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Felipe Massa - no more the nearly man 04 Nov 2008

Felipe Massa (BRA), Ferrari, Ferrari F2008, Brazilian Grand Prix 2008, Interlagos, Saturday, 1 November 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Race winner Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2008 leads at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 2 November 2008 Felipe Massa (BRA), Ferrari, Ferrari F2008, Chinese Grand Prix 2008, Shanghai, Sunday, 19 October 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Felipe Massa (BRA), Ferrari, Ferrari F2008, Brazilian Grand Prix 2008, Interlagos, Sunday, 02 November 2008. © Martin Trenkler / Reporter Images Race winner Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2008 celebrates.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 2 November 2008

This time last year Felipe Massa was playing the supporting role as Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen took the 2007 drivers’ championship. On Sunday at Interlagos the roles were reversed, as Massa proved he is a nearly man no more, leading Ferrari to the constructors’ crown and almost stealing the 2008 drivers’ title from under the nose of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.

Even during a season that saw him miss out on glory by a single point, critics continued to dismiss Massa as an also-ran, claiming his performances were still too erratic to ever mount a serious challenge for motorsport’s biggest prize. The affable Brazilian simply ignored them, got on with the job and proved them wrong in emphatic fashion.

Yes, he made mistakes (he didn’t even score until round three after spins in the first two races), but so did his rivals, and as the season progressed he just got better and better. Even in latter rounds there were still signs of his trademark hot headedness, especially when he needed to fight through the field, but no one can argue with the numbers.

Six wins, six poles, four podiums and 97 points may not be ground-breaking statistics, but then you wouldn’t expect records in a season as competitive as this. In a year when seven drivers and five teams have won races, Massa has shown a prodigious combination of speed, consistency and nerve.

When things beyond his control went wrong - engine failures in Australia and Hungary, that dramatically botched pit stop beneath the lights of Singapore - he refused to let them cast a shadow on his form.

And while Raikkonen struggled to optimise an at times recalcitrant F2008, Massa made the best of it, out-qualifying and out-racing the Finn with increasing regularity, to the point where the reigning champion was forced to abandon his title defence with two rounds remaining and instead play a supporting role to his supposed number two.

Qualifying was key to Massa’s success. All six victories came from front-row starts (a statistic detractors will doubtless use to try and belittle his achievements) but that was far from the whole story.

Arriving in Bahrain without a point to his name, he delivered just when he needed to, beating Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber off the line and then dominating the Sakhir race. In Turkey, no one ever looked like challenging him, while at the all-new Valencia circuit he led from start to finish. And at the season finale in Brazil - where he knew he had to win - he didn’t put a foot wrong as he left the opposition trailing.

He was also there to pick up the pieces when his rivals tripped up. In France he took victory after Raikkonen’s exhaust problems, and in Belgium he was the man waiting to inherit the win after the slippery conditions left his team mate in the barriers and Hamilton in contravention of the rule book. And there were further podiums in Spain, Monaco, Germany and China.

It all added up to a campaign of remarkable maturity and one which could not have ended in a more fitting location than Massa’s native Sao Paolo. Unfortunately his spectacular home win wasn’t quite enough to give Brazil the champion they crave, but his driving this year - and the grace with which he accepted title defeat - has won him a multitude of new admirers across the globe. No more the Ferrari number two, Massa is now a contender.