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
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?