I still vividly remember my first weekend watching Felipe Massa at work, and how jarring it was. There was a spot inside the fence at the final corner at Albert Park that you could only get to with a media pass and an ability to bluff the security guards, and back in 2002, the fences weren’t all that high compared to today. So it was there that myself and few photographers stood to watch the cars coming out the slow-speed Turn 15, where you get a good idea of the different driving styles on show. And Massa, on his Grand Prix debut weekend, certainly was different in the Sauber that day. There was absolutely no subtlety to his application of the throttle – it was either on or off – and the violent jarring of his head, low-down in the cockpit on account of his diminutive stature – was the biggest takeaway. He was pretty wild and never seemed to take the same line twice, but he was quick. Even so, with such a raw style, I wondered how long he would last.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Massa has lasted very well indeed. His drive in Austria last time out, when he held off Sebastian Vettel in a plainly faster Ferrari in the closing stages to take his 40th career podium – was one of an experienced head who has seen it all before, wasn’t spooked by the moment, and was never likely to beat himself. With Vettel on your tail – who rarely makes mistakes – it would have been easy to drop the ball. It was a third place that was somewhat overshadowed by the latest Mercedes 1-2 finish, and one that arguably deserved more publicity.
Where does Massa sit in the sport’s history? Statistically he has 11 victories – the same as another long-time Ferrari second banana and compatriot in Rubens Barrichello, a former world champion and teammate in Jacques Villeneuve, and the man who won in Austria last time out, Nico Rosberg. He has Barrichello’s longevity, Villeneuve’s occasional penchant for unhelpful emotion over the radio, and Rosberg’s ability to take a title fight down to the wire as the (unofficial) second driver in a team, as he did at Ferrari in 2008. Better than some of that list, any of that list, all of them? It’s an interesting debate. At a pinch, I’d go Villeneuve-Barrichello-Massa-Rosberg in order of best to worst, but if I has a chance to employ one of them to drive for my team, it’d be Massa every time.
Massa and Williams come to this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone in the mix for the one podium spot that seems to be on offer this year given Mercedes have had both its drivers in the top three at every Grand Prix so far – off back-to-back podium finishes in Canada (Valtteri Bottas) and Austria (Massa), there’s a very strong chance Williams will have something to celebrate at a circuit where it won its first GP 36 years ago. Bottas is clearly the future as the younger man, but few would begrudge Massa another strong result as his career winds down to a dignified conclusion after years of being beaten down politically at Ferrari.
Episode 107 of ‘The Inside Line’ looks ahead to Silverstone this weekend with a focus on Williams – check local guides, and check it out.