Sport does a really bad job of remembering those who finish second, even when their defeat is dealt by the smallest of margins. However, Felipe Massa is somewhat of an exception, having been one half of a 2008 world championship tussle that will surely be remembered as long as racing cars lap racing circuits.
Last week, Massa announced that the final two races of the 2017 season will be his last in Formula 1. A familiar position following his announcement last season that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign, only to be recalled just weeks later as Williams needed a late replacement for the Mercedes-bound Bottas.
With Massa already setting his sights on other categories, the chances of a second return to F1 range between slim and none. All-out for 15 years at the pinnacle of motorsport, 11 victories, 41 podiums and a starring role in the most dramatic sporting spectacle F1 will likely ever host.
It is impossible to talk about Massa’s F1 journey without noting 2008. By far, his most impressive season in which he won six races – seemingly clinching the championship on home turf with a dominant win in the showdown at Interlagos. Moments later, Lewis Hamilton passed Timo Glock at the final corner of the final lap to steal the title and break Brazilian hearts.
He may not have earned the biggest trophy, but Massa earned a hoard of fans that day. His demeanour on the podium was one of remarkable sporting dignity. Losing the championship by a single point in those circumstances would have seen lesser sportsmen and women crumble.
Massa’s defiant slap of the Ferrari badge on his chest while trying – and failing – to hold back the tears is one of the most powerful images F1 has produced this century.
Motorsport loves a ‘what if’ scenario. The 2008 season is littered with examples of where the championship evaded Massa. His engine failure when he was just four laps from victory in Hungary is a race that is often forgotten despite its significance in the eventual championship outcome.
Massa himself instead cites Singapore as the moment that the championship swung. In the eye of the ‘crash-gate’ storm, Massa pitted during the Nelson Piquet Jr-induced safety car period and crucially left his pit-box with the fuel hose still attached. He fell to the back of the field and finished the evening 13th. It was another race in which he could have claimed maximum points.
Had these events produced a different outcome, the entire F1 landscape would look very different. Fans opinions of Massa and potentially his standing at Ferrari upon the arrival of Fernando Alonso in 2010, would have been very different.
Similarly, had he not suffered life-threatening head injuries during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009, it remains to be seen what he would have achieved. The incident meant he missed the remainder of the season and his career stalled at the worst time – immediately prior to the arrival of Alonso to the team.
It is not as though Massa had not faced juggernaut team-mates in the past. He had previously shared a garage with Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen and fared better than pundits anticipated against both. However, Alonso was a clearly marked number one driver and defined as such by the events of the 2010 German Grand Prix.
“Fernando is faster than you” set the tone for the remainder of Massa’s Ferrari tenure. After being unceremoniously robbed of victory at Hockenheim – a scenario which Massa again conducted with unrivalled dignity – he was never again in a position to add to his win tally while wearing red.
Post-Ferrari, his time at Williams has posed challenges, with the only highlights coming in the team’s breakthrough 2014 season. Massa’s pole position at Austria was a popular shock. During a battling drive at Canada and at the season finale at Abu Dhabi, Massa looked capable of victory for the first and only occasions post-2010.
Despite a handful of quiet seasons in which to conclude his career, Massa remains one of F1’s most underrated drivers. He has battled Schumacher and Raikkonen in the same machinery and provided the sternest of tests to Lewis Hamilton – a driver regarded by many as the greatest talent of his generation – in which he was defeated by the narrowest of margins.
Massa is one of sport’s ‘nearly men’. While no one remembers the guy who finished second, fans will remember Massa’s career. His determination, fighting spirit, and unrivalled dignity make him one of the most popular drivers of his generation and on his day, one of the fastest to match.
He will probably pick up a fan-boost of two in Formula E. I doubt he would need it anyway.