If you leave a company after eight years, you’re usually rewarded with a nice trinket of thanks. Convention dictates a carriage clock, or, if you work for Top Gear, a box of coma-inducing sticky donuts. But Ferrari, being Ferrari, did something a little different for their soon-to-be-Williams driver, Felipe Massa.
They had a big farewell party at Mugello. 15,000 people were on the guest list, and Top Gear was one of them. And as Massa’s old F1 cars paraded round the track, the 32-year-old Brazilian driver took time out to reflect on his time at Ferrari.
“It’s a very special day for me,” Felipe told TG. “You can see and feel the Ferrari passion. And today is the end of a fantastic time we’ve enjoyed together.”
Felipe had something of a false start with Ferrari. Signing as their test driver in 2003, he departed the following winter for his former team Sauber. But after a two-year tenure, Massa was back in a red race suit – this time as a full-blown Ferrari driver.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Felipe says. “I was a life-long Ferrari fan, so when I signed the contract it was like a dream come true.”
But what’s it like driving for the biggest name in motorsport? “Everything is different when driving for Ferrari,” he says. “You’re part of a big team and you need to learn how to be one of their drivers which isn’t something you can do in a day. You have to learn quickly as Ferrari is very professional, but also runs on passion. You’re not just working, you’re part of history and the most important and famous team.”
Following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher, and with team boss Stefano Domenicali, president Luca di Montezemolo and the Tifosi to impress, how did Massa handle the pressure? “Pressure doesn’t bring you problems, it brings you more motivation. I remember the pressure of racing in Brazil. People there want to see you win, and, thankfully, I’ve always had great results there.”
Felipe classes his double-win at his home race as his career highlight. “The two victories were very special to me. Even the second one.”
Even the second one. You may remember that 2008 Brazil GP. Massa crossed the finish line first, apparently securing him the World Championship. But just behind, title rival Lewis Hamilton passed Timo Glock on the last corner to secure fifth place, snatching the championship from Felipe. It was the closest Massa would come to taking a title for Ferrari.
Cheery chap he is, such a minor setback didn’t stop Massa celebrating, “Winning in Brazil is like winning a championship. It was the place where I grew up and I remember when Senna won in Brazil.”
With the highs, came the lows. In the second round of qualifying at the Hungarian GP in 2009, Massa was struck on the head by a suspension spring jettisoned from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn, knocking him out and sending him into the tyre barrier at speed. Massa was airlifted to hospital, missing the rest of the season as he recovered from serious head injuries.
“The accident was a hard time for me, and we had some difficult times after,” Felipe admits. “But when you’re having a difficult time you always need to believe in who you are, and what you did to get where you are. And Ferrari gave me all the help I needed.”
But last month, after eight years with the Scuderia, something had to give to allow for room for Kimi Raikkonen’s return to Ferrari. It was Felipe.
Instead of announcing the news of his departure though a wordy press release or tearful news conference, all Massa needed was 140 characters and a popular social network. “I decided to announce my departure via Twitter because I felt it was important that it came from me. I’ve always had a great time with Ferrari and I didn’t want to speak about drivers or anything else. I wanted to speak about my feelings.”
Finger hovering over the computer mouse, we wonder how it felt to hit ‘send’. A lump in the throat? “It was a nice emotion,” Felipe says. “It felt like the times were changing. Our careers are very short and things happen very quickly. I started when I was twenty and now I’m 32, but things change, and change is important.”
But Felipe won’t be on the checkout at Sainsbury’s looking for a way to pay the rent any time soon. He’ll drive in 2014 for beleaguered Williams, hoping to revive the fortunes of the formerly legendary Grove outfit. How will it feel racing for someone else?
“When you race, you want to win. It doesn’t matter who it’s for,” Felipe says. “Going against Ferrari will be strange, as I was always in a red car. But I’m a driver and always want to be in front of whatever I’m racing against. Even so, Ferrari will always be part of my life and inside my heart…”
Words and Picture: Rowan Horncastle