Man with unshakeable belief

Published : Mar 14, 2009 00:00 IST

Ferrari’s Brazilian driver is over the heartbreak he felt when he had the F1 title snatched from his grasp in his home town in last year’s final race. By Donald McRae.

In the silence of the desert at night, after a long day in which his bright-red Ferrari has screamed around an empty track with piercing intensity, Felipe Massa allows the hush to settle. Apart from a distant garage, containing a muted babble of Italian voices as Massa’s engineers work on his new car, the beautiful F60, the Bahrain International Circuit is deserted. Massa’s team-mate, the elusive Kimi Raikkonen, is already back in Europe, while the rest of the pits are closed as Ferrari’s rivals carry out their own secretive tests at different tracks around the world.

“I like this time, when it’s quiet at night,” Massa murmurs, rubbing a face lined by the fatigue of testing over a hundred laps alone in the heat of his cramped cockpit. “And it’s beautiful, no?” the engaging Brazilian says as he looks up at a pale moon rising over the desert.

Massa has won in Bahrain the last two years but his mind locks on the pain of his most recent victory. In November last year, he won the Grand Prix which means most to him, at his home track of Interlagos in Sao Paulo, and yet he lost the drivers’ championship in a heartbreaking way to Lewis Hamilton.

On the last corner of the last lap of the very last race of the year, his British rival overtook Timo Glock’s Toyota to move into the fifth place which secured him the title. It provided a twist of fate as euphoric for Hamilton as it was cruel for Massa.

“In my opinion,” Massa says with a poignant little smile, “the championship is always supposed to finish like that. Last race, last lap, last corner. I think it was already signed. It was very crazy, very historic. I’m going to have the rest of my life ahead but, for sure, I cannot forget. I don’t think anybody will ever forget.”

Even now, with a faraway gaze, Massa looks like he is back in his Ferrari as he relives that haunting race. “The championship was the most important thing but I wanted to win the race first. I led from pole and I was cruising around. And then, with two laps to go, my engineer Rob Smedley said that Sebastian Vettel has passed Hamilton and Glock.”

In the rain the championship was destined for the Brazilian unless, somehow, Hamilton could get past Glock — the only driver to have remained on dry-weather tyres — to finish fifth. Massa remembers the gripping sequence of events vividly.

“In the last lap Rob said, ‘OK, calm down, just bring the car home.’ And when I won I didn’t know what to believe. Was I champion or not? I knew something unpredictable was going to happen. It was like I was in a big bubble. I was driving around the track and I could see people were screaming and jumping up and down. But I was not quite sure what it means. It was very unreal. It was insane.”

Massa hesitates, as if even now he cannot quite believe what happened. A small and slight man, he runs his fingers through his dark hair. “This is very difficult to put into words. It was a mess. No one knew what was happening. And then suddenly Rob came on the radio to say, ‘Hang on, Hamilton is challenging Glock.’ And then Hamilton was past. But even as he said it the message from Rob was not 100% clear.

“And then he told me, it was over. Hamilton was fifth. For me the only thing that mattered was that I had lost the championship. So, the frustration comes out of me, and the tears. I am crying inside my helmet — because I lost while winning one of the most special races ever, in my home town.”

Massa’s face lights up with all his warmth and humanity when asked how he coped with such tumult. “I went out and got pissed — in the circumstances what else are you going to do?”

In the often anodyne world of contemporary Formula One, where drivers can appear even more mechanical than their cars, Massa’s honesty and humour explain why he is the most well-adjusted, and likable, man on the grid. So how long has it taken him to recover?

“I was already OK the next day. For sure I didn’t sleep that first night but in a strange way it was a positive thing for my personal life. You learn a lot in this kind of situation. Sometimes, in a different way, I think it maybe could have been too much — to win the title at the very end in Brazil. What would have happened to me?”

It’s likely that Massa would have been just as gracious in victory as he was in defeat, especially as he appears so deeply philosophical. “I really believe that if you deserve something then one day you will get it. Lewis got what he was supposed to get — maybe because of what happened in 2007 (when Hamilton lost that year’s championship in the very last race, again in Brazil, by a single point). Maybe he was in credit with the good luck in 2008. Maybe this season the good luck will finally come to me.”

Massa does not demur when it is suggested that, as they made so obvious last year, the vast majority of his fellow drivers will be hoping he beats Hamilton this season. Did he feel their support on the grid? “Yes,” he exclaims gleefully before quickly lowering his voice. “Yes, I think so. I was very happy. They were supporting me because I always respect everybody. I always respect my team and my competitors. I never had problems with anybody.”

Whereas Hamilton is different? Massa smiles knowingly. “Even when I had problems with somebody, afterwards it was fine. When I had a problem with (Fernando) Alonso (whose relationship with Hamilton has always been acrimonious) I saw him face to face. He said sorry and it was fine.”

Hamilton is less warm and open — and he has been accused of arrogance. “Not going into it too much,” Massa murmurs, “I was quite happy to see that the other drivers were supporting me.”

Has he got to know Hamilton as a person? “Hmmmm,” Massa muses. “Not 100%. But in a way yes …”

Does he like Hamilton? “I think he’s OK. In GP2 he was racing for my manager’s team but, for sure, I don’t have so much experience with him after he came to F1. Some people change. I don’t know if he has changed a lot in his normal life. I don’t have so much experience of him to say.”

His brilliance, however, is indisputable. Massa concedes he was surprised by Hamilton’s debut season when he reached the podium in his first nine races. “It was clear that what he did in GP2 meant he had a great potential to become a world champion. But he did it much quicker than any of us expected. I think this year is going to be even more interesting.”

This season’s opening Grand Prix in Melbourne (March 29) is not many days away and, with so many technical modifications adding uncertainty to the exceedingly tight rivalry between Massa and Hamilton, the Brazilian needs a much better start than in recent years. “It’s strange because I always have problems in Australia. Last year neither Ferrari finished the race, and the year before that I had some engine problems in qualifying and I started at the back. I had a good race and I finished sixth but that showed — even when I score points in Australia I have problems.”

Massa might have won more than anyone last season, with six victories compared to Hamilton’s five, but he still finished one point behind in the championship. His failure to feature in the top eight in either of the first two races ultimately cost him the title. “My wife (Rafaela) is always helping me but after the last race in Brazil she was more depressed than me. I had to cheer her up — and not just her but my whole family and many people.”

His positive fatalism is evident even when he describes how he met Rafaela in the midst of a personal crisis. “I’d just been fired,” he says, his eyes glinting in amusement. “If I hadn’t been fired from Sauber at the end of my first season (in 2002) maybe I would not even have met her. Who knows? I was back home in Brazil and I went to a friend’s house at the beach. This guy was going out with a girl and she was a friend of Rafaela. When I met her I was not happy, because (losing his job) was a big step down for me but she helped me.”

At 27 Massa is candid enough to concede that he was badly shaken after Sauber sacked him. “It made me doubt myself. Peter Sauber made this decision just when I started to be much better. It was my first season but I improved very much and became stronger than my team-mate (Nick) Heidfeld. I didn’t deserve to be fired.”

Yet, without a team in 2003, Massa became a test driver for Ferrari. It was then, as he impressed Michael Schumacher, that Massa turned his career round. “Sauber had a bad championship the year after they fired me and so if I had stayed it would have not been so good. Sometimes life does these things to you because it’s the right thing. You think it’s wrong, initially, but life proves different.”

Sauber rehired him for the next two seasons before, in 2006, he opted to return to Ferrari. “It was funny. My decision to leave Sauber made them very disappointed. Peter Sauber was pushing very hard for me to sign but, this time, the choice was mine.”

In the same way that despair at Sauber led him to Ferrari and his wife, Massa is convinced the anguish of last season might yet result in the sweetest redemption. “Some things are just written. I’m not the kind of guy who will blame other people if things don’t work out. I also don’t have a problem in showing my feelings. That’s why I could cry after I lost the championship — but I know that, if it is written, it will happen differently one day. This is how life works.”

Later that night, speeding through the moonlit desert, my taxi driver lamented Massa’s fate last season. Dressed in pristine white traditional Arab dress the agitated cabbie put his foot down as he pondered the way in which victory had been snatched from the Brazilian. “I cried for Massa,” he said. “We all cried for him in Bahrain.”

I looked out of the dusty cab window and thought of my last hour with Massa. He did not seem like a man in need of our tears. He had his beautiful new red car and his unshakable belief. The sky was black — but for the glittering constellations above our heads. I could imagine Massa looking up and thinking that the rest of his life, and his future victories, were already written in those very same stars.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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