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The Essential Stories: Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and one lap at Interlagos

The Essential Stories: Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and one lap at Interlagos

26/11/2019 at 14:52Updated 26/11/2019 at 21:36

THE ESSENTIAL STORIES – On November 2, 2008 the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos played host to the most unbelievable end-of-season showdown in Formula One history.

On that day, Lewis Hamilton was crowned world champion for the first time in his career. But with just three corners of the final race of the season remaining, the crown was perched upon Felipe Massa's head – until the young British driver snatched it from his rival in the blink of an eye. A twist of fate as euphoric for Hamilton as it was cruel for Massa…

Had he known, perhaps Massa would have savoured that fleeting moment a little more. He certainly would have celebrated a bit more wildly – aware that happiness never lasts too long, that fulfilment is but a passing state perpetually doomed to slip back into limbo alongside the gloomy disillusionment of everyday life. He would have probably taken a leaf from René Barjavel's book and remembered his motto: "The happiness of tomorrow does not exist. Happiness is immediately or never."

But unfortunately for Massa, before he knew it, his time was already up. For a mere 38.907 seconds had passed between the moment when the chequered flag fluttered over his visor and the instant his world was turned on its head.

During this tiny, almost ridiculous interval that has forever frozen his place in history by depriving him of glory, Massa still found the composure to wave his finger in the air, as if to say: "I've done it." Because, yes, the Brazilian had indeed done it. He had completed the most perfect race of his life on home soil, delivering the revered hat-trick to which all top drivers aspire in a grand prix: pole position, fastest lap, and the race victory.

What's more, he was on the brink of securing an honour not even the great Ayrton Senna achieved: winning the Formula One world championship in front of the adoring Brazilian crowd. All Massa had to do now was wait – and pray.

Massa crosses the line
" Calm down, calm down, I need to check Hamilton."

Having secured a sixth grand prix victory of the season, more than any other driver in 2008, Massa had begun his lap of honour without knowing what exactly he was celebrating. He steered his Ferrari through Turns 1 and 2 – known as Senna's S – one final time, awaiting news from his team. And then the crackle of the radio finally broke through the cheers of the crowd. A familiar voice, that of his engineer Rob Smedley, delivered the cautionary message: "Calm down, I need to check Hamilton."

"Was I champion or not? I knew something unpredictable was going to happen," Massa revealed a few months later to The Guardian. "It was like I was in a big bubble. I was driving around the track and I could see people were screaming and jumping up and down. But I was not quite sure what it meant. It was very unreal. It was insane."

But Smedley's wariness on the radio would never have prepared Massa for the moment when the engineer delivered his cruel bolt from the blue: "Hang on, it's not over… Hamilton is challenging Glock… OK, he's passed Glock."

At that point, Massa was entering the opposite straight and he was unable to process what he'd just heard. "I was expecting him to tell me: 'you're champion'." The words Massa had always dreamed of. But this dream never became a reality. Those 39 seconds would become an ephemeral joy laced with eternal regret. A hundred thousand local hearts sank in the grandstand as their Brazilian champion became the victim of the most dramatic championship finale in Formula One history.

Felipe Massa

Tears following an apocalyptic downpour

What happened next has been immortalised by cameras and TVs around the world as Massa was forced to wear his disappointment on his sleeve in front of a global audience. Once he'd pulled up in parc fermé in the pit-lane, he opened his visor and wiped tears from his eyes, adding to the apocalyptic downpour which had accompanied an afternoon unlike all others.

War-weary, Massa then complied with the protocol. As winner of the race, he made his way up to the podium for a scene of cruel beauty worthy of a Renaissance painting. A canvas where lingering darkness hung overhead as a reminder of the earlier devastation caused by the threatening clouds upon the battlefield.

At his side stood the two last world champions – Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, respectively second and third in this Brazilian Grand Prix. They had no more desire than Massa to be there at that moment, but neither would have swapped places with the doomed hero of the day, who could not disguise his tears.

This painting would been incomplete had paradise not found a place in it. And in this case, it could be found at the foot of the scene where, under the thick concrete support structure of the podium carrying the misfortune of Massa, Lewis Hamilton was in raptures.

Out of the rain, a Union flag draped over his shoulders and his smile lit up by the artificial light of the paddock, the Briton hugged everyone around him. For 71 laps of this seemingly endless grand prix his glory was in the balance until fate shone upon him at the death. No one would summarise what had happened better than Hamilton when he crossed the finish line and uttered the words, "That was so frickin' close…"

Felipe Massa (Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) - GP of Brasil 2008

5,482 kilometres decided in a few hundred metres

You don't become world champion by chance. Even if events can easily give the opposite impression. There's no denying that, were it not for a few hundred metres, Hamilton would have failed to become the youngest world champion in the history of Formula One. But it is also wrong to claim that the Englishman was unworthy of the 5,482 kilometres which preceded an epilogue beyond the imagination of even the most far-fetched of Hollywood script writers.

Hamilton could have, and perhaps should have, already secured the championship well before being thrown into the lions' den at São Paulo, birthplace of his rival 27 years earlier. But youth has its flaws as well as its qualities, and the destination of the Formula One Drivers' Trophy was still unknown going into the final race of the season. It would all come down to Interlagos, where Hamilton had, one year earlier, let slip a crown that merely had to be placed upon his eminent head.

In 2007, in his maiden season in Formula One, the brilliant and explosive McLaren youngster had set foot in Brazil with a four-point lead over his Spanish team-mate Fernando Alonso, and a seven-point lead over Finland's Kimi Räikkönen. Back then, victories were rewarded with just 10 points, but the rookie sensation still managed to be thrown under the bus by "Räikkö". With the Finn crowned champion by a single point over his two rivals from McLaren, you'd have been hard pressed finding a tighter top three. But what came 12 months later somehow managed to beat it for intensity.

Backed at the bookies when just nine years old

Between the arrival of the British tornado in 2007 and the retirement of the discreet Brazilian in 2017, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa raced against each other for a decade. Massa, in particular, proved an excellent number two when Hamilton would not settle for any other place than that bestowed upon him since the beginning: number one.

If you want to get a glimpse of the talent and promise of the kid born on January 7, 1985 in Stevenage, there's no need to get bogged down by the numerous tales of a childhood synonymous with victory, one during which young Lewis had everyone in unanimous agreement about his brilliance behind the wheel.

Simply remember that in 1994, a guy entered a branch of Ladbrokes and placed a slice of his savings on a boy called Lewis Hamilton winning a Formula One grand prix before he turned 23. At 40/1, the odds were reasonable. Another audacious gambler took things a little further by fluttering a few pounds on the same young man being crowned world champion before his 25th birthday. At the time, Hamilton was only nine. He would win his first GP aged 22 and was world champion a year later.

There was much fanfare when the son of Anthony Hamilton, his biggest supporter, arrived at McLaren in 2007. The first black driver in F1 history did not come to Woking simply to make up the numbers – nor to pander to his elders, for that matter. Certainly not to his double world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso. Cohabitation proved impossible and their collaboration – if you can call it that – only lasted a year.

Unsurprisingly, Ron Dennis chose the side of the phenomenon he discovered in the mid 90s. Convinced by a 10-year-old kid who had the temerity to boast that he would one day drive a racing car, the McLaren boss took to Hamilton from the outset. And he clearly saw him as Alonso's equal when the Spaniard expected him to assist his quest for a third world title in a row.

Lewis Hamilton en 1995

Lewis Hamilton en 1995Getty Images

Massa, more Barrichello than Senna

As for Felipe Massa, he had a more serene relationship with the silent and impenetrable Finn, Kimi Räikkönen. If it came to comparing Brazilian drivers, Massa was obviously closer in style to Rubens Barrichello than he was Ayrton Senna. This may explain why Massa took over from "Rubinho" to drive alongside the all-conquering Michael Schumacher in 2006.

Before joining the Scuderia, Massa had lived something of a hand-to-mouth existence at Sauber. One season, in 2003, he was even without a race seat, a snub he took extremely badly. "I had a lot of self-doubt at the time. Peter Sauber had taken the decision as I was starting to get better and better. I had even become stronger than my team-mate Nick Heidfeld. I did not deserve being shown the door." But something good came out of it. His year in the wilderness was spent with Sauber's engine suppliers, Ferrari, gaining experience by testing for the championship-winning team. He got himself noticed by Schumi and, in 2006, after a second stint at Sauber, became one of Ferrari's two drivers.

Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa

Michael Schumacher and Felipe MassaGetty Images

When the famous 2008 season arrived, Massa had already won five grands prix with the mythical Prancing Horse and was still the team-mate of a world champion in Räikkönen. The talented Finn had taken over the reigns from the legendary Schumacher, winning the championship at his first attempt. But happiness and success would not last long for Räikkönen, who struggled in the defence of his crown. Despite two early wins – in Malaysia and Spain – Räikkönen was unable to replicate his championship-winning form. His only number one was the sticker on his car in a season which eventually saw the Finn engulfed in a black hole.

Three challengers become two

Half-way through the championship, after Silverstone, three drivers were remarkably tied on 48 points. Each of them had enjoyed a moment in the hot seat leading the standings. For Massa, it was after the French Grand Prix – and for the first time in his career. After that solid start, Räikkö lost further ground towards the end of the summer and the trio became a duo. From this point, Hamilton constantly raced with a slender lead in the drivers' standings, with Massa snapping at his heels.

The two rivals would both squander a fair few opportunities that year. Most notably Massa, who had an engine failure in Hungary – three laps from the finish when leading and while Hamilton was well off the pace. All that hard work for nothing. And then there were those scenes in Singapore. Starting in pole position, Massa later managed to exit the pits with the fuel hose still attached to his car. The costly mistake forced him to the back of the field of a race that would go down in history for other far more controversial reasons. (Renault later admitted that their team had instructed Nelson Piquet Junior to crash deliberately in the hope of helping Alonso win.)

If the 2008 season came down to a long duel between Hamilton and Massa, then it's worth noting that on only three occasions did they finish first and second all year. Two races before Interlagos, a critical leg of their duel took place in the Japanese Grand Prix on the Mount-Fuji circuit. Hamilton quickly lost his advantage from qualifying after a wildly aggressive start from pole that saw him tangle with Räikkönen. He found himself six places back and behind… Massa, who did not bat an eyelid.

In the second lap, the kamikaze Hamilton tried to pass his rival, who knocked him into a spin. Hamilton could not contain his anger, later claiming Massa's move was "as deliberate as it could be". It was a blow for the Briton, whose lead going into the race was just seven points. Both received drive-through penalties in Japan as Massa finished seventh to cut his rival's gap to five points ahead of the penultimate race.

"I had a bad start and my first thought was to fight for position and not let anyone else get past me," Hamilton told Le Figaro, trying to justify his aggressive drive. "It came from the heart, not the head. But I can't change how I am. I'm a racing driver." An admission, perhaps, from Hamilton that he couldn't drive other way than going all in and putting the pedal to the metal.

In Shanghai, he got his McLaren back on track with one of those perfect hat-tricks, bringing him a little closer to the title. Winner from pole ahead of Massa, the tyro was now just 71 laps away from a coronation that he had dreamed about since driving remote control cars as a child. It was more or less the same situation as 2007 – except that instead of four points to play with over two challengers in the rear-view mirror, Hamilton had a cushion of seven points over his only rival. Regardless of what Massa did, fifth place for Hamilton in Interlagos would have been enough. But with the spectre of 2007 still looming, Hamilton was only too aware that nothing was impossible in sport, even if he was confident ahead of the finale.

"Last year, without any experience, I was a bit lost. But this year, we arrive with a better approach, a better package, and I think that the team has done a better job. Look at China, where we were able to recover after Japan," he told The Guardian.

Tensions rise after Jordan provocation

Hamilton and Massa were opponents, not enemies. But as their epic duel reached boiling point, one voice – perhaps ill inspired – threw oil onto the flames. Eddie Jordan, the former boss of the team bearing his name, made a dig at Massa while offering some advice to Hamilton: "People may not like me for saying this, but if Massa tries to take him out, as he did in Japan, in order to steal the title, then Lewis has to be ready for it. If he tries that on (in Brazil) then Lewis has to turn his wheel into Massa to ensure he does not finish the race either."

This angered Massa, who replied: "Playing dirty has never been part of my game. The only thing on my mind is winning the race. The rest does not depend on me. Since he sold his team, Eddie Jordan has had nothing to do with F1 except for what he says in the press!" Jordan was trying to turn Massa-Hamilton into a remake of Senna-Prost. But he failed. São Paulo would not be Suzuka. Because there would be no duel.

That said, pressure is more than what is put in the tyres. And Massa tried his best to heap some on the shoulders of Hamilton, who faced a weekend in a hostile environment – one that was clearly more conducive to favouring his rival. "Lewis will try to put pressure on me, but I have zero pressure because I have nothing to lose. I have my people behind me and all the pressure will be on him," Massa said. He couldn't resist adding: "We all know what happened last year…"

Felipe Massa et Lewis Hamilton à Interlagos en 2008

Felipe Massa et Lewis Hamilton à Interlagos en 2008Getty Images

Massa romping home

Sunday, November 2. The day had come. For the third year running at Interlagos, Massa had treated his home crowds to a Brazilian on pole. A restrained Hamilton was fourth on the grid. Massa knew exactly what he needed to do to give himself a shot of becoming the first Brazilian world champion since Senna was crowned in 1991: anything less than a victory wouldn't do. That he stuck to the plan, quite brilliantly, was only half the story – and certainly not the essential part.

The race was unique in many ways. Most notably for the dark clouds which, often unpredictable in this corner of the planet, lingered threateningly around the circuit. It was not quite as bad as the unthinkable deluge of 2003, but the bad weather would play a major role and force the protagonists in this final act to launch hostilities with a 10-minute delay to the scheduled start. This was owing to a violent and sudden shower which brought about collective tyre change on the grid. Finally, the drivers were ready.

If Massa dominated the spectacle, it was Hamilton who clung wisely to the fourth place he hoped to maintain all the way to the finish. Then the heavens opened again to add yet more spice to the race – and a glimmer of hope to Massa. This was on the 64th of 71 laps. Two laps later, Alonso (second), Räikkönen (third), Hamilton (fourth) and Sebastian Vettel (fifth) dived into the pits for 'intermediate' wet-weather tyres to avoid any unpleasant surprises. At this point, Hamilton still had his destiny in his own hands. Far ahead, Massa followed suit one lap later before continuing his procession to victory.

Glock the intruder

During this pit-stop drama, an intruder managed to infiltrate the four leaders: Timo Glock. The German Toyota driver went from seventh to fourth because he and his engineers had decided not to pit in a daring bid to make it to the finish with dry tyres. It was a bit of a gamble, but one that could have paid off big. After the tyre-changing chaos, Glock found himself far ahead of Hamilton who, now fifth, had Vettel's Toro Rosso breathing down his neck. With delicate tyres, Hamilton was finding it increasingly hard to keep his car on the track as he fought a battle for fifth that would decide the entire championship.

Hamilton devant Vettel à Interlagos

As if Glock and his young compatriot Vettel were not enough, another improbable extra had dropped in: Robert Kubica. The Pole had already been lapped but he was driving quicker than both Vettel and Hamilton. As a result, the BMW driver un-lapped himself by overtaking both drivers on the straight towards the stands. Hamilton clumsily overshot a bend, inviting Vettel to surge past. The Briton suddenly found himself in sixth place, making Massa the virtual world champion.

"At that moment I had no idea I might be influencing the championship," Vettel later told ESPN. "When Lewis went wide, it was natural to take the position. I was racing for Toro Rosso for the final time and I wanted to go out with the best result possible."

" "Man, you've got to be kidding me! Not again!""

In that instant, Hamilton's world nosedived and he had just two laps to turn things around. "When it started to rain again, I struggled to keep my speed. I did not want to take any risks. I also had problems with my tyres, and I couldn't do much more than try to keep the car on course. I remember thinking, 'Man, you've got to be kidding me! Not again!'"

Spoiler alert: Hamilton would never catch Vettel, the fiery Toro Rosso driver, who would cross the finish line almost one second clear of the champion elect. But the infamous Timo Glock still had a major part to play.

With two laps to go, the German was 15.2 seconds clear of Vettel and Hamilton. A lap later, he had only lost three seconds. On paper, his lead and the pace of Vettel suggested that Hamilton was once again going to leave São Paulo with his tail between his legs. Except that fate decreed otherwise.

The rainfall had intensified, and Glock's dry tyres no longer had any grip. He was like a deer on an ice rink. "It wasn't going so badly until the last lap," Glock recalled. "Then it became impossible. The car became undriveable. I was slipping and sliding around and I had no grip. I knew it would be a massive struggle just to finish."

At this point in time, Hamilton was the least of the German's worries. "I could barely keep the car pointing forwards. I didn't even know that Lewis was behind me. The team were speaking about Sebastian Vettel who was closing in. But I didn't pay attention to any of that because I only wanted to keep my car on the track. It was only after the race that I saw Lewis had overtaken me. Three or four guys passed me on the last lap but, honestly, I had no idea what was happening."

Lewis Hamilton au Brésil en 2008

Lewis Hamilton au Brésil en 2008Getty Images

Last race, last lap, last chance

In the McLaren box, it took rather less time for the realisation to sink in that Hamilton had one final shot because of Glock's problems. "At the time, the way the communications were at McLaren, there was a guy called Richard Hopkirk on the pit-wall communicating with Lewis," Phil Prew, the McLaren race engineer, recalled to ESPN. "I lost all radio protocol: 'Tell Lewis that Glock is the man we need to focus on.' Richard said, 'Well I can't just tell him now, he's coming through a corner.' I cut him off and said, 'Just f***ing tell him!'"

The information eventually reached the ears of the future world champion: "They explained to me that Glock was just ahead and that I had to pass him. I didn't know how far ahead he was but I knew that he was on dry tyres. I was also battling with Vettel but he was on a faster tyre than me. I prayed that I'd catch Glock in time and I finally noticed him exiting Turn 10."

For two laps, with his car skidding in the wake of Vettel, Hamilton clung to his dream like a castaway to a raft. And then, suddenly, in the climb up to the final hill, where Vettel had zipped by two laps earlier, Hamilton noticed his lifeline in the form of Glock, in his sinking ship. Hamilton overtook him in the blink of an eye at the exact same spot. Fifteen seconds later, the Briton crossed the line to finish fifth. He was world champion. History had been rewritten in those fifteen seconds.

Ferrari left to rue premature celebrations

Felipe Massa, meanwhile, was on his victory lap on the other side of the circuit. Jubilation reigned supreme in the Ferrari garage. The Brazilian's family and the entire Scuderia team were ecstatic. They were jumping for joy, singing, crying. The only thing missing was the champagne – the corks had yet to be popped. Which is just as well, for what a waste that would have been…

"When Sebastian passed Lewis, we started off some celebrations in the garage," said Massa's brother, Dudu. "But I remember me and my dad asking people to calm down. My mum was starting to cry but my dad told her, 'No, no, wait – not until he finishes'. Then we got told Hamilton was fifth, not sixth. A mechanic told the family, 'Felipe didn't win the championship'. The guy was feeling really bad. He smashed the wall with his head."

The penny quickly dropped for Nicole Scherzinger, the Pussycat Dolls singer. It was her boyfriend who had taken the spoils. If her heart was about to explode, Hamilton's was pounding with uncertainty: "I was shouting, 'Do I have it? Do I have it?', and then as I went into Turn 1 they told me. I was ecstatic. I'll never forget that moment. I had been so lucky. I don’t know how I would have come back from losing the championship on the last lap."

Massa quickly realised his fate. The pain was immense. He went out, got drunk, and didn't manage to sleep a wink that night. And if the Brazilian did his best to put the setback quickly behind him, it was something from which he never fully recovered. The 11th grand prix victory of his F1 career would be his last. Afterwards, nothing would ever be the same.

The following season, his F60 car was not a match for his main rivals. Massa, too, had lost something. The Brazilian was also the victim of an incredible and extremely rare accident during qualifying at the Hungaroring when a tiny suspension spring weighing 700 grams fell off the Brawn car of his compatriot Rubens Barrichello and hit him right on the helmet at more than 270km/h, leading to a head-on collision into a tyre barrier. The result: multiple fractures to his skull and cuts around his left eye, leaving everyone fearing the worst. Massa underwent surgery before taking a step back to put his career on hold. After his comeback in 2010, he never finished higher than sixth in the world championship standings.

Glock's death threats

It would take a few years for Hamilton to fully digest this precocious triumph. Six years, to be precise – for his second world title did not come until 2014 before the floodgates opened, resulting in an unparalleled (and ongoing) run which currently stands at five championships in six years.

Like Massa, Timo Glock would never be crowned world champion. And like Massa, that last lap of the 2007 season has been a weight around his neck ever since. While some impetuous journalists accused him of taking bribes, the German even received death threats.

"We had letters come into my family, to my dad and mum's house, about how I had done this and how people should shoot me, that I shouldn't be in the sport anymore. It was pretty extreme." Thankfully, they remained hollow threats. In any case, the camera on board his Toyota would fully clear him of any suspicion. The truth is, that day, Glock tried his best in a bad situation. Like Hamilton. And, indeed, like Massa, who somehow remained stoic about the circumstances which denied him the championship.

"If the rain had worsened one minute later, I would have won the title. It had to be that way. I believe things happen for a reason. Maybe one day I will find out why. I will keep that with me all my life. I'll never be able to forget it. I don't think anyone will."

Amazingly, Massa could even put a positive spin on his disappointment. Speaking to The Guardian four months after his Interlagos heartbreak, he said: "You learn a lot in this kind of situation. Sometimes, in a different way, I think it maybe could have been too much – to win the title at the very end in Brazil. What would have happened to me?"

Written by Maxime Dupuis, translated by Felix Lowe

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