So long Jenson and Felipe, hello the next generation
In a nod to the history and majesty of Monza, both Felipe Massa and Jenson Button deserve plaudits for choosing to announce their retirement or ‘sabbatical’ from Formula 1 at the Italian Grand Prix.
Between them, Button and Massa have competed in almost 500 grands prix. That’s more than Prost, Senna, Fangio and Clark combined. But as sensational as that stat sounds, ultimately it’s an unfair comparison given the 21 races a year we have now versus the half-dozen F1 grands prix that made up the calendar during Fangio’s era.
Both started their career in the early 2000s – a pre-Facebook time that feels eons ago now, but one where the cars had 20,000rpm V10 engines with 900bhp and noise complaints centered around the dreadful ‘misfires’ created by the traction control software.
After a stellar season in British F3 and an F1 test with Prost, Button was very much seen as a star of the future ahead of his debut with Williams. But with Juan Pablo Montoya already on his way for 2001, Button had to take a detour to Benetton. The car featured a radical 111-degree Renault, but it was little short of a disaster.
A switch to BAR gave him the opportunity to outshine Jacques Villeneuve, but despite being the best of the rest to the dominant Ferrari in 2004 (even if the car was subsequently found to have an illegal fuel tank), it appeared as if a win would prove elusive. Often his best chance to shine was in the wet, or more accurately the tricky period between damp and full wet. So it was fitting that when the first win came it was in just those conditions at Hungary in 2006.
The Honda earth cars that he had to deal with for the subsequent two seasons were no laughing matter (the livery aside), but they did at least leave a legacy of the Brawn BGP001. When the first testing times came in that winter, the press understandably couldn’t believe that they were legitimate. A few did and made a pretty penny at the bookies, but more importantly Jenson made hay when the car was at its best, and the world title was his just desserts.
But if anything, it’s been his performances at McLaren against Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso that have defined his legacy. He’s struggled against both in qualifying, but he out-scored Hamilton over three seasons, and in a car that’s a long way from being a race winner, he’s given Alonso a much harder time than he’s generally given credit for.
But it’s more than just the world title, 300-odd races and 15 wins, he’s also a top bloke. With all the money and fame that’s thrown at them, it’s understandable that racing drivers can lose touch with their roots. And despite his riches and supermodel girlfriends, Button remains one of the most affable and grounded drivers in the paddock.
The same is true of Felipe Massa. The Brazilian chose an unusual path to F1, going via the Formula Renault/Euro 3000 route rather than F3/International F3000. It was his performance in the Italian and Euro Renault championships that tempted Sauber to give him an F1 test and ultimately a race drive, but few in the British motorsport press at the time would have had him down for such a long and decorated career.
Massa will be forever remembered for the 30 seconds or so following the 2008 finale in Brazil when was world champion elect only for Hamilton to overtake the gripless Timo Glock and snatch the title away.
That was his 11th and final F1 win, but he’d generally had much the better of Kimi Raikkonen in the unloved 2009 Ferrari until his freak and terrible accident in Hungary. It was testimony to his strength of character that he was able to return to the highest level after having suffered such awful injuries, but he was rarely a match for Fernando Alonso during their four seasons together.
A change of scenery and a switch to Williams gave Massa an Indian summer to his career with the 2014 car in particular allowing him to show that he was still capable of mixing it with the best at the sharp end of the grid.
For Button and Massa’s legions of fans it will be a strange sensation tuning into next year’s Australian GP, but there is no reason to be too downhearted. At McLaren, Button’s ‘sabbatical’ has created a space for Stoffel Vandoorne, a super-talented Belgian, who along with Max Verstappen, has got that aura of future world champion all around him.
At Williams, it seems likely that either Felipe Nasr or Lance Stroll will get the seat vacated by Massa. Amazingly, it seems that Nasr is the perhaps the only Brazilian with even a hope of being on the grid next season. For the nation of Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna, this is almost unimaginable.
Nasr was a star in Formula BMW and F3, but his career seemed to stall in GP2. A move to Williams would remove any doubt as to whether he’s got what it takes. Stroll has the benefit and burden of being exceptionally well backed, but performances in the F3 Euroseries this season have shown there’s much more to him than just his father’s chequebook.
I genuinely hope we see Massa and Button in action next year. Button had a ball when he tested the V8 Supercar at Bathurst in 2011, so why not head down under for a little bit of fun in the three enduros? Massa meanwhile would make a fine Indycar racer in my opinion and also give that series some international appeal.
Whatever they chose to do I wish them all the best and thank them for the entertainment they’ve provided for so long.
Photo: Getty Images
Notes to editors:
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 15 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.