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(This article has been translated from the original in Portuguese)
I’m not particularly good at music. I listen to it, and appreciate it, of course, and I’ve even posed as a guitarist with a badass guitar that Ferrari released once. But my musical talent, if you can call it that, stops there. This is a big confession for a Brazilian, I know. But in my memory, from the time I was just a baby in my crib, the sounds of my life have come from the rumble under the hood and from the rubber screaming on the asphalt.
This is my soundtrack.
And Interlagos is my symphony.
If you know the classic Brazilian song “Sampa,” then you understand what I mean when I say that something happens in my heart every time I come back to that special place south of Ipiranga and São João Avenue.
Every time that November and the Brazilian Grand Prix arrive, I feel a bit nostalgic, even a bit emotional, and anxious to be at Interlagos once again.
I was born in São Paulo, in the Itaim neighborhood. I was raised upstate in Botucatu. I lived in Switzerland and Italy, and due to my job, I have slept in so many cities that I lost count. But no place moves me as much as this little part of the south of São Paulo.
Looking back, I think the great emotions I felt in all these years in motorsport somehow converge on the curves, the drizzle, the atmosphere and, especially, on the unparalleled straight of Interlagos. Maybe the only way to understand this is sitting inside a cockpit, accelerating at full speed.
In Interlagos, something happens in my heart.
Even as a baby in the crib, I could already perceive this power. Because my father raced cars as a hobby. He participated in a competition called Brands and Drivers. Ingo Hoffmann, Xandy Negrão, Chico Serra, Paulo Gomes, all these legends raced against my father. To tell you the truth, they all finished in front of him. But damn the truth, in this case, because this was not an issue that my childhood imagination could not correct!
You see, in one of my earliest memories, I am in my bedroom, in our São Paulo apartment, and on the floor in front of me, there are a lot of colored pencils scattered around. I pick them up one by one, and with them, I first draw a fabulous, giant straight line. Then, with the smaller stubs, I make an open left curve. And then another, S-shaped, green, red, orange, blue, white, violet…. I line up the colors, and when the last pencil reaches the first, closing the circuit, a racetrack comes to life on the carpet.
I probably had some square corners! I’m sure it was far from perfect! But my colorful racetrack was born with two fundamental characteristics for me. First, I would always call it Interlagos. Second, my father would always be in front of everyone. In that world of mine, under my rules, my imagination would fly, and I would compete with myself. I would “drive” four or five toy cars through the pencil track, record the times, form the grid, flash the red light, then the green, and at the end of as many laps as I could manage before my mother called for dinner, it was my father’s car that always won.
There is a lot of my father in my relationship with Interlagos and my career as a driver. I always keep a special place for Michael Schumacher, who would become my teammate at Ferrari, a generous and special guy I was lucky enough to cross paths with, but if you ask me who my idol in motorsport is, I only have one: my father.
When I was six years old, he gave me a small motorbike, a 50-cc motocross, and took me to ride on empty dirt roads and amateur football fields. I fell so in love with the challenge that it was for me, at this early age, that it didn’t take long for me to announce: “Dad, I want to race at Interlagos like you, but on a motorcycle. I want to be a motorcycle racer.”
Well, he thought things were getting kind of dangerous for such a small boy, but knowing that giving up the adrenaline was no longer a possibility for me, he took me go-karting. It was a spectacular surprise: “Damn, it’s cooler than the bike!”
Then, the magic that had started in my colored pencil Interlagos on the bedroom floor grew and took over my life. To this day, we keep my first jumpsuit and go-kart shoes as witnesses of what would become the most exciting adventure of my life.
At that time, Formula 1 was not even a distant dream. I simply wanted to race, drive, and feel that indescribable emotion and pleasure. And I wanted all this to happen with me speeding through Interlagos, my temple. Until I was 15, things worked out well. I’d been improving as a driver and progressing. Then, my father suffered a financial setback. The plastics factory he owned with his brothers went bankrupt, and our money dwindled considerably.
Apart from the family suffering and the general apprehension, it was the best thing that could ever happen to me. At an early age, I realized that if I wanted to continue feeling that joy of driving in Interlagos, besides the calluses I already had on my hands due to karting, I would need to get my spirit callused.
The situation was quite simple: there was no money, so I had to do whatever I could to find some kind of support. It was either that or nothing, and nothing meant a goodbye to Interlagos and the need to search for a “real job.”
We had to look for sponsorship — any companies that would help a kid who was enthusiastic about motorsport. I will forever feel grateful to the people who helped me keep my passion alive. That’s what we lived by — just passion. Because when money got tight, I had a tough time having a competitive car. But it never crossed my mind to stop at the guardrail and call a tow truck to take my dream away.
I learned that if you really love something, you can’t give it up without a fight. So, if that was the car I had, that was the one I was going to use. After karting, I went to race in Formula Chevrolet and could only compete for half the year. I didn’t have the money to run all year long. But in the second season, with the same team, which had never won a race, I was the Brazilian champion in my category.
This achievement, however, created a problem. A good problem: if I wanted to continue my love story with motorsport, I would have to turn it into a career. And this path would take me to Europe and possibly to Formula 1, which in this context finally became a goal.
It was a tough time, making life-changing decisions, and I was only 18. But you couldn’t overthink. I wanted to go to England, but I counted my money, asked for some more here and there, sold my car and … well, I only had enough to go to Italy.
My money was enough to compete in six races of the Formula Renault championship. I didn’t speak Italian. I learned day-by-day in the garage with the team’s mechanics. That’s why, to this day, I need to watch myself so I don’t accidentally say cazzo or some other swear words. I was alone for the first time, and dealing with loneliness wasn’t easy.
My accommodation was the cellar of the team owner’s house, along with his wines. Did it work? Well, I started winning races, one after another, so many that they thought it would be better to let me compete in the entire season’s 10 races. Ultimately, I became a champion in my first year in Europe while sleeping in a wine cellar.
Damn … things were happening faster than I ever dreamed….
I had some surreal encounters at that time. For example, when I won Formula Renault, Jean Todt, Ferrari’s F1 team head, called me to talk. I went. He asked me some 850 questions, and at the end of the meeting, he said:
“I’ve watched you a lot and followed your success in Formula Renault. I’m just not interested in closing a deal with you right now. Here’s what you do: go out there and win Formula 3000. If you win, a contract with Ferrari will be waiting for you here on my desk.”
Well, I did as he asked.
And Todt kept his promise. At 20, I signed a contract to be a Ferrari driver, and soon after, in 2002, I debuted in Formula 1 for Sauber, which used a Ferrari engine.
In motorsport, perhaps in sport in general, there is nothing like the devotion of the Ferrari fans, the tifosi. There may even be teams with more titles, poles, podiums, and money. But none have a fan base like Ferrari’s.- Felipe Massa
Driving an F1 car, even during testing, was one of the most wonderful feelings I’ve ever had. I accelerated the beast, and in the blurred landscape that passed by the corners of my eyes, I saw a film. It featured my little motorcycle, my go-kart, and my father. It had my color-pencil Interlagos track. The important things were all there. It was exhilarating. And, without me expecting it, my life would take a crazy turn once again.
In the first year in F1, I didn’t even have a salary. I was paid based on performance: $50,000 per point earned — and I earned four. I came fourth at the Canadian Grand Prix, a huge achievement for Sauber. But I had some … let’s say challenging races. I crashed a few times, and Peter Sauber, the team owner, didn’t like his cars crashing. So, at the end of the year, he fired me, and I returned to Ferrari as a test driver. But I don’t think you can even say it was a reverse gear, right?
I was going back to Ferrari!
Ferrari is madness. The sweetest madness of all.
In motorsport, perhaps in sport in general, there is nothing like the devotion of the Ferrari fans, the tifosi. There may even be teams with more titles, poles, podiums, and money. But none have a fan base like Ferrari’s. Having experienced this so closely and for so long was fantastic.
You can see: all over the world, when you talk about Formula 1, the first thing people want to know is: “What about Ferrari?”
So I felt the need to win for Ferrari, of course. But on the other hand, I was extremely comfortable there, feeling at home. And that’s all because of the tifosi. Those guys love Ferrari and treat the drivers, mechanics, engineers, and everyone who works in the scuderia like we are family. No wonder they say that when you get into Ferrari, you go into the famiglia and never leave again.
As a test driver, my job was to go to the track and train with Schumacher, a privilege I am still grateful for every time I wake up in the morning. My first year with Ferrari was worth about 10 years of learning anywhere else. Watching Schumacher, and just talking to him, I evolved a lot technically, in terms of adjusting the car to my driving style. He had that cold, German demeanor about him, but our relationship grew closer, and I think it ended up becoming a master-and-pupil thing. There was a lot of respect on my part and a huge desire to learn the secrets and details that make for an outstanding driver. But I was very hungry, too. I wanted to be better than Schumacher in training, be faster than him, take more pole positions than him, and win races against him. My impression was that he, as the teacher, wanted me to feel exactly that. He wanted to see me giving everything, trying to surpass him. This is the kind of respect that real geniuses expect from us.
I think I managed to respond in the best way in 2006. First, by taking the pole position over the master and winning in Turkey, and then taking the pole again in Japan, which was Schumacher’s backyard. He loved the Suzuka racetrack and reigned there for so many years. So it was historic for me to beat him in Japan. It was an emotion as strong as what I felt driving in F1 for the first time, just five years before, with that film of my life playing on the side of the track.
What I could barely imagine was that the last race of that year had even better things in store for me. Think with me:
Interlagos, my bedroom, my temple.
Schumacher retiring. His last race.
Thirteen years since a Brazilian had won at home.
Fifteen years since Ayrton Senna’s epic victory in 1991 — for me, the most spectacular chapter in the history of Formula 1.
A lot was happening on the track, in the pits, in my head and my heart. So I left the traditional red Ferrari firesuit in the closet for the first time. I thought the occasion deserved an extravagance, and the team allowed me to wear a green-and-yellow one, for my country.
I led the race from start to finish and took the checkered flag almost without seeing it, as I was crying so much. The victory took me back to my childhood days, and, like never before, the euphoria took days to subside. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a just-retired Schumacher said to me at the end of the race: “I’m happy that you’re the one who’s going to take over my car.” Cazzo! Coming from a teacher as demanding and laconic as him, those words resonated with me like the lyrics of a song that I memorized and sing to this day.
Two years later, I returned to Interlagos at the culmination of my F1 journey. I could become the world champion. And I was … for a few seconds. The season had been played point for point with Hamilton. I had five victories until that last and decisive Brazilian GP, as did Hamilton.
But he was leading with 94 points, and I was in second with 87. To win the title, I needed to come first and hope that Hamilton finished below sixth place. I was worried about the points I had lost in Hungary with the engine breaking three laps from the end, when I was leading the race. But I did what I had to do.
Interlagos was the perfect Interlagos of my dreams. The magical Interlagos that crystallized in my imagination as a child: with a low, dark-gray sky, scorchingly hot, and a storm forecast.
However, instead of my father in the toy car, I was the one who won that day.
When I crossed the finish line first, Hamilton was seventh. I was the world champion! But I hadn’t even rounded the first curve, right after the straight, when the information came over the radio: Hamilton had overtaken Vettel, taken sixth position, and with that, by one point of difference, he was the champion.
I learned that if you really love something, you can’t give it up without a fight.- Felipe Massa
How did I feel? Frustrated, cazzo! At times like these, there’s no point in having your boss, your family, your friends, and the people you love say, "It’s O.K., you did your best, try again next year.”
I really gave everything. But how can I avoid the disappointment of not becoming the world champion in my city, in my bedroom, in front of my fans? I had dreamed about it so much. It’s hard to feel good after that.
Oh, it was tough….
That almost in Interlagos would remain deep within me to this day, except that the frustration gave way to a brutal feeling of injustice. You know what I’m talking about.
The trick that actually — and not the result at Interlagos — took away that 2008 title from me. It was supposed to be a historic milestone in F1: the 800th Grand Prix in the category, the first in Singapore, and the first to be held at night, with artificial lighting. It ended up becoming a stain, a shame.
I’ll try to summarize what happened.
Renault’s team leader, Flavio Briatore, orchestrated a deliberate crash of Nelson Piquet Jr. to benefit their other driver, Fernando Alonso. With the fake accident, the yellow light came on, the safety car entered the track, and I, who had taken the pole and was leading the race at the time, went to the pits.
I received the O.K. to return to the track before the refueling hose had been removed. I ended up losing a lot of positions and finished the race without scoring. We found it all very strange at the time. But we actually learned the truth about the manipulation a year later, and early this year, Bernie Ecclestone, who was the head of F1 in 2008, confessed in an interview that he knew everything and did nothing because he wanted to “protect the sport and save it from a huge scandal.”
The only question I must ask, and that my lawyers are asking right now, is: if the Singapore GP was manipulated, shouldn’t it be annulled?
Being defeated fraudulently is revolting. And sweeping the dirt under the rug is vile. The world of sport needs an answer and deserves reparation. For my part, I can say that I still live with a tremendous feeling of injustice.
Well, this letter got longer than I imagined, and you must be wondering why the hell I haven’t talked about the maledetto spring that escaped Rubinho’s car in 2009 and hit me square in the forehead….
Because I just don’t remember anything, brother!
I blacked out instantly and only woke up in the hospital days later, after being kept in an induced coma. For my family, it was terrible suffering, of course.
Would I survive?
If I survived, would I recover?
Would I have permanent damages?
These were moments of great anguish for them. The curious thing is that when I woke up, their anguish diminished while mine began. Still groggy from the medication, I opened my eyes, wanting for an answer to a question I only asked myself:
Will I be able to race at Interlagos again?
Thanks to God and the doctors, I fully recovered, and my career continued for another eight years in Formula 1, two seasons in Formula E and now in Stock Car.
Some people think that the accident damaged me technically and that I would no longer be the driver I used to be. Well, it’s hard to know.
I prefer to be grateful for what I was able to experience rather than speculate about what I could have experienced.
If you want to know, I’m even grateful for that spring, because it didn’t completely erase my memory. It would be terrible not to remember the crayons on the carpet and where those moments led me.
The Brazilian GP is coming, and I want to experience it once again with everything I’m entitled to, even off the track, now fighting for the right to recover a trophy that was taken from me.
Living is creating memories. Good memories. That’s why I always want to remember the colors, the smell, the heat, every raindrop. I want to remember all the good things that happen in my heart when I’m in Interlagos.
I want to remember everything.