Felipe Massa burst onto the Formula One scene as a sensationally fast, yet erratic and occasionally wild rookie. He grew to be a genuine frontrunner, and was even a world champion for all of a handful of seconds in that famous 2008 showdown with Lewis Hamilton. Even without that title, he entered the 2017 season with a proud record of 11 Grand Prix wins, 16 poles and 41 podiums - but Massa’s story is measured in far more than just statistics.
Victim of a freak accident in 2009 that knocked him unconscious and put his career and life in jeopardy, he demonstrated remarkable courage to clamber back into an F1 cockpit just 11 weeks later. Already the first Brazilian to win on home soil since Ayrton Senna, his spirit and determination - and his dignity in both triumph and defeat - helped win the hearts not just of a nation, but of the watching world. As a driver, and as a man, he ranks among the very highest.
Born in Sao Paulo in 1981, Felipe Massa spent his formative years racing karts in his native Brazil. He switched to single-seaters in 1998, making his debut in the Brazilian Formula Chevrolet Championship and winning the series the following year. Then came a move to Europe and victories in both the 2000 Italian and European Formula Renault championships. He followed that up by winning the Euro F3000 title in 2001, with six wins from eight races. He also found time for the occasional World Touring Car Championship appearance and earned himself his first Formula One tests with the Swiss-based Sauber team, which in turn landed him a race drive for 2002.
Massa made his Grand Prix debut in Melbourne, qualifying inside the top ten, before crashing out in a multi-car pile-up on the first lap. Just one race later, though, he took his first championship point with sixth place in Malaysia. He would score another three that season, garnering a reputation for being quick, if rather erratic. At the end of the year he followed Peter Sauber’s advice and opted to spend the following season testing for the team’s engine suppliers, Ferrari. It would prove to be an astute long-term career move.
Massa rejoined Sauber’s race line-up on a two-year contract for 2004, partnering Giancarlo Fisichella. Twelve points put him 12th in the drivers’ championship - one place behind his team mate - with a fourth place in Belgium his best result. For 2005 he was partnered by former champion Jacques Villeneuve, whom he upstaged on more than one occasion, scoring 11 points in total, including the team’s very last points with Peter Sauber as boss before the handover to BMW. As a reward, he was a given his race car from the final round in China.
With his Sauber contract up, Massa’s Ferrari connections came into play ahead of the 2006 season as he was announced as the replacement for fellow Brazilian, the Honda-bound Rubens Barrichello. It gave Massa the opportunity to partner the legendary Michael Schumacher for what would be the German’s final championship campaign with Ferrari. After a tentative start, his season gained ever-increasing momentum.
His first Ferrari points came with fifth place at round two in Malaysia. His maiden podium came at round five, with third at the European Grand Prix. He followed that up with second places in the United States and Germany, before capturing his first Formula One victory in Turkey, where he also took his maiden pole position. He saw out the year in style with another pole in Japan and an emotional home win at the season finale in Brazil.
Not surprisingly, Massa was retained by Ferrari for 2007 to partner Schumacher’s replacement, the highly-rated Kimi Raikkonen. With Schumacher, Massa was clearly the number two, but with Raikkonen he had the chance to establish a new team order. However, it was the Finn who had the edge - and the Finn who secured the title - and only the following year did Massa discover the levels of pace and maturity needed to put his team mate in the shade. By the end of 2008 he had taken over as Ferrari’s de facto number one, pushing McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton all the way in the title race and ultimately missing out by just a single point.
Major rule changes saw Ferrari off the pace in 2009, but Massa's season was dominated by other matters, namely a life-threatening accident in qualifying for July's Hungarian Grand Prix. Struck on the head by a loose spring from the car of compatriot Barrichello, he suffered a fractured skull. After several days in a medically-induced coma, he spent the rest of the year recuperating, gradually ramping up his driving activity ahead of his 2010 race return alongside new team mate Fernando Alonso.
Podium finishes in Bahrain and Australia suggested Massa was bouncing back with a flourish, but the successes didn’t last long and soon he was struggling to match Alonso. Unable to extract as much from the Ferrari F10 as his team mate, Massa was cast in a supporting role and at the German round was even forced to move aside to allow Alonso through. He eventually finished sixth in the standings, over 100 points shy of the Spaniard.
After such a tough 2010 season, some voiced suspicions that he might leave the Scuderia ahead of 2011, but a determined Massa stayed in his red overalls. Any kind of a comeback, however, continued to elude him. Not only was the 150° Italia a difficult car but Massa continued to be out-qualified, out-raced and outclassed by Alonso. By the season’s close he hadn’t once made it on to the podium and had scored less than half of the points tally of his team mate.
The following season started painfully slowly as he struggled to adapt to Ferrari’s tricky F2012. With team mate Alonso faring much better, Massa came under increased pressure and there was plenty of talk that he would lose his seat when his contract expired at the end of 2012. But the Brazilian’s performances gradually improved and after taking fourth at Silverstone, he returned to the podium for the first time since 2010 at October’s Japanese round. Soon after, Ferrari announced that he would continue to race for the team in 2013.
He started that season in good shape, out-qualifying team mate Alonso regularly and scoring solidly, if not spectacularly. He claimed his only podium of the year in Spain, but accidents - two in Monaco - slowed his momentum. In September it was announced that he would be replaced at the Scuderia for 2014 by Raikkonen. The news seemed to light a fire under Massa, whose form improved once more. Convinced that it wasn’t yet time to end his F1 career, he signed to race for Williams in 2014 alongside rising Finnish star Valtteri Bottas.
The move rejuvenated the Brazilian. He was the only non-Mercedes driver to take pole during the season, while a number of great drives - particularly in the second half of the year - resulted in three podiums and 11 top-seven finishes. The year wasn’t without mistakes - a collision with Sergio Perez in Canada the most obvious example - but after a few tough seasons, 2014 confirmed Massa was back to somewhere near his best and he duly extended his stay with Williams into 2015.
The Brazilian’s revival continued into 2015 when despite being equipped with a less competitive car than the year before, he scored two podiums and finished sixth in the standings, one place back of team mate Valtteri Bottas who he compared very favourably to throughout the season.
Massa was once more overshadowed by Bottas in 2016 and he bid an emotional farewell to Williams and Formula One racing after announcing he would retire at the end of the season. However, that decision was reversed early the following year, as he agreed to return to the team to partner rookie Lance Stroll following Bottas' unexpected move to Mercedes.