374," he says.

For him, 374kmh, at Monza and Mexico, is the fastest he's ever gone, this easy-smiling, always-charming, modestly sized mechanical jockey who has just finished posing in front of a Martini backdrop at Marina Bay Sands on a Thursday evening.

For me, daily commuter on the lumbering Service 86 bus, the 374kmh is too fast to even comprehend. It's faster than a fighter jet taking off, it's 100kmh quicker than the fastest tennis serve and it's roughly 330kmh speedier than that Bolt dude. It's the world as a painted blur and it's plain ridiculous.

William Shakespeare once sensibly suggested in Romeo and Juliet, "Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast" but Massa, 36, leaves such advice in his rear-view mirror. Right now, he, winner of 11 grands prix, is standing still but, like rowers and bobsleighers, it's when he sits down that he does his finest and fastest work.

Massa, who drives for Williams Martini Racing, looks human but he and his visiting clan are possibly from a separate species: The swift society of the arguably sane for whom stopwatches were invented roughly two centuries ago. They are the heirs to people such as Dorothy Levitt, who held the women's land speed record in 1906 and reportedly said: "There is a feeling of flying through space. I never think of the danger. That sort of thing won't do."

Massa's life continues to be devoted to speed and decided by it. Inquire about the cars he owns and he'll tell you he has "some Ferraris" and a Porsche. Laughingly quiz him on speeding tickets and he finds that schoolboy smile and replies: "Sometimes it's quite difficult not to have. In the past for sure I had more. Now I follow more the rules."

Sport is obsessed with the idea of fast, from the velocity of feet on a track to the quickness with which weightlifters hoist a bar, from the acceleration of the gymnast attacking a vault to the assorted launch speeds of golf balls and baseballs.

But perhaps nowhere does fast mean so much as here, where billions of dollars are spent to find fractions of a second. Nowhere, either (well, motorcycling and horse racing aside), does fast come linked with such risk, for human limits are being challenged by helmeted people in thin-skinned vehicles.

After all, every now and then stuff happens. Stuff like crashes.

So what does it feel like to be in a crash at high speed? Do you know immediately there's a point that you're out of control?

"Yes, for sure. For sure when you lose the car."

"Maybe in the rain," Massa continues, "you lose the car, the car starts to spin, and you know you're going to crash, you have no control, you are a passenger."

He smiles.

"And then it's not good."

Fast is fascinating but also slightly problematic because so much is happening with drivers at speed that we can't tell.

Can't tell what they're thinking because they're not going to stop for us to read their body language.

Can't tell when they make a nuanced error, or as he says "sometimes your mistake people don't see but you know you make a mistake".

Can't always gauge their brilliant instincts, their feel for driving, like Massa just knowing, even in traffic, when a guy is going to turn even before he turns. Or as he says, his breed "understand things before they happen".

But what we can tell is that what they do is noisy, it's scary, it's stupefying, it's unpredictable. Which leads to this question: Did he always like speed?

"Yes".

You just want to go fast?

"I wanted to race (cars) ... I knew that since I was a kid".

Not just going fast but racing, going faster than the next man, or faster than he's ever been. Or as he explains: "You always have competition in your brain."

Ask him the best feeling, aside from winning, and he says: "Trying to finish in the best position your car can finish. Trying to take the best out of the car and the best out of you compared to your rivals." Even sixth place can be a triumph, if you've hit your corners perfectly, braked perfectly and gone as perfectly fast as your car will allow.

Massa's life continues to be devoted to speed and decided by it. Inquire about the cars he owns and he'll tell you he has "some Ferraris" and a Porsche. Laughingly quiz him on speeding tickets and he finds that boyish smile and replies: "Sometimes it's quite difficult not to have. In the past for sure I had more. Now I follow more the rules."

From today, on a track with no speed limit, only going slow is a sin. From today, his heart rate will rise and by tomorrow, at the start, it will be roughly 120.

He shrugs. "It's not so high."

But when the race begins, like everything else, it will go faster.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'For Massa, and his tribe, life is simply fast and furious'. Print Edition | Subscribe