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The end of the 2017 Formula season will see Felipe Massa’s 15 year-long career finally draw to a close. Having driven for 3 teams, he will mainly be remembered for his time at Ferrari, where he was team-mates with some of the greatest drivers of the modern era: Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso, and came within a corner of beating Lewis Hamilton to the 2008 world championship. But is there a case for Massa to be considered a driver of the very highest calibre too? Was he simply unlucky throughout his career?
Massa started his career at Sauber 2002, and despite showing plenty of speed, made too many errors for the teams liking. He lost his race seat for 2003, testing for Ferrari, before returning to Sauber in 2004. He was comprehensively beaten on points by team mate Fisichella (12- 22), and just outscored the underwhelming Jacques Villeneuve 11-9. Many would argue that his promotion to race seat at Ferrari for 2006, alongside Michael Schumacher was something of a surprise, and not fully deserved. However, Ferrari clearly saw potential for a driver capable of notching up podiums and even race wins supporting Schumacher as a number 2 driver, under the traditional Ferrari model.
They were right to do so. By the end of 2006, Massa had registered 2 wins at Turkey and his native Brazil, and 5 other podiums, outscoring Ferrari’s main rivals (Renault) number 2 driver, Fisichella. Schumacher’s departure meant the arrival of Raikonnen at Maranello for 2007, and Massa had more of a responsibility. He stepped up with 4 wins and 7 other podiums, but some bad luck with reliability meant he was 15 points away from world champion Raikkonen and the Mclarens of Hamilton and Alonso.
2008 saw Massa reach another level. He outscored Raikkonen by 22 points, and won 4 times, losing out on the world championship to Hamilton by a single point. Had he avoided an accident in either of the opening 2 races of the season, or if his engine hadn’t blown whilst leading in Hungary with 3 laps to go, Felipe Massa would have been world champion. He also managed to spin an unbelievable 5 times at Silverstone in the wet, when Hamilton produced a masterclass in wet weather driving to win.
Ferrari produced a relatively uncompetitive car for 2009, but Massa had been outscoring Raikkonen once again before a horrific accident which left him in a coma with a fractured skull. He missed the rest of the season, but his recovery for the start of the 2010 season was highly impressive.
Despite 2 podiums in his first 2 races back, Fernando Alonso had replaced Raikkonen at Ferrari for 2010, and comfortably outscored Massa every season they raced together, at 2013. Massa fell back into the number 2 role he had accommodated in 2006 with Schumacher, and obeyed team orders to sacrifice winning the 2010 German grand prix so Alonso could take victory. Massa’s results seemed ever poorer as the years went by. Whilst Alonso was 2nd 3 times, and 4th in the championships, Massa could only manage 6th twice, 7th and 8th. It was no surprise when he was dropped in favour of Raikkonen for 2014, when Massa moved to Williams.
His time at Williams has most certainly proved happier than the later years at Ferrari, despite being outscored by Valtteri Bottas in each of their 3 years as team mates. He managed 5 podiums in a reasonably competitive car, and is just ahead of rookie team-mate Lance Stroll in this year’s standings at present, but it’s certainly not anything groundbreaking.
To put his career into perspective, Massa spent 8 years at the most prestigious team in the history of the sport, with 11 wins and competing against some of the very best drivers the sport has seen in recent times. He was certainly a match for Raikkonen, but was nowhere near the level of Alonso. It will always be asked whether Massa’s accident affected his level of driving, but unfortunately, it’s impossible to gauge an accurate answer. Massa’s performances were somewhat authenticated when Raikkonen was even further away from Alonso’s level, having replaced Massa in 2014.
So, can Massa be considered among the greats of this generation? Even though he was unlucky in 2008, a driver with more natural talent would surely have won the title in the Ferrari, and would have avoided a number of errors which ultimately cost him the crown. His performances in comparison to other drivers has come to show that he isn’t amongst the highest calibre of drivers, but also that Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t deserve to be considered amongst them either. The two of them deserve to come under the “best of the rest” category amongst other race winners of the 21st century such as Coulthard, Barichello and Webber.