Nobody in the history of Formula One racing has come as close to winning the world championship without actually doing so than Felipe Massa.
Rewind to the final round of the 2008 world championship in Brazil. Massa had just crossed the finish line to win his home race, and, with title rival Lewis Hamilton only sixth, he celebrated with tears of joy as did his father in the pit lane.
Moments later those tears of joy turned to tears of despair as Hamilton passed Timo Glock’s ailing Toyota on the penultimate corner to snatch the title.
The question is, would Massa have been a worthy world champion? And having been axed by Ferrari for Kimi Raikkonen for the 2014 season, has his eight-year stint with the Maranello team been a success?
Addressing the first point, it is worth noting that Massa won more races in 2008 than any other driver with six victories to Hamilton’s five. There was no separating the pair until the final corner of the final lap and a point’s difference was the outcome at the end of the season.
It is also worth noting that Massa was comprehensively the better Ferrari driver that season than the man who is set to replace him in 2014. Raikkonen won only two races in 2008 and tied for third with BMW’s Robert Kubica, 23 points behind the Brazilian.
Massa certainly would have made a worthy world champion in 2008 from his consistency of performances and race wins. But would a world championship title have constituted a successful Ferrari career?
It’s fair to say that Massa can be forgiven for being second-best to the great Michael Schumacher during his first season at Ferrari. The team was built around Schumacher, and the daunting task of trying to impress in such exalted company may have accounted for early spins in Bahrain and crashes in Australia. But Massa also took his first two wins that year and finished third in the championship, retaining his place when Schumacher announced his retirement from the team.
Paired with Raikkonen for 2007, Massa was winning the team battle halfway through the season with two wins, two second-place finishes and a couple of podiums but things began to turn around from France onwards where the Finn led home a Ferrari 1-2 before winning again at Silverstone. Three more wins and three podiums gave the Finn the title as Massa had to make do with fourth.
Having touched on 2008 and his title near-miss, 2009 proved to be a pivotal season in Massa’s career through no real fault of his own. Now joined by Fernando Alonso, Massa endured bad luck with a number of technical issues during the opening part of the season before an incident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Following Rubens Barrichello, Massa’s helmet was stuck with extreme force by a suspension spring that fell from the Brawn car, fracturing his skull and leading to surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation period.
Massa missed the remainder of the season but was back for the following year. He began well enough, with a second-place finish in Bahrain and third in Australia, but his season tailed off rapidly, and he would only stand on the podium twice more as teammate Alonso just missed out on the title.
By the end of 2012 it was clear that Massa’s position at Ferrari was under scrutiny, the Brazilian only managing a solitary podium in two and a half seasons of competition leading us to his current predicament.
But I’m of the opinion that Massa’s downfall in competitiveness can be traced back to the freak accident in Hungary in 2009. Such a life-changing incident is bound to have some kind of effect, just as Stirling Moss’ crash at Goodwood, although far more serious, ended his career because he just didn’t feel like the same driver any more.
So despite 2008 how do we judge his Ferrari career? It must be taken into consideration that but for two seasons he has been the No. 2 driver, as was Rubens Barrichello before him and Eddie Irvine before that.
Let’s consider the stats
So in the battle of the No. 2 Ferrari drivers, Massa averages 1.375 wins per year and 4.5 podiums per season, Barrichello 1.5 wins per year and 9.5 podiums per season and Irvine one win and six podiums per season.
It’s all pretty tight stuff but, bearing in mind that Barrichello’s Ferrari was the class car of its field at that time and Massa and Irvine have had to deal with the might of McLaren and Red Bull, it would be harsh to say that Massa’s Ferrari career has been a failure on that basis.
He may walk away with his head held high.