With Williams’ Felipe Massa announcing his retirement from the sport and McLaren-Honda’s Jenson Button revealing plans for a year away from racing in 2017, next year’s F1 season is set for a void in driver talent and character alike. Jennie Gow reflects on the bowing out of two of motorsport’s great personalities, and asks what significance the timing of the announcements will mean for the enduring legacy of the pair.
It must be hard being a sportsperson. When you’ve had a great career, it must be hard to know when the right time is to step away. Many have timed it perfectly and left at the top of their game, not tarnishing the memories of what they have achieved at their peek by dragging out a long goodbye. Look at the likes of Rocky Marciano – calling time on his career aged 32 with a record in the ring of 49-0, 43 wins coming by way of knockout. Or Mark Spitz, one of the greatest swimmers the world has ever seen – winning nine gold medals, one silver and a bronze across two Olympics before quitting, aged 22, at the height of his career.
Others have timed it less well. Kobe Bryant is one who comes to mind – At 37, the basketball star battled injury and a body that had competed at the height of his sport for 20 years. The news that he was finally retiring was met with relief as opposed to shock and sadness, and had been years in the making.
In the world of motorsport, the age of drivers has been decreasing for years. Long gone are the days when a driver would first step into a car in their thirties, like Damon Hill and Clay Regazzoni. Just look at Max Verstappen, announced as an F1 driver at the tender age of 16, with certain drivers on the grid old enough to be his Dad!
Over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix, two of the most loved and respected members of the paddock essentially called time on their careers in F1, but in very different ways.
First, it was the turn of Felipe Massa at Williams. The man who came so close to winning the World Championship in 2008 has battled through major injury and personal tragedy during his time in F1. And at the end of 2016, he will turn his back on the sport at the age of 35 – the 3rd oldest driver in the championship.
Speaking to a packed motorhome in Monza, Massa said; “My career has been more than I ever expected and I am proud of what I have achieved. Finally, it is a great honour to finish my career at such an amazing team as Williams Martini Racing. It will be an emotional day when I finally conclude my Formula One career with my 250th Grand Prix start in Abu Dhabi.”
No doubt, Massa is one of the good guys in the sport. Liked by everyone, his easy-going manner and amazing relationship with his race engineer Rob Smedley has made generations of racing fans fall in love with the Brazilian.
My favourite memory of Massa would have to be the grace with which he accepted his fate at his home Grand Prix in Brazil, in 2008. For a couple of moments as he crossed the line in first place, he was a World Champion. Watching on, his ever-present father celebrated and tears were unleashed. But all of a sudden, in the pouring rain of Sao Paulo, Lewis Hamilton – the young whipper-snapper at the time – came charging around the final corners, overtaking Timo Glock to finish in 5th place… Just enough to snatch the title from Massa.
Yet, Massa took to the podium as a true Gentleman – under leaden skies, walking to the fans and banging his chest while the crowd cheered his name. Tears welled in his eyes as he stood in the bright glare of the floodlights. Never had the top step of an F1 podium been so painful. Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen flanked him on either side and, as the anthem finished, Massa raised his hands to the skies and thumped his chest again – using the support of his home crowd to get through the moment. All the while, Lewis Hamilton celebrated in the pit lane.
It was a moment that endeared him to Formula One fans forever, and one which showed just how cruel sport can be. The very next year, he was lucky to survive an accident during qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix when he was struck in the head by a loose spring. It took him the rest of the season to recover, but he was well enough to wave the chequered flag at the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of that year.
Massa’s family have travelled the world to support their man. His little son, Felipinho, is often seen in the paddock playing football with almost anyone that will kick the ball back at him. And when his Dad was on the podium for the last time in Italy in 2015, he was right underneath to celebrate and see his Daddy lorded in front of the Italian fans who, incidentally, will always love him as one of their own for his time at Ferrari.
Could Massa have left earlier? Some might argue he has clung on to his seat in F1 in search of that illusive last win for a little too long. Whatever his rationale for choosing to retire now, many will say that the effect of losing his protégé and close friend Jules Bianchi last year, was the moment he finally decided it was time to step away from the sport. Massa will always continue to be a great advocate of Formula One, and I can’t see him stepping away from racing completely any time soon.
As soon as Massa had announced his retirement in Monza, speculation went into overdrive as everyone assumed the way would be paved for Jenson Button to return to Williams – the team at which he started his F1 career – and see out his days in the paddock racing for Sir Frank Williams. However, those rumours were well and truly scotched on Saturday night when the 2009 World Champion announced he would be taking a sabbatical next season but would stay in the world of F1 for another two years, firstly as an ambassador for McLaren-Honda and then, potentially – depending on Alonso and Button’s replacement, Stoffel Vandoorne – stepping back into the cockpit in 2018.
Many say it’s a clever move for Button, giving him time to have a life away from the sport next year – a chance “to get his mind balanced, re-established and relaxed”, as Ron Dennis put it. He can spend time with family and friends, eat what he likes, train when he wants and not have his life dictated by the F1 calendar.
Never say never but, realistically, I doubt if we will ever see Button racing in an F1 car again after 2016. Making a comeback as Alain Prost did isn’t so easy. But Jenson will always have a very special place in the hearts of F1 fans. It was his father’s dream to see his son an F1 Champion, and it was wonderful that before his death, John Button was able to share that ultimate prize with his son. They travelled the world together and, boy, what a life they shared on the road. John was one of the nicest, funniest men I have ever had the pleasure to meet, and I will be forever grateful that I got to share a little of their time and journey on the F1 road.
My favourite Jenson Button memory? It would have to be my very first race in an F1 paddock working for the BBC – Montreal, 2011. Boy, it rained that day. And the race went on forever. Button started at the back, then he was fighting his way through the field until he was finally in second place, pressurising the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel. Then, in the last few moments of the race, Vettel lost control of his car and Button flashed past to take the chequered flag. It was a unique moment and an extremely hard fought victory.
There I was in the paddock, stood with most of the media, cheering on my fellow Brit. I usually manage to stay pretty impartial when I’m at a race, but not that day. That day, I couldn’t help myself. What a victory. What a fairytale. What a whopper of a race!
Neither Massa nor Button have been on the top step for some years. Button last won in Brazil, in 2012. And Massa’s last was THAT podium in Brazil in 2008.
Knowing when to quit a sport you not only love but are darn good at must be a very tough call. But with so many talented youngsters coming through at the moment, I think it’s fair to say these man step away to leave room for others waiting in the wings to have their shot at a World Championship. Kimi Raikkonen will now become the oldest man in the field, ahead of Fernando Alonso – Time will tell if either of those men leave at the right time. Unless they can return to the podium very soon, I fear they might be more Kobe than Rocky.