Felipe Massa: 'If I'd have crashed like that 10 years ago, I wouldn't be here now'

The Brian Viner Interview: In July he almost died. In 2008 he lost the world championship on the very last corner. As a new season looms, the Ferrari driver explains why the experiences have only made him faster
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The Independent Online

It usually takes something seismic in a racing driver's life to fill his head with thoughts of mortality. Something seismically positive, like first-time parenthood, or seismically negative, like a horrifying crash. Last year, Felipe Massa's world was rocked by both these experiences, and so I ask him, as he prepares for the start of the Formula One season in Bahrain next weekend, whether he ever finds his thoughts turning, in the cockpit of his Ferrari, either to his baby son, or to the crash at the Hungaroring last July that ended not just his season but almost his life. Or perhaps both? And if so, might these thoughts conceivably make him a crucial split-second slower over a lap?

I know the answer will be no, but what kind of no will it be? Indignant? Amused? Weary? Or surprised, as if such subversive questions had never even occurred to him? In fact, it is not quite any of the above. He gives a small smile, and shrugs. "When I am driving the car now I don't even remember that I had an accident and I don't remember that I have a son. When I stop in the garage and look in the mirror I can see that I had the accident because I can see the scar over my eye, and then for sure I remember about my son. But these things give experience to my life, motivation to keep going."

In other words – and however decent the 28-year-old Brazilian's command of English might be, some of his sentences do require interpretation – he claims to have turned these twin experiences, becoming a dad and surviving a crash, into assets on the track. The pre-season evidence supports him, too. On the first two days of testing at Valencia early last month, it was Massa with whom everyone else played catch-up. He hadn't slowed down; he had speeded up.

As for my own catch-up with him, it takes place in the Ferrari motorhome at the circuit in Jerez. Testing moves from Valencia to Jerez and then Barcelona, to try out the cars on different tracks. But on the day I arrive, southern Spain has been bombarded with the worst rainstorms for years. There is a palpable air of thumb-twiddling frustration, and not even the sumptuous buffet laid out in the motorhome elicits smiles from the Ferrari mechanics stepping in out of the deluge.

When Massa arrives in his red racing suit, however, he is the very picture of geniality. A Ferrari man since 2006, he is generally considered to be one of the most approachable of the leading drivers, and my time with him do nothing to undermine this reputation. I ask him what he remembers of the crash, which occurred in qualifying, after a suspension spring fell from the car of his compatriot Rubens Barrichello, flew up and, travelling at an estimated 100mph, smashed into his helmet. He was duly operated on for head injuries said to be "life-threatening". And even when he was out of mortal danger, his surgeon at first raised the question not of whether he would race again, but whether he would walk again.

"I don't remember anything," he says. "I remember the previous run, but not the accident. I don't even remember when I woke up, three days after, on the Tuesday afternoon. I remember half an hour after I woke up. I thought I wouldn't miss even one race. I was fighting with my wife about it. I said I would be going to [the European Grand Prix in] Valencia, three weeks later. She said, 'I don't think so'. So I spoke to the doctor. I said, 'My wife is saying these stupid things...' "

Massa chuckles. "But soon I understood what was happening. I went back to Brazil, where they made, how do you say, a scale model of my head, to help them analyse how to do a second operation. It was more more serious than I thought, yes, but I never, never felt I would have to stop racing."

Even so, the crash was a reminder, I venture, that Formula One is still an acutely dangerous sport. It seems ridiculous that anyone should need reminding, but almost 16 years after the last fatality, there are those who consider it sapped of genuine life-or-death danger, and by implication, excitement. A solemn nod. "If I had my accident maybe 10 years ago I wouldn't be here now. The technology we have now, the helmets, can save your life. It was very close, but I am here. After [Ayrton] Senna, it all changed."

Massa had just turned 13 when his illustrious countryman crashed at Imola. "It was such a bad day," he says. "I was at my home in Brazil watching the race, and when I saw the crash I didn't think it was so serious. For Brazil, we lost a piece of our country that day. I remember watching his funeral on TV, with maybe a million people in the streets. It had a huge impact on me."

Coincidentally, the memories of Senna's death were reignited just a week before his own accident in Hungary, when 18-year-old Henry Surtees, the son of 1964 world champion John Surtees, was killed during a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch, after a loose tyre bounced across the track and hit him on the head. Massa, characteristically, posted a message of sympathy on his website, for which John Surtees later emailed his thanks.

"I said to my wife, 'Look at what's happened. It's unbelievable. This is what we need to worry about, not a crash at the start of a race, not hitting another car, but this kind of accident. Because the driver can't do anything about it.' And one week after it happened to me. It was a spring, not a wheel, thank God, but it is a risk..."

While he recovered, Ferrari had to address the small problem of finding another driver to race in the European Grand Prix. Enter the seven-times world champion and Massa's former team-mate Michael Schumacher, which excited the sporting world, and excited Schumacher, yet Massa had his reservations. "I was not sure it was the right time for Michael, because our car was not so quick as he'd had in the past." In the event Schumacher called off his much-vaunted return to Ferrari for what remained of the 2009 season, because of injuries sustained in a motorbike crash. "I think he was lucky," says Massa with a smile.

But of course Schumacher ploughed on with this comeback plans, and when the season starts next week, the 41-year-old will be on the grid in Mercedes colours. That, says Massa, "will for sure be very strange". What did he learn as Schumacher's stablemate? "Many things. Especially I learnt how to have a clear idea for the race. He has an incredible talent to analyse, and I watched him very carefully. He was the complete driver; aggressive, quick, consistent. He also had a lot of luck. When you're good, you have luck. And he was a good team-mate. It will be a nice experience to race against him again, because he is a great driver, one of maybe four or five great drivers out there."

Among them is Massa's new team-mate Fernando Alonso, but the Brazilian scoffs at the rumours that there is already tension between them. "There are no issues. Everything is going very well. When you're at Ferrari, you know your team-mate will be strong. At the start I had Michael, then three years with Kimi [Raikkonen], now Fernando. They are all top drivers, but my way of working stays exactly the same. For sure Fernando is a different guy to Kimi. He speaks a lot more. He speaks. With Kimi it is difficult to have a personal relationship. He stays away from everybody. But Fernando comes from a similar world to me."

By any standards they are a formidable pair of drivers. But the burning question, worth a hell of a lot more than $64,000, is this: can they regain the world title for Ferrari? "It is a bit early to say, because we're still testing and many things will change in our car between now and the first race, but I think it is a very competitive car. I'm very optimistic we can be there fighting."

It is three years since a Ferrari driver, Raikkonen, won the drivers' title. Since then, the world champions have been British, albeit in Lewis Hamilton's case in 2008, by the narrowest of margins from Massa himself. I invite him to compare Hamilton and the current champ, Jenson Button, team-mates now at McLaren.

"As drivers they are really different, to be honest. Jenson is very technical, very smooth. Lewis is very aggressive, completely opposite. When I started [for Sauber, in 2002] I was more like Lewis. I couldn't fight for the championship like him, but I wanted the record every lap. When I got to Ferrari I learnt to be less aggressive, and how to set up the car for my driving style."

For all the elation in Britain when Hamilton pipped him to the title in Interlagos, there was 1,000 times as much woe in Brazil. But Massa, at least half-jokingly, now says he reckons it might have been for the best. "To win the championship, in the last race, in Brazil, that would have been too much, I think. I would have needed a holiday for one or two years." He laughs. "So maybe the reason was to keep me working."

Did he curse a system by which Hamilton could win the title with fewer victories – five compared with Massa's six? "No, because a championship goes from the first race to the last race, and we knew [the points system] before." Nonetheless, if he were made monarch of his sport, if it bent to his every whim, what would he do? "I would make the political problems go away," he says without hesitation. "The people in the grandstand just want to see good driving, good overtaking. But inside the sport everything is about money and politics. It's stupid. And I'm not just talking about Formula One. It's every sport."

Speaking of other sports, football is his main sporting love away from the track, and Kaka a close friend. Indeed, a couple of days before this conversation, Kaka got him tickets to see Jerez against Real Madrid. "I like Milan," says Massa, causing Luca, the Ferrari public relations chief, who is sitting nearby and is a devoted Internazionale supporter, to wince. "But I see that Real Madrid was better for him."

And what have been his own Kaka moments, those game-changing or, in his case, race-changing flourishes of genius? "There have been many," he says, cheerfully. "I drove a fantastic race at Hungary in 2008 but my engine blew up with two laps to go. The Brazilian Grand Prix when I was fighting for the championship. Even last season I had a very good race at Silverstone, starting 11th and finishing fourth. But when you don't win..."

He shrugs, and reminds me that he has won twice before in Bahrain (2007 and 2008) so, as long as all is right with the car, he will head there bursting with confidence. The two races he yearns to win most this season, like every season, are the Brazilian and Italian grands prix. But, for obvious reasons, he also fancies taking the chequered flag in Hungary. "I hope I can do a good job there," he says, "but I also want to thank the guys who helped me." He fingers the scar above his left eye. "I'm looking forward," he adds, "to shaking some hands."

Massa: The stats

Born 25 April, 1981, São Paulo

Teams Sauber (2002, 2004-05), Ferrari (2006+)

Races 116

Wins 11

Podiums 28

Poles 15

Career points 320

First race 2002 Australian GP (finished ninth)

First win 2006 Turkish GP

Season record

2002 13th (4pts)

2003 Test driver

2004 12th (12)

2005 13th (11)

2006 3rd (80)

2007 4th (94)

2008 2nd (97)

2009 11th (22)