The Wil­liams vet­eran on getting an­other shot at the sport he loves

Felipe Massa thought he’d waved good­bye to F1 for good at the end of 2016, but he’s been given a last chance to have an­other crack at the sport he loves. We join him as he in­dulges his pas­sion for a very dif­fer­ent sport at Chelsea’s train­ing ground in Sur

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS PIC­TURES CHAR­LIE CROWHURST/ GETTY IMAGES/CSM

foot­ball is al­most a re­li­gion in it­self. Last sum­mer, as Felipe Massa con­tem­plated his im­pend­ing re­tire­ment, F1 Rac­ing asked him whether he would pre­fer to be For­mula 1 world cham­pion, or the win­ning scorer for Brazil in a World Cup fi­nal. It was a ques­tion freighted with what-might-have-beens, since Massa was cham­pion-elect for a few fleet­ing mo­ments in the fi­nal grand prix of 2008.

Weigh­ing his an­swer care­fully, Massa replied that F1 is his first love and the world ti­tle would al­ways come first… but, like the rest of Brazil, he adores his na­tional team and club foot­ball. We left it at that, imag­in­ing that since he was about to cruise off into the sun­set, we’d never get a chance to put his foot­balling ac­u­men to the test.

And yet here we are, thanks to Massa’s de­ci­sion to un-re­tire from F1 and a tie-up with Premier League cham­pi­ons Chelsea, en­gi­neered by Wil­liams’ spon­sors Rex­ona – bet­ter known in the UK as an­tiper­spi­rant brand Sure. Most driv­ers greet the prospect of part­ner ap­pear­ances with a sigh, mov­ing to im­pa­tient tetch­i­ness as their in­ter­est wanes (un­less the ac­tiv­ity in­volves driv­ing). It’s then they need to be re­minded who pays the bills. No need for that to­day, though.

Chelsea’s train­ing ground oc­cu­pies count­less well-man­i­cured pitches in leafy Cob­ham, just in­side the M25 and a stone’s throw from Lon­don Heathrow. This morn­ing the cloud base is low, the sky slate-grey – and it’s rain­ing. But that doesn’t per­turb Massa. Wear­ing his Wil­liams cap and over­alls, and hav­ing bought his own lurid turquoise foot­ball boots, he’s hav­ing great fun drib­bling with a ball, do­ing keepie-up­pies and slam­ming shots into the net. He can’t keep still.

We’re trav­el­ling in the slip­stream of a few skits that the spon­sors are film­ing for mar­ket­ing pur­poses. The first is a penalty shoot-out be­tween Massa and the Chelsea num­ber ten, Bel­gian Eden Haz­ard. Then the foot­baller at­tempts a wheel change on a Wil­liams show car be­fore the pair pose for pic­tures.

We last in­ter­viewed Felipe in his São Paulo apart­ment on the eve of what was set to be his fi­nal home race. There he showed us the mem­o­ra­bilia he’d col­lected over the years, as well as his dam­aged crash hel­met from the 2009 Hun­gar­ian GP ac­ci­dent that nearly killed him. Not long af­ter that he put his plans for a quiet life on hold and, in the in­ter­ven­ing months, has proved him­self as quick as ever, rein­vig­o­rated by the new gen­er­a­tion of F1 car and clearly rel­ish­ing the chance to ex­tend his ca­reer.

“I’m re­ally happy with this year, the rules, and what I’m do­ing in the car, I re­ally en­joy it,” he says, foot still tap­ping away in an­tic­i­pa­tion of kick­ing a ball again. “Plus I see the team work­ing hard on the tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ment of the chas­sis. The men­tal­ity is bet­ter and I’m sure we can push on with de­vel­op­ment through­out the sea­son.”

As Wil­liams en­tered their 40th year, their tech­ni­cal team were heav­ily in­volved in the trans­fer mar­ket ahead of the new sea­son. Pat Sy­monds (chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer) and Ja­son Somerville (head of aero) de­parted for pas­tures new, to be re­placed by Paddy Lowe and Dirk de Beer (from Mercedes and Fer­rari re­spec­tively).

“Paddy was ex­actly what Wil­liams needed to pull all the ar­eas to­gether to bring the right men­tal­ity to the team,” says Felipe. “And Dirk de Beer brings a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence on the aero side, which is not only good for now, but for build­ing for the fu­ture. We have other good peo­ple, such as Rob Smed­ley [head of ve­hi­cle per­for­mance], who has a top men­tal­ity. So, I’m re­ally mo­ti­vated from now to the end of the year and also in terms of pre­par­ing for next year to im­prove the car.”

In the early races of this sea­son, Massa had ac­crued all of Wil­liams’ points, while his rookie

The worlds of foot­ball and F1 col­lide as Massa dis­plays that Brazil­ian flair for the beau­ti­ful game, and Eden Haz­ard, Chelsea’s mid­field star, helps change a wheel on an F1 car, cour­tesy of the sport’s fastest pitcrew, Wil­liams team-mate Lance Stroll kept scor­ing own goals as he strug­gled to adapt to the 2017-spec F1 ma­chin­ery. Fi­nally Stroll col­lected his first points in Canada, then took a me­morable podium fin­ish in Baku a fort­night later.

Be­fore that, Massa had spo­ken of his own strug­gles as a rookie. Cast your mind back to 2002 when, aged 21, he made his de­but with Sauber but was then dropped to the bench to spend a year as a Fer­rari test driver, be­fore re­turn­ing to a race seat with Sauber again in 2004.

Dur­ing those early years, Massa was men­tored by Michael Schu­macher, and says he is pay­ing that favour for­ward by try­ing to help Lance Stroll now. “I’m try­ing to do ev­ery­thing I can for him,” he says. “When I first met him he was seven years old, the age my son is now, and now he’s my team-mate. It’s quite painful for me, but I have a good re­la­tion­ship with him and his dad [Lawrence]. It’s a plea­sure for me to do any­thing I can for him with so many things.

“He’s a good ta­lent, yet the most im­por­tant thing for him to learn is the tyres, which is not so easy. With many young driv­ers, they strug­gle with how to use the tyres in the right way, and how to keep them con­sis­tent in the race with­out de­stroy­ing them. He will get there. He just needs to get some ex­pe­ri­ence and to fin­ish more races with­out any prob­lems. I’m here to help and it’s a plea­sure for me to pass on ev­ery­thing that I can.”

And yet the prob­lems that Stroll has been hav­ing with the tyres are ac­tu­ally some­thing that Felipe has rev­elled in, since he’s felt more at home driv­ing with this year’s rub­ber.

“Yes, you can push harder now in the race com­pared with last year. Last sea­son we were driv­ing like grand­moth­ers; this year we are driv­ing like driv­ers. But try­ing to un­der­stand the down­force, par­tic­u­larly when you are com­ing from a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory, es­pe­cially F3 in Lance’s case, un­der­stand­ing the down­force is dif­fer­ent. And you need a lit­tle bit of time.”

We’ve reached full-time with Felipe, and he swaps shirts with Haz­ard for the cam­eras. As they perch on the side­pod of the Wil­liams show car, there’s a loud crack and a hair­line frac­ture ap­pears – much to the shock of the Chelsea player. “You can re­place this?” asks a con­cerned Haz­ard. “It’s an old car,” Felipe re­as­sures him. “And you can re­place ev­ery com­po­nent.”

Haz­ard clam­bers into the cock­pit of the Wil­liams, grabs the steer­ing wheel and makes “vroooom” noises, like a child who’s been left on a coin-op­er­ated ride out­side a su­per­mar­ket. “I can’t see much of the road!” he says. “That’s be­cause there’s no seat,” Massa replies, laugh­ing.

At the end of last sea­son there was no seat for Felipe Massa at Wil­liams, but, through a twist of fate, he’s been given a sec­ond chance. The goal is to win again – but can he man­age it be­fore the fi­nal whis­tle is blown on his F1 ca­reer?

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