Felipe 'Mr Nice Guy' Massa announced his retirement from Formula 1 on Tuesday. After 15 seasons, one of Brazil's favourite and most talented drivers decided that it was time for him to consider life outside the sport.
Was Massa's retirement expected? Somewhat, we'd say. Was it well timed? Yes, indeed. When you're an athlete performing at your peak, it is always difficult to call time on your career, because there's never a right time. For Massa, he chose the perfect moment; before waiting to be pushed over for a younger and possibly a pay driver.
The former Sauber, Ferrari and current Williams driver is unlike your regular Formula 1 driver. While fast and a bit ragged at times, Massa had the reputation of being soft and emotional — attributes that stayed with him despite the ups and downs the world of Formula 1 offered, and at times worked against his favour in a career that could otherwise be labeled as brave and illustrious.
He could also be dubbed as Formula 1's "most famous No 2 driver", after playing second fiddle to greats such as Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.
But Massa's career statistics — 11 wins, 41 podiums and 16 pole positions — should ideally include at least one drivers' championship. In our view, one that many would share, Felipe Massa is Formula 1's 'moral world champion' for the 2008 Formula 1 season — one of the sport's most closely contested championship races in the last decade or more.
In a thrilling end to that season, Hamilton snatched the title from Massa by overtaking Timo Glock on the last corner of the last lap of the last Grand Prix of the season, incidentally also in Brazil. Though Massa was 'world champion' for 20 seconds, that isn't where he lost it; it was in fact at the Singapore Grand Prix a few races earlier where Renault's match-fixing ways (dubbed 'crash gate') saw Massa lose the race and vital points to his championship rival. The cruel fate doesn't seem to be erased from Massa's memory, since he chose to mention this episode in his emotional press conference in Monza, the venue of this weekend's Italian Grand Prix.
As ironic as it may sound, in recent seasons, Formula 1 has been more cruel towards Mr Nice Guy than others. After his almost-win in 2008, Massa suffered a life threatening injury in 2009 (Hungary) that saw him miss seven races towards the end of the season before making a brave comeback in 2010, only to see Ferrari employ unfair team orders on him in Germany.
The radio message "Felipe, Fernando is faster than you" went on to become a career-long joke for Massa's critics, but it left near-permanent psychological scars for the driver till a surprise sign-up with the legendary Williams team in 2014 cheered him up.
Massa's stint at Williams has been unlike his last few years at Ferrari. A fresh start, if one could call it, saw Massa help Williams recover from a performance slump, a fact that Williams acknowledged in their farewell message. Since Massa's joining, Williams consistently fought and beat Ferrari and Red Bull Racing at least once and finished third in the Constructors' Championship.
A few standout performances that we will remember Massa for — the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he won at home in his first season for Ferrari and finished 24 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher. The qualifying session of the 2008 Monaco Grand Prix, a circuit that could be considered one of Massa's Achilles heel, where his old friend, confidant and race engineer Rob Smedly almost coached him to be brave and brake late, an advice that saw him out-qualify his then World Champion teammate Kimi Raikkonen, that too on a heavier fuel load. And finally, the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, a do-or-die race which Massa needed to win to clinch the drivers' championship and he did with much bravado in mixed weather conditions.
The "unlike a Formula 1 driver" tag would be true for Massa even more so now that there is good chance fans would remember him for his personality than his achievements. However, his retirement is well planned, for both the driver and his team.
At 35, Massa is one of the older drivers on the grid and there's almost no chance that a competitive cockpit would be available for 2017. The only option that was discussed in the paddock and could have been was Renault. But that too would've been for a medium-long tenure since the French team is in a re-building phase, and while they would benefit from Massa's experience, they would need him for at least three to five years, a timeline as we now know Massa might not have been comfortable with.
As for Williams, while they benefited immensely from Massa's experience (let's remember, he raced for Ferrari for eight seasons!), they were looking for a change for 2017 and it was only obvious that they would retain the younger Valtteri Bottas who was also equally matched to Massa.
In our view, if Bottas didn't get a call from a top team (and he was rumoured to replace Alonso and then Raikkonen at Ferrari a few years ago), it was probably because of Massa! The Finn only just managed to beat Massa (in the race) and if that was the case, why would Ferrari hire him?
For 2017, will Williams re-hire Jenson Button, who debuted with the team way back in 2000? Or would they hire the quick and heavily sponsored Sergio Perez from Force India? As a fan put it, it would be a case of spending on Button or earning from Perez.
As for Massa, he looks to complete 250 Grand Prix starts by the end of the season and there's talk that he could compete in a local Brazilian championship next year, much like his compatriot Rubens Barrichello. It isn't unusual to see former Formula 1 drivers continue to race in other (read slower) championships for fun and to be in touch with their steely selves!
If Formula E is able to sign Massa, it would be their first ever big-name name signing since its inception. And if none of these options appeal to Massa, maybe a stint on television as an 'F1 Pundit' would? And there is little doubt that the fans would love to see the little Brazilian do podium interviews!
Compatriot Felipe Nasr hasn't scorched the racetrack as expected and Brazilians will have to wait a bit longer before they can find Massa's successor. This also means that this season's Brazilian Grand Prix is going to be one helluva party and all eyes will be on Williams and if they're able to arrange for a send-off that'll match Ferrari's from 2013.
On that note, thank you, Felipe!
Here's hoping that his son, one of the most famous sons in the Formula 1 paddock and one who has already beaten the famous Daniel Ricciardo in a fun race at home, brings the Massa name back to the sport again!