Massa is one of the nicest men in Formula One. When I first interviewed him at the 2002 Malaysian Grand Prix he was a fresh-faced youngster preparing for his second race in F1 and was more relaxed than you could ever imagine, given the pressures of performing in his debut season.
We talked not about Formula One but about football, music and Brazil. It was perhaps a refreshing change from the pounding of questions on how he was settling in at Sauber in the world of F1.
From then to now, the sport has not changed him – but that is perhaps one of the reasons why he has never quite made the grade.
Unlike many drivers in the paddock, he always has a nod and a smile for people he passes. When he was let go by Ferrari, after eight successful years as a firm number two to a variety of team-mates (bar one season when he was de-facto number one), words like ‘professional’, ‘dignity’ and plain ‘nice’ were used to describe him.
I remember the day he secured his contract for Ferrari. I saw him at the back of the Sauber motor home, when rumours of his Ferrari move were flying around. I asked simply if it was done. All I got was a nod and a smile – but this time was different. It was one of ambition.
Sadly for Massa, the dream of settling in at the Scuderia and taking over at the top once Schumacher moved on never happened as first Raikkonen and then Alonso stepped into the German’s shoes.
And just when Massa was threatening to show he was a match, at least, for Raikkonen, his accident in Hungary literally knocked him out of action. He has never really come back as strong as he was then.
Part of that is down to the shackles on him at Ferrari. There have been tracks where he has excelled and others where he has struggled, but often he has had to give away successes he had worked hard to achieve.
But many see him lacking the hard edge and the consistency required to be a top driver, and that’s why his future in F1 remains up in the air.
It’s no good harking back to the 2008 season, when he had done what he needed to win the title only for Lewis Hamilton to snatch it by grabbing an extra point on his final lap.
That was five years ago.
It’s recent form upon which drivers are judged – but at least by confirming his departure in mid-September Ferrari has given Massa a chance to shine.
Since the shackles have come off, Massa has out-qualified Alonso in four out of five races – an impressive achievement, although one dismissed by Alonso, who claims his own preference for race set-up choices has made the difference.
Indeed, in races, Massa has still failed to match Alonso – taking 27 points to the Spaniard’s 48 and finishing in an average position of 7.4 compared to Alonso’s 5.6. His average points per race since the announcement has, in fact, gone down and in Japan, Massa even ignored team orders and forced Alonso to fight past in his bid to impress.
Unlike Rubens Barrichello, who left Ferrari with a Honda deal already signed, Massa has no firm future, much like Heikki Kovalainen had nothing fixed when he left McLaren in 2009.
But like Kovalainen, who eventually joined Lotus, winning experience and knowledge of current top-level team operations are valuable assets. And for Massa, so too is being the only Brazilian worth signing, with a number of Brazilian companies keen to sponsor in F1.
The good news for Massa is that reports in September suggested his long-term race engineer Rob Smedley was closing in on a deal with Williams for next season.
Current Williams lead driver Pastor Maldonado is looking to leave and has already held talks with Sauber and Force India. His £20m backing from PDVSA would be a boost for a number of teams – but importantly for Massa, get-out clauses could land Williams with enough funds to afford to sign him up.
What hasn’t been much mentioned, however, is the possibility of Massa reuniting with Ferrari-powered Sauber and continuing in the Ferrari family. With Nico Hulkenberg destined for Lotus, there could be a seat and although it may be that Ferrari would prefer to look to the future and move Jules Bianchi across from Marussia, they are also keen to look out for Massa.
Either way, there are still some potentially strong options for Massa in 2014 – and I, like many in the paddock, hope to see him stick around...
MASSA CAREER STATS
Fastest laps: 14
Ferrari starts: 137 - 2nd behind Schumacher (179)
Ferrari wins: 11 - 4th behind Ascari (13), Lauda (15), Schumacher (72)
Ferrari poles: 15 – 3rd behind Lauda (23), Schumacher (58)
PERFORMANCE AT FERRARI
|C’ship Pos’n||% off title||Team-mate||% off team-mate|