In Good Conscience

Humble Massa has had the highs, lows and pain of losing the title

In a sport where hubris often wins the day, Felipe Massa will go down as the most humble of racing drivers.

He chose to announce his impending retirement at Monza this week because it is a symbolic and favoured place to him; the circuit where he learned, 10 years ago to the day, that Michael Schumacher was stepping down so a seat in the scarlet Ferrari was freed up for him.

There were tears in his eyes - and in some journalists' - when Massa made the announcement that he will retire at the end of this season.

Maybe it is wrong for Formula One drivers to tempt fate by naming the date of their retirement in advance, as Massa did with eight races to go.

But the Brazilian is as emotional, as decent and as honest as it gets in the cut-throat business of F1. He is 35. The reflexes, and the burning desire to push the limits get no sharper from this point on.

Massa has been outperformed in the Williams cars by the much younger Finnish racer, Valtteri Bottas, over the second half of this season. Time to go, with no regrets.


Felipe Massa.

Well, a few perhaps.

"I am still a happy and serene person," Massa wrote on Thursday in his personal column for motorsport.com.

He reflected back to 2008, the year when he came within one point, one final bend, of being world F1 champion.

Massa won that race, on his home track in Sao Paulo but then, 15 seconds behind him, Lewis Hamilton overtook the ailing Toyota of Timo Glock.

Hamilton finished fifth that day. But fifth gave him the title and stopped the dance of celebration by Massa's father in the pit lane dead in its tracks.

Felipe, the boy he had encouraged from the age of eight to race go-karts, was never so close to winning the F1 title again.

There are many who perceive Massa to be too nice, too accommodating to be a team leader. His pace was not in question, but he perhaps lacked the ruthless edge, the domineering characteristic, that made Alonso the front-line driver.

The regret isn't Sao Paulo, or that final bend.

It isn't even the accident in Hungary the next year when a piece of flying debris, a suspension spring off the car of his countryman Rubens Barrichello, penetrated Massa's helmet, fractured his skull, coming perilously close to killing him.

His condition was first described in hospital as "life-threatening". But he survived, doctors saved the sight in his left eye and put a titanium plate in his skull.

Massa raced again, though never as a winner, and ultimately unfulfilled as the first Brazilian since Ayrton Senna to be world champion.

But if that freak accident in Budapest (of which he had no explicit recall whatsoever) was not the worst memory, what could be?

"I remember very well when I learned what happened at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix," he wrote this week. "And I am referring to Crashgate.

"Without that incident I probably would have won the world championship, and I know that I didn't make it for reasons that are not related to a driver error or a team problem.

"What happened in Singapore I learned much later, so it is more difficult to accept."

You might remember it too.

"Crashgate" was highway robbery of the most despicable kind.

It happened at Turn 17, in front of the floating platform at Marina Bay. It was a crash that was later confirmed to be a deliberate act of deceit.

Nelson Piquet Jr, also Brazilian, was ordered to crash out there by his Renault team managing director Flavio Briatore and director of engineering Pat Symonds so that team-mate Fernando Alonso could gain time advantage under pit stop and yellow car conditions.

Alonso won the race.

It took the racing authorities a year to kick out the plotters. But it took no time at all to relegate Massa, who started on pole that day, to the back of the field after he left the pits on lap 14 with a fuel hose momentarily still attached.

The instant justice meted out to Massa because of human or mechanical error ruined his race and his lifetime ambition. Hamilton, who finished third in that Singapore race, snatched the title by that solitary point at the end of the season.

As fate would have it, Massa was joined at Ferrari by Alonso in 2010. And, though a milder infamy, Massa was so clearly relegated to No. 2 driver in the scarlet team that he was ordered by coded radio instruction to give way to Alonso in a race in Germany that season.

"Ok, so, Fernando is faster than you," the race engineer informed Massa. "Can you confirm you understand that message."

In effect, it was a team order, even though those were banned at the time.

There are many who perceive Massa to be too nice, too accommodating to be a team leader. His pace was not in question, but he perhaps lacked the ruthless edge, the domineering characteristic, that made Alonso the front-line driver.

Massa's eventual release from Ferrari after eight seasons led him to Williams at the end of 2013.

"We were in dire straits," said Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the English company built up by her father Frank.

"Felipe has been a big part of the success we had over the last three years, not just with his talent but with his personality.

"He's what we love at Williams - a true gentleman. We were so lucky he honoured us to come and drive for us."

An honourable man. A family man whose son Felipinho, six, is already a racing "champion" in a charming home-made YouTube video.

His dad has yet to decide where he will get his thrills from here on in. God willing, Massa will compete in Singapore for one last time two weeks from now.

After that, in November, the emotional farewell to his home track in Sao Paulo. And beyond that, Abu Dhabi, and tchau (goodbye, in Brazilian) to racing's modern gentleman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'Humble Massa has had the highs, lows and pain of losing the title'. Print Edition | Subscribe