Massa: 'I always believe the next race can be better'

He lost the world title on the final corner. Now he's in a car that's off the pace. But Felipe Massa tells David Tremayne that he'll still keep the faith at Ferrari
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The Independent Online

As theatre goes, Formula One had never seen anything like it. Backdropped by glittering lights and the rain-filled anger of an evening sky, little Felipe Massa refused to let his head drop in defeat but stood like a giant atop the podium.

His arm repeatedly touched his heart and then gestured as if throwing it to his compatriots who, minutes earlier, believed he had become their first world champion since Ayrton Senna. Now, suddenly aware that a final twist of fate had sent the 2008 world title to McLaren rival Lewis Hamilton, who had snatched the fifth place he needed literally only hundreds of yards from the last finish line of the year, they cheered their damp-haired, dark-eyed hero to the echo.

As Massa had brought his victorious Ferrari across the finish line, cameras captured the proud embrace of father Luis Antonio Massa and younger brother Eduardo, and then in the cruellest fate, the moment when other Ferrari people realised that, in passing Timo Glock's Toyota exiting the last corner, Hamilton had beaten them by one point. Further down the pit road, Hamilton's girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, the Pussycat Doll singer, leapt up and down in unbridled joy, having already done the mathematics.

Sometimes the line between great success and heroic sporting failure is never drawn more sharply. Yet the failure, and the very nature of it, made Massa a hero in his home town and across the globe.

"People respect me a lot more because of that," he admits. "It was all a bit sad, for sure, but the reaction of the people seems to have improved. In Brazil if you finish second, you are a nobody. That was the first time that a guy has finished second and been more important because of it."

He also admits that he was proud of his behaviour that day. Sure, there were tears, immediately afterwards in the cockpit when he reached parc ferme. But no tantrum. He climbed out, sucked it all up, stood tall, and gave his heart to his people. No beaten warrior could have behaved with greater dignity. "It was the last race, I was seven points behind. I needed pole position and to do everything the perfect way, and to lose the world championship on the last corner when it is not your fault... You cannot be anything different from proud of yourself. So I just tried to express my feelings."

When he crossed that finish line he believed that he had won, not just the race but the title. At the start of that lap, Hamilton had been fifth, pushed down a crucial place by an aggressive Sebastian Vettel in a Toro Rosso.

"When I crossed the line, I waited to hear. Then my engineer, Rob Smedley, came on the radio straight away when Lewis passed Timo Glock. I was going through Corner Three by then and I looked to the grandstand. All these people were running to the edge of the track, down the hill, and I knew I had not won the title when I saw all these guys going back. They were going even faster than me!"

Some pointed accusatory fingers at Glock, an old-fashioned racer, suggesting that he had deliberately let Hamilton overtake, thus depriving Massa of what many deemed to be his just deserts. Lap-sector times and corner speeds gave the lie to that; the German driver was simply overwhelmed in the deluge on his dry-road tyres. "Many people said I should fight him," Massa shrugs. "For what? Would it have changed anything? For me, he did nothing wrong. Two guys could have helped me: Sebastian Vettel and Glock. Vettel was a big help, but I wouldn't expect Glock to do anything and he didn't want to be overtaken."

That night Massa and his wife, Rafaela, went back to their home in Morumbi, in Sao Paulo. "It was still like a dream, you know? Did that really happen? Like that? We were with some friends. I was OK, but a bit sad. You know? We were talking, and then people started to arrive and suddenly we were having a big party. I got to bed at six o'clock Monday morning. That was a big help. The day after is the day after... To be honest I was pretty relaxed straight away about everything. I did everything right. If you lose the world championship because of a big mistake that would be much more difficult. But I won the race, I had a great world championship all season, I won six races. It was disappointing, sure, but... Sometimes I think about it, but not much."

He is not like Doug Sanders who lost the Open on the last putt in 1970 and, when asked in later years whether he could ever forget that, replied: "Sure. Sometimes I can even forget about it for minutes at a time.

"I'm not the kind of person who always thinks of the past," Massa smiles. "I think of reality."

Hamilton himself had lost the 2007 title in the final race, also in Brazil. Like the Englishman, many expected Massa to roll the momentum of his great title challenge into 2009. But three races in, he has zero points to his name, and risks being forgotten the way that Jenson Button was until fate and his own belief in Ross Brawn's team guided him into a Brawn-Mercedes. A less determined man might have lost his motivation by now, but Massa, who celebrates his 28th birthday today, has a big heart. He shrugs at the very suggestion and gives you one of those race driver's looks. "A driver... even when things aren't great, a driver is always motivated. I am always high, I always believe the next race can be better. Not that it can be worse.

"I am always strong but you need the car, you need the possibility to be competitive. The first race this year, even if the car was not strong, it was possible to be in the points. The second race was unfortunate. I was having a great race in China, and had very, very good pace. I had 40kg more fuel than Vettel and I was only half a second off his times. But then I had a software problem. Can you believe, some journalist in Brazil suggested that I had run out of fuel, yet I still had a lot more laps in the car and he could have worked that out from the fuel load at the start..."

Massa's laugh is genuine, but not malicious, the chuckle of somebody unable to understand why somebody else could forget to consider all the salient facts at his fingertips. He had a point.

So is he stronger as a result of what happened to him in 2008?

"I think so. I hope to have the possibility to do it again, but we need to improve our situation. Right now we don't know who will really be our main rival over the season. For sure Brawn [he pronounces it Brown], Red Bull. And Ferrari, Renault and McLaren are growing. So who will be quickest? Maybe all of them will grow quicker; when we all get the two-tier diffusers, development will accelerate."

He concedes that the diffuser is only part of the reason for the speed of the Brawn, but adds: "It can be seven-tenths of a second one day to the other, that's something very important."

Ferrari had initially planned to have their first new diffuser ready in June for Turkey, where Massa has recently been unbeatable. Then it became for Monaco in late May. Now the F60 will have a two-tier diffuser by Barcelona at the beginning of May.

"I think is a good car, but it is still young," he says. "The car is efficient, but lacks grip in general. But we can add downforce to it. The reliability... well, we also need to work on that..."

Unquestionably Felipe Massa stands out as the most charismatic of the current breed of race driver, and admirably he has resisted the pitfall of becoming a corporate man, yet still managed to be any marketing director's dream. When he speaks, it comes from the heart. You hope that he will get his chance, and have his day in the sun. A fate that would deny him that would be crueller still than the one that befell him in Interlagos last November.

My Other Life: Video games and poker

"I have a very good life away from the race track. Sure, I like to relax, to hang out with my wife, Rafaella, and my family. I'm like any Brazilian race driver: I love to play with jet skis, to be on the beach, near the water. But when I am at home my favourite way to relax is to play computer games. Always the racing games! When I want to keep my mind sharp, I also play a lot of poker. I have a regular group of friends with whom I play whenever I am not away racing. It's another good way to relax and enjoy friends."