A Tortured Psyche: The Felipe Massa Story

It is November, 2008.  On a damp and drying Interlagos circuit, you have navigated 70 laps of pure driving excellence, maintaining control of not only your car, but of your emotions.  You are in the lead, bearing down on the finish line on the 71st lap.  You are in front of your home crowd, and most important of all, at this very moment, you hold the championship lead.  Your adversary is struggling back in sixth place, seemingly throwing away his hopes of the 2008 Formula One World Championship.  All you have to do is stay in control and bring the car home.  That is it.

On that cloudy, drizzly day in November, that is precisely what Felipe Massa did.  He led magnificently from pole, and continued to lead until the checkered flag dropped.  All through the race, though, lurked the threat of Lewis Hamilton.  With the points lead, all the Briton needed was a 5th place to secure his first World Championship.  As luck would have it, at least in Massa’s situation, Hamilton was in 6th place on the last lap.

As Felipe crossed the finish line, he was World Champion, but celebrations could not begin quite yet.  Felipe had to wait to hear where Lewis finished, for Felipe’s Championship hinged on Lewis’s finishing place.  As Lewis Hamilton approached the final corner before the long main straight, he made a daring move on the inside of Timo Glock’s Toyota.  The world watched on the edge of their seats, waiting with baited breath, to see if the move would stick.  Much to the grief of Ferrari and Felipe Massa, the move did stick.  Felipe Massa was the 2008 Formula One World Champion for all of 30 seconds.  The despair on his face after the news of Lewis Hamilton’s triumph was enough to turn the most dedicated Mclaren fan into a blubbering mess.

The podium celebrations were the epitome of bittersweet.  Watching Felipe emphatically pound his chest towards the exalting crowd was a sight to behold, and one which will go down in Formula One history as one of the most moving moments.

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Surely, starting the 2009 season, Felipe Massa was shaken.  It would be monumental for anyone to get over the grief of that fateful day in November of 2008.  Regardless, Felipe was in the championship to fight for top honors.

Ferrari’s 2009 challenger, however, seemed to not be in it to win it.  Early on in the season, the Ferrari drivers struggled to even get into the points.  Felipe didn’t even score until the 5th round in Spain, with Felipe finally making it onto the podium in Germany.  Little did he know, that just a week later, his life would take a dramatic turn.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, as Felipe Massa was following the Rubens Barichello’s Brawn, a suspension component came loose from the latter’s car and struck the former in the face.  Felipe’s skull was immediately fractured and he went straight on into the barriers.  Felipe’s season was over on the spot.

While he was lucky to make a full recovery, Felipe once again experienced something which would surely turn anyone else off the sport.  Felipe, however, was not prepared to walk away just yet.

In 2010, Felipe returned to the sport in good spirits, ready to take on new teammate, two time world champion, Fernando Alonso.  It seemed Felipe was in the championship fight as he finished on the podium in the first two races.  He hadn’t, however, won a race by mid-season and his championship hopes were starting to dwindle.

Then came the German Grand Prix.  This race, like Brazil 2008, will go down in history, but for very different reasons.  Felipe was very much in control of the race, leading since the start.  However, with Alonso in a close second, Ferrari kept the championship in mind and ordered Felipe to move aside for their now preferred driver.  In 2010, team orders were illegal.  The fact that Felipe was told to give up a certain win took a huge toll on his psyche.  Some say Felipe was never the same driver after that race, his confidence in himself and his team seemingly shattered.

If you take a look at the two-and-a-bit years from the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix to the end of the 2010 season, there are three distinct confidence-shattering events: The championship loss, the near fatal injury, and the certain win robbery.  The fact that Felipe kept his spirits and motivation up for the next two years, to me, is remarkable.  It takes a special man to do that sort of thing and I don’t think this is recognized often enough.

2011 brought the season where Felipe started to crumble.  Never once in the 19 races, did he finish above 5th place.  He set one fastest lap as his takeaway from the season. Felipe scored less than half the points of his illustrious teammate and never showed the earth-shattering speed that the world became used to in 2008.  To make the season worse, a ‘rivalry’ developed between Felipe and Lewis Hamilton.  Throughout the second half of the season, the collisions and altercations between the two seemed to never cease.  These incidents started to expose the broken man that was Felipe at the time.  In Singapore, after a collision with Lewis, Felipe went up to the Briton during the post-race interviews and coldly ‘congratulated’ Lewis for his ‘good’ job in the race.  This burst of retaliation was an uncommon sight to many who had grown used to the calm and rational Brazilian.  The bursts of emotion were usually reserved for satisfaction.  2011 certainly ended on a sour note for Felipe.

Many were calling upon Ferrari to replace the struggling Brazilian for 2012, but the Italian squad remained loyal to Felipe and kept him for the upcoming season.  They did warn him, however, that he would need to up his game considerably.

Taking this ‘advice’ into consideration, 2012 couldn’t have begun worse.  Along with the F2012, Ferrari’s car, being uncompetitive, Felipe was uncompetitive himself.  He scored just over 20 points by the summer break while his teammate enjoyed a 40-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship.  Most of the F1 world was calling for Felipe’s immediate sacking, but Ferrari kept him on.  Results started to come, however, after problems with the car were being sorted.  In Japan, he made his first return to the podium since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, and even made it to the podium in Brazil.  This final podium was particularly emotional as, once again, tears started pouring from the resilient Brazilian’s eyes.

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So, over the 5 Formula One seasons spanning from 2008 to 2012, there were 4 major, and a couple minor, incidents that severely shook Felipe Massa’s confidence.  The Brazilian’s determination to push through was superhuman, as most would have left the sport before this point. For 2013, Felipe has played up his confidence level, saying that he hopes to fight for wins and the Championship.  Whether this is possible or whether the team will even let that happen remains to be seen. However, in many people’s eyes and hearts, the sweet, happy, but fiercely tough Brazilian that is Felipe Massa is already a champion.

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