I feel overwhelmed when I think about it, but now it’s ten years since the first time I watched an F1 car live from a grandstand, and eight years since I attended my first Grand Prix. When I was a teenager, I regarded going to an F1 race as a highly ambitious dream!
But there I was in 2008, having a look into the Internet ticket offers for the classic tracks. My parents had agreed to gift me the trip as my 19th Birthday present. They would have been in no need of doing so if, as I suspect, those two telephone calls we didn’t answer while being at home (a number not identified and a family tired of telemarketing, you know) had the purpose of confirming me as the winner of a quiz that awarded tickets for Silverstone. But I was provided with this new opportunity and I was making my mind up on whether I should choose Spa or Monza. My father intervened and helped me with the decision… “We’re not going to buy tickets from an Internet agency, I don’t trust them. Whom am I giving to hundreds of euros?”
Fortunately, there was a desperate solution: the Valencia tickets were being sold at the most famous store of Madrid, a physical and safe enough seller for my father’s standards. There was a lot of hype surrounding the event, not least because five Safety Cars were being taken for granted given the expected proximity of the walls. And the 2008 season had already developed into a genuine thriller: almost every race was exciting and was giving much to talk about. It was precisely at this point in the championship when things started to look like a two-horse race between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. Uncertainty was the trend that year. True, Spa and Monza are jewels of the calendar crown, but anything could happen in the Mediterranean. My father made an unsuccesful attempt to think like an F1 fanatic: “From now on forever, you will be able to say that you assisted to the first GP at Valencia.”
But don’t get me wrong: the GP started with a remarkable moment, when a certain Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets of an official practice session for the first time in his career. And I witnessed one of the most solid drives ever signed by the now ex-F1 driver Felipe Massa. Many people had doubted his talent, and I would point out that they were right about his natural talent. My impression is that Felipe reached his peak thanks to his ability to supply the distance between him and a Hamilton or Alonso, by working harder, taking advice from his manager Nicolas Todt and learning to trust himself. Anyway, everybody loves an underdog, so the harder the critics on Felipe, the more I wished the title would go to him.
With the aftermath of 2007 still fresh in the mind of the Spanish F1 hooligans, most of the people from the grandstands celebrated his pole and his race win… as much as they highlighted the baldness of Mr. Ron Dennis each time he appeared on the TV screen; with almost the same force they made use of to boo Hamilton and Nakajima (in the case of the Japanese, after the accident that involved him and Alonso and that eliminated the Renault driver on lap 1, for the first time in his whole career to date).
On the other hand, the Spanish crowd was ambivalent towards Massa: he was the preferred one to win among the men with a frontrunning car, but people really doubted about his quality as a driver. Maybe this day in front of them, Felipe managed to shut many mouths: it became clearly visible that the distance between Massa and Hamilton was bigger with each lap, and this time he was doing the job on a street track, the sort of place where Felipe Massa was supposed to crash against a wall because otherwise, to the eyes of some people, he wouldn’t be Felipe Massa. And he had to be feeling the pressure: he just came from an engine failure in Hungary while he was leading, a problem that repeated itself in Kimi Räikkönen’s unit. But it happened too far from my viewpoint at Turn 14, a place described by Alonso as “a trap”. Truth is that almost every driver had a moment in FP1, but they all learned the best way to deal with it in time for the race. Only Giancarlo Fisichella had a tank slapping shock at the exit, that left the public smelling blood, but frustrated in the end.
Given that this was the only quiet race of the year, I came back home with categorical evidence for my preference of Spa over Valencia as a spectator. But deep inside me, I was really happy for what this round could mean for the championship: those two points Massa had earned over Hamilton could mean a lot at the end of the year.
In the last few days, we have heard a lot of opinions about how much does Lewis deserve the 2016 championship. He may have lost this year’s title not on talent alone, but for the myriad of mechanical failures… the same kind of failures that inflicted so much pain in Massa’s best season of his entire career, making life a little bit easier for Lewis Hamilton in 2008. So bear this in mind the next time you think of Hamilton as an unlucky competitor. Maybe he is a worthy three times world champion… and not more than that by now. And maybe Felipe Massa agrees with us on that.