A new dispute arises over a 15-year-old Formula 1 title
By Victor Mather
Felipe Massa, the Brazilian racing driver, believes he lost the Formula 1 championship unfairly, and now he plans to ask a British court to have the result overturned.
The twist is that the title he is seeking is from 2008.
Massa lost the championship that year by a single point, but a scandal about a possibly deliberate crash in one race and revelations that have come in the ensuing years have prompted him to seek a reversal.
The long delay has not leavened his determination, Massa said.
“I trust and I really believe that for justice that we will show what happened was not correct,” he told The Associated Press last month. “I am the champion, and I feel that.”
But many in the sport are uncomfortable reexamining such an old case.
“If everybody were to open up situations, then the sport would be in disarray,” Toto Wolff, the current head of the Mercedes team, told reporters over the weekend.
Despite receiving a formal letter last month from Massa’s lawyers seeking damages, Formula 1 has been silent on the claims and did not respond to a request for comment earlier this week.
The disputed race happened in September 2008 in Singapore. Massa was in first place until Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed, leading organizers to slow the race behind a safety car. This gave another driver, Fernando Alonso, a huge advantage. Although he started the race in 15th place, Alonso was the only driver who had already made a pit stop at the time of the crash, allowing him to take the lead, which he held until the end of the race.
Massa’s woes were compounded when he botched his own pit stop and failed to score a point in the race. And at season’s end, he lost the title to Lewis Hamilton by one point.
Piquet, the driver who crashed, was Alonso’s teammate, immediately prompting speculation that the crash had been intentional. A year after the race, Piquet confessed that his team had told him to crash. After an investigation, Alonso’s Renault team was found guilty of conspiracy to fix the race, and some team officials were suspended. But there were no changes to the standings or the title.
Massa’s new push comes after Bernie Ecclestone, who was head of Formula 1 at the time of the incident, said in March that he had known about Piquet’s intentional crash well before his public confession, but that he had chosen not to act.
“We decided not to do anything for now; we wanted to protect the sport and save it from a huge scandal,” he told F1-Insider in an interview in German. He added that he persuaded Piquet to stay quiet at the time.
“According to the statutes, we would probably have had to cancel the race in Singapore under these conditions,” he said. “That means it would never have taken place for the World Cup standings. Then Felipe Massa would have become world champion and not Lewis Hamilton.”
“I still feel sorry for Massa today,” he added.
When that interview caused a storm in the world of Formula 1, Eccleston, 92, claimed he didn’t remember giving it.
Hamilton, who has more wins than any Formula 1 driver in history and has gained even more popularity with his appearances in the documentary “Drive to Survive,” has declined to be drawn into the debate. He told reporters last month that he was “not really focused on what happened 15 years ago.”
Massa continued driving in Formula 1 until 2017 but never did win the title. For Hamilton, it was the first of what would be seven championships.
If Formula 1 is concerned that changing the results of an old championship would open up a can of worms, it cannot be blamed; there are worms aplenty. With his seven titles, Hamilton is currently tied with Michael Schumacher for the record; losing his 2008 title to Massa would drop him to second place. In the March interview, Ecclestone said: “Michael Schumacher is still the sole record world champion. Even if the statistics say otherwise.”
Other disputed titles could be relitigated as well. In the last race of the 2021 season, with a razor-close championship in the balance, an official allowed a final racing lap, giving Max Verstappen the chance to pass Hamilton and win the title.
Formula 1 later acknowledged the ruling was an error, but declined to change the standings.
Should the 2008 championship be reopened, Hamilton’s Mercedes team could ask for a reversal based on the 2021 mistake. Wolff, the director of the Mercedes team, acknowledged that he was following the Massa case “with interest” and with an eye on that disputed title.
It is not the first time that old sporting titles have remained controversial long after they have been added to the record books. The Italian soccer team Lazio remains aggrieved that it was not awarded one league title after a season was halted.
And if 2008 seems like a long time ago, consider that the title Lazio still claims is from 1915.