Twenty four hours, or not much more, from Maranello to Monaco, then on to Prague and, finally, Barcelona. It seems like the schedule of a successful manager rather than the work programme for Felipe Massa, who by profession is a driver, on the eve of a Grand Prix weekend. Since Formula 1 in-season testing has been abolished, it’s easy from the outside to think that the life of these young men has become boring, with only 19 appointments on the track spread out between March and November. We can now confirm from personal experience that it’s not like that at all, having lived through the 36 hours before the start of the Spanish Grand Prix weekend with Massa. This is a diary of the journey that took us from the home of Ferrari to the Circuit de Catalunya.
Maranello, tuesday 4 May, 14.30 - After Massa has finished lunching with Stefano Domenicali at the Cavallino restaurant, we jump in the car for Bologna airport. He insists he wants to drive: ‘I like it, it’s full of roundabouts, there’s one every kilometre! Luckily, I know all the shortcuts, since I’ve lived here from the beginning of my career with Ferrari.’ He’s spent the morning on the simulator: it’s stimulating to prepare for a Grand Prix in this way. ‘It’s very similar to a day on the test track. You can make lots of changes to the car’s set-up and even try out new details.
And I’m always connected by radio to Rob [Smedley, Massa’s race engineer] just as if I were on the track! And then it’s important to spend time with the team, to understand in detail how the car is developing so you can even give some tips. During the race weekend the rhythm is always pretty frenetic and you concentrate on the immediate things, while at Maranello there’s time to think things through from all angles, even in the distant future. I think it also pleases the technicians and mechanics who never come to the track to be able meet us drivers, even if it’s just for a few unimportant words.’
Bologna airport, 15.00 - We’ve hardly got on board the Piaggio Aero P180 when Massa phones his wife Rafaela to tell her we’re about to take off. Then he relaxes a little: ‘When I’m alone, in a plane or a hotel, I like to read magazines, especially about sports, to go on the internet or to listen to music; I don’t have a favourite kind, I like everything, from Brazilian music to U2, from Madonna to Michael Jackson to Coldplay. When I’m with other people, I like to chat and listen to my companions’ travel stories.’ It’s true; Massa is someone who talks and who doesn’t make you aware of his VIP status. We talked about football, Moto GP, girlfriends; in short, we chatted like two normal people getting to know each other – and you can understand that he wants to know who he’s dealing with. ‘In an environment where you’re always travelling it’s hard to figure out who is really working with all their heart. Relationships are often superficial but when you meet someone really special then everything changes and you understand how much it’s worth dealing with even a few sacrifices.’ It’s raining when we land in Nice. Massa sends a text message to his wife, makes arrangements with the pilots for tomorrow morning’s flight and makes an appointment with us to meet at nine o’clock. Then he slips into his 599 GTB Fiorano to drive to Monaco: the last night at home before the Grand Prix.
Nice airport, wednesday 5 May, 09.00 - We’ve arrived a little early so as to avoid any danger of being late. We know that Massa is a punctual type: they say that Brazilians are not exactly precise when it comes to appointments but he’s obviously the exception. On board the plane we’re served a healthy sports breakfast: green tea, yoghurt, and fresh fruit. ‘The crew are excellent and attentive to every little thing: they make you feel looked after, as if you were at home. That’s important, because when you’re alone in strange places like airports and hotel rooms, it’s nice to see someone who takes care of you.’
Prague airport, 11.00 - Nicolas Todt, a friend before he was his manager, is there to meet Massa. ‘We are more or less the same age and we got to know each other when we were both very young,’ Massa tells us. ‘He too was at the start of his career and, when I decided to change manager, it came naturally to ask him if he might be interested in this new experience. Now we have matured together, both from the professional point of view and as men.’ Todt interrupts: ‘Hey, but we’re both still young!’
Ferrari showroom, Prague, 11.45 - Together, we set off for the Ferrari showroom in the Czech capital, which is being inaugurated today in the presence of the Brazilian driver. There’s a swarm of photographers and TV cameras, but above all fans who are patiently waiting. After the official business of cutting the ribbon, and the press conference, it’s time to plunge into the crowd. Massa doesn’t miss an autograph, he tries to satisfy everyone. ‘Once, when I was still a kid, I had the good fortune to meet Ayrton Senna, my idol. I asked him for an autograph but he didn’t give me one; I was very upset and changed my support to Nelson Piquet, his great rival. Since people have begun to ask me for my autograph, I’ve always kept this episode in mind and try never to turn down a request, especially when it’s children who are asking. I think it’s important for drivers to try to get close to fans. Otherwise we stay closed off behind barriers. F1 needs to open up, to provide a better understanding of what goes on in the paddock, to show a close-up view of how you go about winning a Grand Prix.’
Prague airport, 14.00 - Massa’s stay in the Czech capital doesn’t last very long and after three hours we’re back on the plane. ‘It’s a shame to have spent so little time here; from what I’ve been able to see, it’s a beautiful city. Anyway, this is the fate of people who work in F1.’ Back at the airport, there’s another crowd of fans, but Massa doesn’t forget what he said earlier and stops patiently to sign postcards and magazines. ‘It’s amazing how fans manage to find out everything, you find them everywhere!’ We ask him about his baby and the young father lights up in a smile: ‘It’s incredible. He’s always there smiling and joking. I don’t think it depends only on the influences and atmosphere around you; you must have something special inside of you from birth to make you so happy. I’m a really lucky dad!’
The trip from Prague to Barcelona is the longest journey of the day, but we aren’t bored on the plane. Reading the papers is obligatory (don’t believe sportsmen who say they never read newspapers: they’re the first ones wanting to know what people are saying about them), but this time it’s not F1 that’s the centre of attention. ‘I’m a big football fan and I like to follow everything that happens in the sport. My team is São Paulo, but in Italy my favourite side is Milan, though since my friend Kakà was transferred to Real Madrid I keep a close eye on the Spanish team: Fernando and I are in agreement!’ he laughs. We can’t avoid talking about the relationship with his new team mate: ‘We have enormous respect for each other. When we were opponents and something wasn’t right, then we’d say so – as at the Nürburgring three years ago – and it ended there. You know, I’ve always had very strong team mates, above all at Ferrari, and I’ve always felt comfortable. At the beginning of the year a lot of people said that Fernando and I would end up arguing, that two Latin drivers together were destined to fight, and instead it seems to me that it’s others who have had their little problems. ‘It’s important that things were clear right from the start, and at Ferrari that’s always been the way: in 2007, when the time was right, I helped Kimi [Räikkönen] win the title and the following year he returned the favour, because the interests of the whole team come before any individual.’ There’s still plenty of time to strengthen the relationship with his Spanish colleague, given that Massa has renewed his contract with Ferrari, which now lasts until the end of 2012.
Barcelona airport, 17.00 - We arrive in Spain a little behind schedule. On the agenda is an event with some of Massa’s personal sponsors, the Richard Mille watch company. There’s terrible traffic because it’s the rush hour, but we get to the meeting only a few minutes late. ‘I like watches a lot and I’ve had the good fortune to meet an amazing character like Richard, who has made me even more passionate about them,’ he tells us. ‘It’s not just wearing them, but also being involved in the design.’ The pressure of the Grand Prix is beginning to make itself felt: journalists’ questions, which were supposed to be limited to the driver’s personal life, are inevitably encroaching on its professional aspects. Massa extricates himself as best he can, always maintaining a friendliness that is far from common among sportsmen: he rarely gives a sour reply or a ‘no comment’ and it’s no surprise that many journalists appreciate it. After an hour there’s the transfer to the hotel, but only time for a quick shower.
Fundación Francisco Godia, Barcelona, 20.45 - The last appointment is at the Fundación Francisco Godia, where the programme involves the launch of the 458 Italia in the Catalan capital. Massa is in typically upbeat mood: ‘We Ferrari drivers are really lucky: not only do we race in the cars with the greatest history and success in F1, but we’re also testimonials for the most beautiful road cars in the world!’ The enthusiasm of this young man seems to be inexhaustible. Others in his place would have doubtless tried to limit their presence at the event to the minimum, but he doesn’t shy away from requests for autographs and photographs from the evening’s guests. Then, a little after 10.30pm, he finally bids farewell and is taken off to his hotel. We imagine him in his room as he starts up his computer to glance at his email and at the latest news: ‘I like to keep in touch with friends via the computer: it’s a way of staying close even if we’re in different parts of the world. And then I’ve always been curious to know what’s happening. When I’m at home and I have some free time I even like to play a little poker: it’s becoming a passion for many of my male friends but now it’s really infecting everyone, even the women.’ Tomorrow morning there’s still time to relax a little, but at lunchtime he needs to be at the track. There’s a new Grand Prix to race, a new challenge to meet.