Whether it’s his first Grand Prix in Australia in 2002, the final lap of Interlagos in 2008, or his most recent step on the podium in Monza in 2015, everybody in the world of Formula 1 has their Felipe Massa moment.
The best memories, however, could come in the closing stages of the 2016 season.
Announced during last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, the 2016 season will see Massa’s lasting and enduring Formula 1 career come to a close, as the Brazilian revealed his retirement from the sport that will come following the season finale at Abu Dhabi in November.
Through what will be 250 races, the Brazilian has currently grabbed 11 victories and 16 pole positions while finishing on the podium 41 times as the sport transitioned through countless changes, upgrades and renovations.
Kicking off his tenure with Sauber in 2002 after winning the little-regarded Euro Formula 3000 championship, he was matched with German driver Nick Heidfeld to begin his learning process into the world’s largest stage of racing. Schumacher, Villeneuve, Montoya, Coulthard – quite the grid to line up against for your first weekend in F1.
Though the then-21-year-old’s debut race lasted as long as the Australian national anthem (he was one of eight drivers to crash out of the race in a Turn 1 pile-up), Massa turned the tides the following race, earning his first championship point at Malaysia by finishing in sixth.
He earned eight top-10 finishes that year, but he was rough around the edges and there were those who felt his jump to F1 came too soon. After colliding with Pedro de la Rosa at the Italian Grand Prix, Massa was sidelined from the following race in the United States and dropped by the Swiss team at the end of the season.
A year spent honing his skills as Ferrari’s official test driver in 2003 paid dividends, and he was back on the Formula 1 grid with Sauber in 2004 and peaked with fourth place at the Belgian Grand Prix while also leading a race for the first time at home at Interlagos.
Staying on with Sauber in 2005 and joined by no less a teammate than 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, Massa blew the doors off the Canadian and earned more praise for his mature driving.
Things quickly turned red for Massa, who joined Scuderia Ferrari in 2006 as Michael Schumacher’s teammate. He claimed his maiden race win at Istanbul with a superb drive and repeated the feat on home soil at the end of the season to become the first Brazilian since Ayrton Senna in 1993 to win his home Grand Prix. With seven podium finishes that season, the out-of-the-gate performance raised the bar for what was to come.
Michael Schumacher’s retirement at the end of the year thrust Massa further into the spotlight, and he claimed three wins in 2007 but was hampered by early season reliability woes.
With teammate Kimi Räikkönen having scraped to the Drivers’ Championship title by one point, a World Championship title was next on Massa’s hit list, as 2008 saw his best season with six wins, six poles and ten podiums.
With his name almost engraved into the championship trophy in the season finale in Brazil, it was Lewis Hamilton who made one final pass, one final point, to snatch the championship from Massa’s sweaty grip.
Although he ended that day on the top step of the podium, nonetheless, Massa – along with a season-ending crash at Hungary in 2009 where he suffered a skull fracture – his proved his best ability of all, taking the most brutal of loses with class, integrity and strength.
Indeed, numbers aren’t the only thing that build one’s career.
When his announcement of retirement spread through the F1 paddock, Massa’s on-track competitors had warm messages regarding his status in this sport.
“We had a good relationship when we were in the same team,” said three-year Ferrari teammate Kimi Räikkönen. “Obviously he has had some difficult moments in F1, with the accident, but he’s been strong always and he’s a very nice guy. Hopefully he has a good end to his F1 career.”
Jenson Button, the 2009 World Champion who also confirmed he would not be racing in Formula 1 next year, mirrored Räikkönen’s statements, saying Massa is brave to step away from a long career.
“I’ve raced with Felipe since he started in Formula One, I think it’s about 15 years we’ve been racing together,” Button said.
“It’s always a strange feeling when someone retires from the sport that’s achieved so much, so many victories, and being so close as well to a World Championship. But we all have our own reasons.”
The impact of Massa’ career can best be seen through some of the younger talents currently competing in F1. Kevin Magnussen, the 23-year-old Renault driver, can’t remember the sport without the likable Brazilian.
“He’s had a long career,” Magnussen said. “I don’t think I’ve seen Formula One when he wasn’t racing, so he’s had a long career. He’s had a good one.”
Carlos Sainz, Jr., the second-year Scuderia Toro Rosso driver, highlighted one of those little memories, like one from more than 10 years ago.
“I remember meeting him for the first time in 2005,” Sainz said. “He was really kind to me and was my hero Formula One driver. He was very funny, very kind to me and since then I’ve had lots of respect for him.”
With as strong of a reputation as this, it seems fit to see it end in one of the most respected race teams in F1 history: Williams.
After his long stint at Ferrari on the backburner, Massa joined another “dream team” of his in the form of Williams, joining Valtteri Bottas for the 2014 campaign.
Scoring five podiums and a surprise pole at the Red Bull Ring in 2014, Massa, although running a now-seven-year winless streak, will finish his career in a car good enough to reach the podium one last time.
Perhaps one last podium isn’t what will make Massa’s F1 career perfect. No championship? Sure. However, Massa’s impact on F1 has come through the form of dedication, talent and kindness on and off the track.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel possibly said it best.
“I think apart from the talent and speed he has on the track,” said Vettel, “he’s a great guy and very easy-going and he will be missed.”
Images via Sauber F1 Team and XPB Images