Forget the aftermath of Abu Dhabi 2021 - the biggest title shock I experienced in over 350 Grands Prix was the sight of Felipe Massa fighting back tears on the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix podium (main picture), as 34 seconds of euphoria after doing everything possible to secure the title by winning the season finale gave way to anguish, as McLaren's Lewis Hamilton slithered past Timo Glock at the last corner of the last lap to snatch a crucial fifth place.
That season had seen Hamilton and Massa jostling tightly, with both scoring five wins. However, the latter's peaks were generally higher and his valleys deeper, so he headed for his home race on 87 points to his rival's 94. To achieve his life's ambition, Massa needed a sixth win with Hamilton sixth or lower. That was the order going into the last lap, then Glock, fifth for Toyota on dry tyres rubber when a shower erupted, slowed dramatically…
With that, the Briton scored his first title (of seven), in the process depriving the Paulista Ferrari driver, born within earshot of the Interlagos circuit, of the dream he had nurtured for well-nigh 20 years. His grief was compounded less than a year later when he suffered serious head injuries when a wayward spring from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn pierced his helmet during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Although he recovered clinically, those close to the effervescent Massa whisper that the incident (understandably) changed not only his outlook on life but his approach to racing per se. No longer a fiery driver, he became more cautious – and it increasingly showed.
Then, while leading the 2010 German Grand Prix – his first run for victory since his Hungaroring accident – he suffered the ignominy of being ordered to move across for team-mate Fernando Alonso on the basis that "Fernando is faster than you…" Thus, Massa understandably considers a world title - particularly one he lost after holding it for those 34 seconds - to be unfinished business.
It remained, though, no more than that. Still, his loathing for the Piquet family was evident: Nelson Piquet Jnr, a 2008 Renault driver under pressure after lacklustre races, sparked 'Crashgate' in Singapore to facilitate a win for his then-team-mate Alonso. During the ensuing pitstops under the Safety Car, Massa's fuel hose got dragged along, requiring a pit lane stop and dropping him to 13th. Hamilton placed third.
The FIA opened an investigation into the affair in mid-2009 after Piquet Snr squealed that his son had been fired by Renault despite his 'loyalty'. Team boss Flavio Briatore was given a lifetime ban from F1 (later reduced to an effective three years) - while Pat Symonds, currently F1's Chief Technical Officer, was banned for five years (ditto), and Piquet Jnr never returned to F1.
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There the matter rested until this week, when it emerged then-FIA President Max Mosley and F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone had been aware of the 'race fix' immediately after the event, yet chose to stay stumm rather than drag F1 into disrepute.
"We decided not to do anything for now. We wanted to protect the sport and save it from a huge scandal. That's why I used angelic tongues to persuade my former driver Nelson Piquet to keep calm for the time being," Ecclestone said in an interview.
"Back then, there was a rule that a World Championship classification after the FIA awards ceremony at the end of the year was untouchable. Hamilton was presented with the trophy and everything was fine."
Or so Ecclestone thought: Massa is now investigating whether he can have that 'lost' title overturned, given Mosley and Ecclestone allegedly knew BEFORE the 2008 FIA gala awards evening and not AFTER that a crucial race had been fixed and should have been scrapped, rather than hope the problem simply disappeared.
Whilst I sympathise wholeheartedly with Felipe - he was and remains one of my favourite drivers on both a personal and professional level - I sincerely hope he is dissuaded from taking action for the simple reason that the chances of overturning the official result are exceedingly slim, plus he risks damaging his well-deserved reputation for dignity in defeat, no matter how unfair that defeat may have been.
Should he, though, decide to pursue what he sees as injustice, the first step is to ascertain which of numerous potential legal processes to follow. Consider that this is totally unchartered territory, particularly given the time lapse and the FIA's implicit position that championship classifications cannot be amended once a trophy is awarded.
For starters, Massa would, though, need to approach the FIA's World Motorsport Council and formally seek relief -15 years after the fact, from an FIA administration that has undergone four elections since that season.
Forget not that Ecclestone's wife Fabiana sits on the WMSC, as does Massa's former Ferrari Team Principal Stefano Domenicali, now F1 CEO. The Italian's then-boss Luca di Montezemolo is a close friend of the Ecclestones, as is Briatore, who maintains his innocence; Symonds is now an F1 executive. Imagine the compromising positions they may find themselves in; it may be that their memories are no longer as sharp as they were...
If the WMSC approach fails, Massa could petition the French courts as provided for by FIA regulations, as followed by Briatore to successfully have his ban overturned. That evidence would surely be pivotal – plus the courts would likely question the timing limitations of the case: Why now, Mr Massa, when an FIA investigation was closed in September 2009?
Did Crashgate alone cost Massa the title?
Equally, an overriding question is whether an entire championship hung solely on that single Singapore race: Massa's fuel hose issue was team-inflicted regardless of reasons surrounding THAT pitstop; equally, he had spun out from third in Australia or similarly from second place in Malaysia. In Hungary he retired from a comfortable lead after his power unit expired two laps from the end, robbing him of ten points.
The FIA (and/or French courts) may argue these unfortunate proceedings cost him at least 26 points, yet had nothing to do with 'Crashgate'. Should it come to that, Hamilton's camp could argue that without their own misfortunes they, too, would have been in stronger positions going to Brazil, plus prescriptions of most legal systems have it that possession [of the trophy] - for 15 years - is nine-tenths of the law…
For any court case to have legs, the petitioner would need to prove that any witness – to wit Ecclestone - is telling the truth (and why) and that Mosley would agree were he alive - and history records that the disgraced former FIA President never was one to incriminate himself. Their conversations are unlikely to have been recorded in writing, nor were there witnesses.
In any event, what would Massa gain by opening a messy can of worms? Folk argue that the UCI overturned Lance Armstrong's victories, but who remembers who benefitted from the rewriting of cycling history? Plus, of course, Hamilton and McLaren, both of whom have history with Ecclestone, played no role in 'Crashgate' so why should they be punished 15 years later based on confessions by a nonagenarian?
Finally, consider the precedent: Imagine if every title runner-up (or their heirs) dragged up all perceived injustices over the past 70 years: Not only Abu Dhabi 2021 and various Senna versus Prost seasons, but allegations that Piquet Snr and Ecclestone (yes, them) used illegal fuels to win in 1983, or 2009, when the eponymous team run by Ross Brawn (latterly F1's Managing Director) won both titles with illegal diffusers.
All in all, Massa would be best served by being treated by history as a dignified loser - for reasons outside of his control - of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship rather than a double bad loser: once on track and a second time in the courts. Ultimately, his battle hinges on numerous ifs and buts - and IF is F1 spelled backwards…
Balve Baines is joined by RacingNews365.com Editorial Director Dieter Rencken and Asia Correspondent Michael Butterworth to dissect the key talking points from the Australian Grand Prix.