<
>

Maurice Hamilton's memories of Felipe Massa

Sutton Images

I've enjoyed two interviews with Felipe Massa. One was at Vallelunga during a Ferrari test in late 2005 and the other at Williams just after he had joined nine years later. Inbetween, he had won 11 Grands Prix and come away with an acrylic plate attached within his forehead by titanium screws.

Escaping with his life from the freak accident in Hungary in 2009 brings a different kind of emotion to being World Champion for about 30 seconds at the end of the previous year. But both incidents were poignant nonetheless and actually define an impressive career. As he signals his intention to retire at the end of the year, it is just as important to note that Felipe Massa has remained the same likeable man whose dignity in defeat has been as touching as his passionate response to victory.

He may not go down in history as a F1 champion, but the records fail to show how much Massa deserved the title during that dramatic season racing against Lewis Hamilton. Hungary was bought and almost paid for when the engine broke; the scandalous Crashgate affair in Singapore robbed him of another win. 'Ifs' and 'Buts' may have no value in the annals of sporting history but the actions of Renault were significant enough to cause a quiet man to articulate firm feelings on the subject when we spoke.

"When you have a [mechanical] failure, it's part of the war; it's part of the team's war," said Massa. "But when you have a problem like Singapore, it's not part of our war. It's not inside the rules and, for me, that's really something you always remember -- more than what happened [on the final lap] at Interlagos. People talk about Renault but they forget very quickly about the effect outside that. For me, it was really a shame that the FIA didn't do anything at the time. That was not right." (The Safety Car caused by Nelson Piquet Jnr's crash altered the course of the race and prompted pit stops, from which Massa's Ferrari emerged dragging the fuel hose.)

Massa's refusal to use the expression 'bad luck' is tempered by the fact that he is actually here to consider it. When the spring dropped out of the rear of Rubens Barrichello's Brawn during qualifying in Hungary, Felipe knew no more about its treacherous path then than he does now when recalling the impact that came close to killing him.

"I don't remember anything, so I think that's good after a big accident like that," said Felipe. "That's the first thing. The second is that I appreciate life much more now. I understand that things can happen in a few seconds and possibly change everything. When you hear someone died in an accident, you never believe this can happen to you. Now I know it can happen to anyone. But it doesn't change the way you think when you're driving; when you're in the car, you don't think about the accident. If you do, you cannot drive."

Given the apparent ease with which Massa returned to the cockpit, it is easy to overlook the unspoken turmoil created by the wait to discover if his finely honed driving had been impaired. He had no doubt in his mind. But would the reality be different? With lap times allowing no place to hide, the answer was clear. But the hidden emotion attached to trying to win a race and tick the biggest box of all would be cruelly exposed at Hockenheim in 2010 when the infamous 'Fernando is faster than you' instruction hurt in an entirely different way to the wayward spring.

"Hockenheim was, for me, one of the difficult parts of my career," said Felipe. "I had enough possibilities to win and the team didn't allow me. Even more frustrating, this was on the same day one year on from my accident. For me, that was unacceptable. It was a very difficult moment. I have to say that was really the worst race of my life.

"I was asked later if I could have ignored the message. But I'm part of a team and I think you need to be professional. Because if I don't accept this and not let Fernando through, the team will do something to you after -- and nobody will know. You work for a company, you need to be professional, it's part of whatever a working guy needs to do. But it was not correct and, for me, the worst part was this being on the anniversary."

That moment will be expunged in the coming months and years by memories of a distinguished career marked by more than narrow-minded politicking. There will be plenty in the F1 paddock and in the wider world ready to take great pleasure if this cheerful little racer gets himself onto the podium between now and Abu Dhabi on 27 November.