Farewell the brave Brazilian who came so close to being world champion

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INJURY and misfortune failed to quell the enthusiasm of Brazilian GP maestro Felipe Massa, who bowed out of the driver’s seat at Abu Dhabi. PETER COSTER recalls his fabulous career:

FELIPE MASSA, the little man who nearly was, started his Formula One career at the Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park in the first race of the season in 2002. He retired at the last race of the season this year at Abu Dhabi.

There were no tears this time. They had been shed last year when he drove his last race, only to re-sign with Williams after teammate Valtteri Bottas moved on to Mercedes.

The emotional Brazilian driver won 11 Grands Prix, was on pole 16 times and stood on the podium at 41 races. He was brilliant at times, but erratic in his early career and after crashing out in Melbourne on the first lap in a Sauber, he was dropped the next year when he became a test driver for Ferrari.

The next year he was back at Sauber and in 2006 joined Michael Schumacher at Ferrari.

Felipe Massa before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. Pic: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Felipe Massa before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. Pic: Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

Two years later, the little Brazilian was so nearly world champion. He won the Brazilian Grand Prix amid scenes of ecstatic celebration.

Massa had to win to become world champion and needed Lewis Hamilton to finish no better than sixth.

Pandemonium broke out as Massa’s Ferrari passed the chequered flag but turned to disbelief as Hamilton passed fifth-placed German driver Timo Glock on the last corner.

Commentators joked that Timo Glock was an Irish driver, Tim O’Glock, but no-one was laughing in the Ferrari pits and there were calls in Spanish newspapers for Glock, German or Irishman, to be thrown out of Formula One.

Glock said he had to let Hamilton pass because he needed to change to wet tyres and there was another car in the pits.

Massa bore it all with dignity. He might not have won the world championship, but he had won his home Grand Prix. Points over 18 races that year decided the championship. Hamilton won by the slimmest of margins, although he had won only five GPs to Massa’s six.

Massa has endured as a driver, returning to Grand Prix racing following a devastating crash at the Hungaroring in 2009 when his visor was split by a hurtling suspension spring from another car.

He hit the tyre wall head-on at nearly 300 kmh and was taken to hospital with a fractured skull. The next year he was back for the opening race at Bahrain although his victory in the previous year’s Brazilian race was to be his last.

He finished second to new teammate Fernando Alonso in Bahrain and beat Alonso into third place at the following Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.

Many thought the Hungarian crash, which also nearly cost him the sight of his left eye, diminished him as an elite driver.

Massa qualified 10th on the grid at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago and was in the top 10 at Albert Park in his first race in Formula One. One of the oldest drivers in F1 at the age of 36, the little Brazilian had 269 starts.

In what so nearly was his championship year in 2008, he qualified on pole at Monaco, a circuit he said he didn’t like, but pit stops saw him finish third behind Polish driver Robert Kubica and Lewis Hamilton.

 

Kubica, who was badly injured in a crash in a rally car in 2011, which almost severed his arm, is now attempting a comeback to Formula One as Massa leaves.

Kubica, who won the Canadian Grand Prix in 2008 and was regarded as a future star, is attempting what he said after his crash was “nearly impossible.”

His right arm was close to being amputated. Think of the difference in Roger Federer’s arms after hitting millions of tennis balls. His non-serving arm looks almost withered. Kubica has tested for his old team, Renault. They say the 32-year-old is up to speed but how his arm will stand up to a two-hour Grand Prix, perhaps at the 2018 season-opener in Melbourne, is yet to be seen.

Daniel Ricciardo will be in a Red Bull in Melbourne in March before deciding where he might go when his contract ends at the end of 2018.

He might move earlier if there is a change at either Mercedes or Ferrari. That seems unlikely although possible. Lewis Hamilton is said to be certain to stay at Mercedes where Valtteri Bottas has a year to run on his contract.

Sebastian Vettel will stay at Ferrari with half of a $50 million a year contract still to be picked up. Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen is still picking up podiums but at 38 may decide it’s near time to go

Red Bull has quickly re-signed wonder-boy Max Verstappen, who has largely outqualified Ricciardo, although not at Abu Dhabi where the Australian was heading for a podium finish before a puncture after hitting the barriers and a subsequent hydraulic problem put him out of the race.

“So where do things stand?” asks Ricciardo in his column on Red Bull’s website. “The short answer is that there’s absolutely no rush and things can take as long as they take. I’m not setting a deadline for anyone else’s sake, or just to get it done for me.”

Red Bull, apart from being mad about Max, wants Ricciardo in a Red Bull until at least 2020 and has said so.

Just to finish on Massa, for those who might think Formula One cars are driven only by excessively rich and ego-driven young men, the little Brazilian is a doting dad. At the driver line-up at Abu Dhabi, his eight-year-old son suddenly ran to join his father, wrapping his arms around him. The smile on Massa’s face was broader than it might have been had he won the race.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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