Massa wins final race, loses title by one point and earns a lot of respect

Felipe Massa did what he needed to do on Sunday, by staying out front and out of trouble on the rain-slicked Interlagos circuit. AP Photo/Oliver Multhaup

INTERLAGOS, Brazil -- Massa almost made it.

Felipe Massa didn't manage to snatch the FIA Formula One World Championship away from Lewis Hamilton in the final race of the season in Brazil. But he came so, so close, and had the title in the bag with just a few seconds to go in the race that ended with one of the most exciting champion showdowns in F1 history.

Massa did everything he could by winning the race. But Hamilton slithered from to sixth to fifth in the final corners as Timo Glock slipped back from fourth place on the rain-slicked surface. Fifth place was just enough for Hamilton to win the championship by one point over Massa.

"We did everything perfect today," Massa said after winning in Brazil. "Unfortunately it was not enough."

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver Hamilton deserves plenty of praise for a stunning sophomore F1 season.

Hamilton lost the championship by a single point last year, and then roared back in 2008 with five wins, five other podium finishes, and four additional top-eights to become, at age 23 and 300 days, the youngest-ever world champion.

That broke the record of 24 years and 58 days set by Fernando Alonso when he clinched the title in 2004.

Massa's season was equally impressive, not only because he challenged Hamilton right up until the final race, but also for the sound drubbing he gave to his highly rated Ferrari teammate and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen.

"For me, Felipe is the most improved driver of the season," said David Coulthard, whose retirement after the race brought an end to a F1 career that spanned 15 seasons and 246 starts. "We have always known that he has speed, but some of his drives this year … notably Budapest, which ultimately he wasn't able to win, but where his pass on Lewis clearly defined him as one of the most attacking drivers."

After skating around the outside of Hamilton in the first turn, Massa led the Hungarian Grand Prix until his engine expired with three laps to go. Massa didn't win in Budapest, but he won on six other occasions, finished second twice, third once and had three other top-eight finishes for a final tally of 97 points.

Compare that to Raikkonen's two wins, one second, five thirds, three other top-eights and a final total of 75 that put him third in the standings.

"It is not a reflection on Kimi, but I am very, very impressed with Felipe Massa," Williams' technical director of engineering Patrick Head told ESPN.com. "There was a time when people have been questioning his -- not capability because everybody knows that he is blindingly quick -- but intense focus, intense achievement in getting the best out of himself.

"Who would have said a couple of years ago that Felipe Massa would be the lead driver in terms of points achieved when he was up against Kimi Raikkonen in the other car? I am not saying I don't admire Lewis Hamilton or any other driver, but sometimes Massa does not quite get the credit he is due."

Having worked with world champions such as Alain Prost, Jacques Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Damon Hill and Ayrton Senna, not to mention top drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Reutemann for the past 30 years, Head is certainly qualified to assess driver talent.

Asked by ESPN.com to rate Massa's progress in recent years, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso replied: "It is very good, especially this year. We all knew that he was very fast, but this year he was very consistent as well. He had some engine failures and mechanical problems in some races this year, and without those he would be leading the championship [prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix].

"He did a very good championship and the result is that he is fighting for the championship until the last moment. So it is a great season for him, and a great season for Lewis as well. To have a seven-points advantage going into the last race means you are better than everyone."

Massa was once F1's wild child.

He made his F1 debut in 2002 with the Sauber Petronas team, for which he soon earned the reputation of being very quick and very crash-prone.

Already under a long-term contract with Ferrari, he spent 2003 working as a test driver for the Italian team before returning to Sauber for two more seasons.

"I was really kind of a wild guy," Massa told The New York Times. "I was young, maybe too young to start [F1] straightaway. Sauber had their best year in 2001 with Kimi [Raikkonen] and Nick [Heidfeld], and when I came they expected me to do exactly the same.

"But the car was not as good as the previous season. It was very difficult to drive. I tried too much. I had some good races, but I had some bad races as well.

"That, for sure, was not great for my image. It took me a very long time to recover."

Mark Webber also made his F1 debut in 2002.

"Felipe absolutely has improved," Webber told ESPN.com. "I remember when I was racing him in the Minardi and he was in the Sauber. He was doing quite a lot of damage back then. But these days he's clearly a lot more consistent and in with a chance of the championship for the first time in his career. It's a real credit to him."

Massa replaced Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari in 2006. That was Michael Schumacher's final season driving for the Prancing Horse team, and Massa soaked up as much of the craft of racing and F1 as he could from the seven-time world champion.

"When we talk about university, Michael was the big teacher for me -- the professor," Massa told F1's paddock newspaper The Red Bulletin. "I learned a lot from him, but I never tried to be more than him, because you cannot. Some things you can never achieve, but I tried to learn a lot and wait for my time. And my time is coming."

Massa still talks and listens and learns from Schumacher, who is now a consultant at Ferrari. That's something the fiercely independent Raikkonen declines to do. And perhaps that hurt Raikkonen this year as he struggled to find the ideal setup for the car.

When Raikkonen joined Ferrari in 2007 as Schumacher's replacement, everybody expected the Finn to blow away the Brazilian. But Massa held his own last season, winning three times and ending up fourth in the championship behind Raikkonen, Hamilton and Alonso.

"For sure [Massa] is definitely one of the strongest [teammates] I have had," Raikkonen said. "It is only a good thing you push each other and help the team go forward, but definitely he is one of them."

A chunk of Massa's success can be traced to his engineer Rob Smedley. The pairing clicked immediately, and Smedley has had a calming effect on Massa.

Virtually all of Massa's 11 wins have come from starting on the front row of the grid. His critics say that Massa's weakness is that he can't fight to the front from the middle of the pack, which is something drivers like Mansell, Senna and Schumacher excelled at.

On the other hand, Massa's Ferrari has been so competitive in the past three seasons that he has normally started from the front anyway.

Massa certainly has earned the respect of his peers this year.

"I think that if you are well-accepted by the other drivers and respected it is important," he said. "If you are a great guy with your competitors, with your colleagues, it is always good, even on the race track and off it."

The rivalry between McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari is just as intense this season as it was in 2007. But last year it was streaked with bitterness and acrimony because of the whole spy scandal affair in which the FIA eventually fined McLaren $100 million for illegally obtaining confidential Ferrari data.

Throughout it all, however, Massa and Hamilton have remained friends. After a race they always smile and congratulate each other.

"For me everything is cool," Hamilton said of Massa prior to the race in Brazil. "I don't try to be anything different and I don't act different. Things are cool with him and I respect him."

"He is a cool guy. We are fighting for the championship but that doesn't change things off the track."

It is rather like the bitter battle between McLaren and Ferrari in 1976, when the teams' respective drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, didn't let the teams' political battles impinge on their friendship.

The near-sellout crowd of 70,000 at the Brazilian Grand Prix gave Massa as much support as it could. All weekend the fans cheered, chanted and sang lustily when Massa drove by or whenever he or his Ferrari appeared on the giant TV screens.

Hamilton and McLaren, meanwhile, got jeers and boos. But they were delivered with smiles and in a good-natured way. There was no malice behind it.

Rubens Barrichello

We all knew that he could win races and be fighting for the championship and it was what he did. For someone to do that, it means that you need to be mentally prepared to go through the bad phases and learn. He has done superbly, and he comes to this final race in the same position as Kimi [Raikkonen] last year.

-- Rubens Barrichello

"Many of the Brazilian fans actually like Lewis," Mariana Becker, a reporter for Brazil's TV Globo, told ESPN.com. "Brazilian fans get very vocal, like at [soccer] games, but there is no real spite [in] what they are yelling."

Massa was born and grew up in Sao Paulo. He raced go-karts at the Interlagos kart track. And in 1991 he made it inside the F1 paddock by getting a job delivering food to the Benetton team.

In 2008, much to the delight of his hometown fans, Massa won the pole in Brazil for the third consecutive year.

"It is so nice to be here and making the third pole position in a row in Brazil in front of these fantastic people which have 100 percent emotion about motor racing and that's great for us," he said Saturday.

"To come here and see that we have so many people who love what we are doing. I think it is difficult to describe in a single word our feeling, especially my feeling being Brazilian in front of my people but also racing for a fantastic team which is very emotional as well and which is working very hard. I have a fantastic family and fantastic friends around me and I think that is really a dream come true."

Massa's season did not start like a dream as he had two retirements. But it ended with him in a championship showdown with Hamilton in Brazil.

The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix may or may not have been the final F1 race for Barrichello. His F1 career, which began in 1993, is on hold while Honda considers its driver lineup for 2009.

Barrichello also sings Massa's praises.

"I think he's had a fantastic year because after two races, if we remember, especially from our Italian friends [in the media], you guys wanted to change him because he had zero points," Barrichello said prior to the race. "We all knew that he could win races and be fighting for the championship and it was what he did.

"For someone to do that, it means that you need to be mentally prepared to go through the bad phases and learn. He has done superbly, and he comes to this final race in the same position as Kimi last year."

Last year, Raikkonen trailed Hamilton by seven points prior to the season finale in Brazil, but he left the country as the new world champion after beating Hamilton by one point.

This year, Massa trailed Hamilton by seven points prior to the last race and lost to Hamilton by one point.

Ferrari did, however, win the prestigious world constructors' championship over McLaren.

Massa was a gentleman in defeat and victory.

"We did a great championship," he said in Brazil. "We had some ups and downs and we paid for that. But racing is like that. That was our championship. Everybody did a great job and worked really hard to achieve our goals. Sometimes things don't happen in the way you want it to. But that's sport.

"We need to be happy with our constructors' championship. It is very important. Everybody in the team is very proud.

"We need to congratulate Lewis because he did a great championship. He scored more points than us, and he deserved to be the champion.

"I know how to lose and I know how to win. It was another day in my life from which I am going to learn a lot."

Massa did not win the world championship, but his performance this season was definitely world-class.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.