Felipe Massa will become the fifteenth driver in Formula 1 history to chalk up 200 Grand Prix starts when he takes to the grid at this weekend’s British Grand Prix.
The Brazilian will join fellow ‘200 Club’ members Jenson Button (255 starts), Fernando Alonso (224) and Kimi Räikkönen (201) in being one of four drivers on this year’s grid to have achieved the milestone.
Massa’s Formula 1 debut came in 2002 with the Sauber F1 Team, who hired him as the reigning Euro F3000 champion despite the misgivings of some within the sport. The 20-year-old had a wild debut season, mixing a brace of points’ finishes with a couple of hefty accidents as his rather wild driving style occasionally got the better of him. After copping a ten-place grid penalty for the Italian Grand Prix, Sauber skirted around the ruling by suspending Massa for a race and drafting in Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
To many, Massa simply hadn’t yet tamed his prodigious speed with the discipline and cool-headed approach required to succeed in Formula 1 and he was without a race drive for 2002. Ferrari saw an opportunity and picked him up as a test driver, allowing the Brazilian to hone his craft for a year in the less-pressured environment.
He returned to Sauber in 2004 on a two-year deal, and very much a changed driver. There was no question about his speed, but his application of it had definitely improved and the Sauber was a points contender at almost every Grand Prix – he peaked with a fine fourth at Belgium and fifth at Monaco en route to finishing twelfth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
The 2005 season also delivered. Paired alongside 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, Massa stole the show: he outqualified the mercurial Canadian 13-6 and thumped him in the championship standings. With Nicolas Todt working being the scenes as his manager, it was still something of a surprise that Michael Schumacher hand-picked him as his teammate when Rubens Barrichello finally had enough of playing the German’s ‘number two’ at Ferrari.
This would prove the acid test: did Felipe have the skills to really mix it with the best and become a race-winner? The answer was an emphatic yes. He quickly got up to speed and started matching his seven-time World Champion teammate for speed, peaking with pole position and victory at the Turkish Grand Prix and then repeating the effort – to the delight of everyone – at his home race in Brazil.
Schumacher’s retirement opened the door for Kimi Räikkönen to join the team, and the incumbent Massa took the fight to the Finn, who ultimately delivered a more consistent year to win a thrilling championship. Massa claimed wins in Bahrain, Spain and Turkey, but a critical DNF in Italy thwarted his own slender ambitions at the title.
Massa started off the 2008 season in slow fashion – there were even rumours Ferrari would sack him – but he showed his hand with a successful defence of his 2007 win in Bahrain, repeating the feat at Turkey and landing another win at Magny Cours. He was right in the title mix and staged see-sawing battle with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton for the rest of the year.
The finale in Brazil was a thrilling final chapter: Massa won the race and was effectively World Champion, but his joy lasted all of ten seconds as Hamilton scrambled into fifth place at the final corner to clinch the crown for himself.
He would have to do it all again in 2009. The F60 was not the most competitive machine against the stronger BrawnGP and Red Bull Racing designs, and it took him until mid-season before his first visit to the podium, in Germany. The next race in Hungary brought an incident that would effectively shape the rest of his career: Massa was hit in the head by a coil spring during qualifying and was knocked unconscious, slamming at unabated speed into the tyre barriers.
The F1 world held its collective breath until the good news came that, while he had sustained a fractured skull and come within millimetres of losing his left eye, he would make a complete recovery. His season was over, so he concentrated on making a full recovery for the start of the 2010 season.
His return to racing was underwhelming, to say the least, and questions were being asked of whether the Brazilian was up to the task or if his injuries had perhaps played a greater toll. But it all came together – and fell apart – at that year’s German Grand Prix: cruising to victory, he was issued team orders to move aside and let teammate Fernando Alonso take victory.
It was never more apparent where Massa’s position in the team now lay: a clear number-two driver. Rather incredibly by both Ferrari and Massa himself, he remained with the Scuderia for another three seasons, rarely managing to impress as a truly competitive proposition but somehow doing enough to be kept on for another one-year deal.
Perhaps Ferrari was satisfied that he wouldn’t – or couldn’t – ultimately threaten Alonso’s position within the team, but eventually the Scuderia bit the bullet and dropped him at the end of last season for his old Ferrari teammate, Kimi Räikkönen. Massa sought solace at Williams this year, clinching pole position last time out in Austria to prove that there’s still plenty of speed ahead of his 199th race start.
Images via Corbis Images and XPB Images
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