For Felipe Massa, this weekend’s season-opening Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix is an unexpected journey back to the future – with an added reminder of his age sitting nearby in the Williams team garage.
“Well, I am a rookie!” he said, laughing. “I stopped. I retired. So, we (Williams) start the first race – two rookies… But, no, I am joking…”
Massa, who will be 36 next month (April), retired from the sport at the end of last season after an emotional send-off in his native Sao Paulo followed by a final farewell in Abu Dhabi for one of the most popular drivers of his era.
But he barely had time to lift a Brazilian beer to his lips or stroll down to the beach before his former boss Claire Williams beckoned him back. Instead of a lounger, the gym became his destination again.
“I was planning to be somewhere else, eating more, getting more fat, or whatever,” he admitted. “But things change in life or, actually, for me, didn’t change, to be honest!
“But, yeah, you know, I’m really happy and motivated and ready for this challenge. When Claire called me I said ‘I think we need to talk in a proper way’ so we had a long meeting and here I am again.”
In that meeting, the vastly-experienced Massa – winner of 11 of his 250 Grands Prix – made requests for a series of improvements on the technical side of the team, all of which, he said, have been acknowledged. “Everything Williams is doing, I believe is correct,” he said.
“So, I am staying in Formula One and I think to be racing for a team that I believe is professional and important. And I have good feelings about it.”
Sitting beside him as he talked, his new team-mate Canadian Lance Stroll, 18, remained passive… At virtually half his team-mate’s age, in his debut weekend in F1, he was listening and learning.
“It’s all just a big learning curve for me,” he admitted. “There’s a lot for me to understand about everything, but I listen to the people around me and take it day by day and race by race.”
Massa made his F1 debut 15 years ago in 2002, when Stroll was only three years old.
“This is his opportunity,” said Massa. “He is allowed to learn and he shows that he has a talent for that.
“I met him when he was eight years old, one year more than my son, which is really painful to be honest! And now, here we are as team-mates… So, I have all the happiness to work with him, but also to pass on everything I can.”
Massa’s u-turn on retirement came as a result of 2016 world champion German Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire after lifting the title last year. Mercedes recruited Williams’ Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas to replace him, unexpectedly creating a vacancy for an experienced man with the Grove-based team.
The support of family and colleagues persuaded Massa to return.
“It was really amazing to see everybody pushing me – carry on, carry on!” said Massa. “Maybe something has happened for a reason and maybe it was not the reason to stop. I’m ready, motivated and we will see where we are going to be and how the season will be. I am 100 per cent ready to do it in the right way.”
Like everyone else, Stroll and Massa have been on intensive training programmes to prepare for the physical demands of the new era ‘fatter and faster’ cars that are expected to break a few lap records this year.
“I took on a new trainer, a guy who is following me everywhere I go, training every day,” said Massa. “For sure, cardio, but also a lot more my muscles, to be stronger! And my neck a lot more, which I think worked pretty well because on one day in Barcelona I did 168 laps, which was my record at a test.”