In the eyes of the public, Felipe Massa isn’t considered to be one of the top drivers and is rarely ever tipped to win a race. In fact, the last time the Brazilian did win a race was back in 2008 at his home track Interlagos (São Paulo), where he narrowly missed out on becoming the World Champion.
Like his close friend Rubens Barrichello, Felipe is often considered as one of the best drivers to compete under second driver terms, but it was only in 2007 and 2008 where he really begun to show what he was capable of. His first pole and win actually came before this, as he dominated the weekend at Turkey in 2006. That same year, Felipe drove an outstanding race after going from 21st to 5th during the Malaysian Grand Prix – his team-mate Schumacher who had qualified 14th only managed 6th place.
He’s had some tough team-mates to compete with like: Nick Heidfeld, Michael Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jacques Villeneuve, but he’s more commonly known to start alongside Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.
In 2007 Felipe took 6th place during the Australian Grand Prix after starting from way back down the field in 22nd. He later took pole positions in Bahrain and Spain and converted them both into race wins. A 3rd place in Monaco put him 3rd in the championship standings behind both the McLaren’s of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. He then achieved 3 more podium finishes in the USA, France and the Nurburgring (European GP) but so had Lewis and Fernando and he was still 3rd in the standings.
It looked like the championship was going to one of the McLaren drivers, but Kimi Raikkonen then started to put in some impressive results and by the closing round in Brazil there was just 7 points separating the top three (Hamilton, Alonso, Raikkonen). Felipe looked like he was going to win his home race after starting from pole position, but crucially Hamilton was starting 2nd in front of Raikkonen. Hamilton dropped down the order, and it was looking more and more likely that Raikkonen could win the championship – Massa later yielded to let the Finn take the victory and the championship, but unfortunately for both McLaren’s they finished just a point away from taking the title.
The next year however was Massa’s time to shine. Fernando had moved back to Renault after a tough time partnering Hamilton at McLaren, and Massa was more determined to get to the top. Felipe had to retire from the first two races, which gave Hamilton a head start over him. Felipe won races in Bahrain, Turkey and France and was soon back on track to fight for the title. Back to back wins in Valencia and Belgium were making Felipe a big contender and the passion he was showing was overwhelming.
He then won his home grand prix in Brazil but Hamilton had done just enough to take back the title – just a point ahead of Felipe. The podium was extremely emotional, and it’s one that I’ll never forget witnessing. Sometimes I feel like the emotion of Formula 1 has drifted away as the political side takes over, and then I look at Felipe, who reminds me that it is still there.
In 2009 the new Brawn GP car and Red Bull Racing started to dominate the races and the McLaren’s and Ferrari’s seemed to lack the pace that they’d previously shown. It saw Jenson Button take the championship, and to the present day Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have dominated the results.
At the Hungarian Grand Prix in ’09, Felipe had a big accident after a spring had hit his helmet through a high speed part of the track. He subsequently hurled into the tyre wall, and had to be air lifted to the nearest hospital. He wasn’t able to take part for the rest of the reason due to the extent of his injuries and Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella filled in his vacated seat. He did appear at the Brazilian Grand Prix as he waved the chequered flag that saw Button crowned champion.
Ever since then, the Felipe I knew seemed to vanish and an unknown factor started to creep in. The confidence was lost, the ability to have faith in his car was gone, and it soon became evident that Felipe had been mentally affected by the accident. The fierce battle with Hamilton in 2011 put them both under some serious pressure, and both drivers didn’t have the best of seasons.
Despite all of the above, he’s still putting in good results, and though he may not be winning races, and may not be the most competitive driver on the grid, he is still doing what he loves – racing. He’s shown brief encounters of the way he used to drive, but nothing at all comparable to the days of ’07 and ’08. The glimmer in his eyes and his ‘special relationship’ with Rob Smedley are what his fans admire him for; that and his determination to keep going.