Felipe Massa no doubt allowed himself to daydream about how his final Brazilian Grand Prix would play out.
Would he score points? Would he make the podium? Would he – whisper it – go out and win the thing?
Whatever was swirling in his mind before the race in his home city of Sao Paulo, the very last thing he would have wanted was a retirement – yet that is exactly what he got.
But in a weird and wonderful way, that was perhaps the best thing that could have happened, because what followed was one of the most heart-warming sights ever witnessed in this usually hard-headed and ruthless sport.
On lap 48 of 71, Massa’s Williams crashed on the pit straight and retired on the spot. Crestfallen, the Brazilian climbed from his broken car to be greeted by a wall of applause and cheering from the home crowd.
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He broke down in tears as he walked back to the pits draped in the Brazilian flag – cheers ringing in his ears throughout – and then members of other teams, including Mercedes and his old employers Ferrari, walked out of their garages and gave him a guard of honour.
Then came an embrace from his wife and young son Felipe Jr, and the tears came anew.
Massa will officially retire from F1 after next weekend’s season-finale in Abu Dhabi, but his goodbye to the sport has already happened.
Nothing will top Interlagos.
Why does F1 love Massa?
Rewind to 2002 and, to be blunt, there was not a great deal to excite your average fan when presented with a new 20-year-old F1 driver named Felipe Massa.
A former Italian and European Formula Renault champion, and the reigning Euro Formula 3000 champion, Massa was nevertheless a largely unknown quantity when he was handed a Sauber drive after impressing in a test session at Mugello, Italy.
While team owner Peter Sauber was in no doubt about Massa’s “remarkable” potential, to outside observers he appeared just another erratic F1 rookie. Quick, yes, but ragged. Sauber even sat him out of a race late in the season after he incurred the wrath of the FIA for a wild move on Pedro de la Rosa at the Italian Grand Prix.
When Peter Sauber shuffled him out of the team to spend 2003 testing with engine supplier Ferrari, some undoubtedly presumed that was the end of Massa in F1.
How wrong they were.
Re-signed by Sauber for 2004, Massa’s career began to flourish. He proved more than a match for the highly-rated Giancarlo Fisichella in that first season, and then the following year he outscored his new team-mate – 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, no less.
And then came the defining moment of his career. A call from Ferrari. They wanted him as one of their drivers for 2006. His team-mate? Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
Opportunities and challenges do not come much bigger.
Eight seasons followed as a Ferrari driver, delivering 11 wins and 36 podium finishes, yet the affection that those inside and outside the sport grew to feel for the Brazilian in this period was never going to defined by numbers.
It was instead shaped by three of the most famous moments in recent F1 history – two extraordinary near misses and one infamous radio instruction.
1. Agony in Interlagos
The story of the final corner, of the final lap of the final race of the 2008 F1 season has been told ad nauseam, so let’s be brief here and focus on its impact.
For starters, 2008 was never meant to be about Felipe Massa. His Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was the reigning champion and it was to him that the sport was looking when assessing Ferrari’s chances that season.
Yet Raikkonen’s title defence quickly faltered, and instead it was Massa who bubbled to the surface.
He was, of course, a race winner by this point, picking up two victories in 2006 – including a memorable home win in Brazil – and three in 2007. But 2008 elevated him to another league.
By the final race in Brazil he and Lewis Hamilton were tied on five race wins each but the Briton had a seven-point lead in the standings. To take the title, Massa had to win and hope Hamilton finished sixth or lower.
Under enormous pressure, Massa did exactly what was required, and with Hamilton down in precisely sixth place as he crossed the finish line, Massa, his family and the Brazilian nation celebrated wildly for a few glorious seconds only to then face the devastating realisation that Hamilton had sneaked fifth place in the final metres.
The outpouring of sympathy was immediate – and when Massa took to the podium just minutes later, tears in his eyes and beating his chest, his place in the affections of all but the most flint-hearted of F1 fans was secure.
2. A freak accident at the Hungaroring
Nine months later and 6,000 miles away, Massa experienced misfortune of another magnitude entirely when he was lucky to survive a freak accident in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
With that year’s Ferrari having fallen behind its rivals, a world championship challenge was a distant dream for Massa and he was instead fighting more often than not at the blunt end of the top 10.
But his frustrating 2009 season was about to come to an abrupt halt.
During the second segment of qualifying at the Hungaroring, a suspension spring from the Brawn car of fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello broke free and bounced down the track.
Massa collided with the 800-gram spring while travelling at 162mph. It hit him an inch above the eye, fracturing his skull and causing a brain concussion. The F1 world held its breath, fearing the worst.
He underwent surgery after being taken to an intensive care unit in Budapest, and mercifully made a swift recovery.
3. ‘Fernando is faster than you’
There’s little room for sentiment in F1, but even by its usual standards the events of 25 July 2010 seemed incredibly harsh.
It was the one-year anniversary of his Hungaroring accident and for the first time since that day Massa had the chance to win a race as he led the German Grand Prix from Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso.
But then came a fateful call from the pit wall, a ham-fisted coded message designed to circumvent the ban on team orders – but its true meaning came through loud and clear.
“OK, so, Fernando is faster than you,” came the message from Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley. “Can you confirm you understood that message?”
He did. And he duly moved over to aid his team-mate’s title chances.
“Sorry, mate,” Smedley added, helplessly.
As in Brazil 2008, Massa took the setback stoically and with dignity. The anger was instead vented, long and loud, on his behalf by pundits and fans, and for a time Ferrari’s name was dirt.
Massa was the moral victor for many that day – and amid all the outrage his army of admirers grew that little bit larger.
Farewell to a gentleman
“It’s a very sad, emotional day,” said Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams after Massa announced his intention to retire in early September.
“He’s what we love at Williams – a true gentleman. We were so lucky he honoured us to come and drive for us.”
Ultimately, however, Massa’s three seasons at Williams will stand as the epilogue to his career, just as the three at Sauber were the foreword.
When history remembers Massa’s time in F1, it will be for those 11 wins in Ferrari red, for the day he nearly won the world title, for the day he was robbed of an emotional victory, and for the day he nearly died.
And most will also remember him as one of F1’s good guys, a family man with a ready smile and easy-going nature seemingly unaffected by his fame and success.
One man who would vouch for all of that is Massa’s long-term race engineer and good friend Smedley, who followed the Brazilian to Williams in 2014 and has shared in his highs and lows.
Asked about Massa’s recent Interlagos send-off, he said: “To see all of that, just to see the amount of love for him, was incredible.
“Mercedes is a team he’s never had anything to do with, or been near, and all their guys came out and showed him so much love.
“All the Ferrari guys came out because he’s so loved down there, but it was still quite incredible.
“He’s done such a great job in F1, and such a great job for his country.
“We’re all just really, really proud of him.”
A fond farewell – Massa’s long goodbye in Interlagos
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Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/formula1/37970529