Formula 1

Massa's key F1 ally's take on his 2008 title court bid

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Few driver-engineer relationships in Formula 1 are as well-remembered as Felipe Massa's with Rob Smedley at Ferrari from 2006-13.

That's in part a legacy of some lasting team radio soundbites but it was also a partnership that struck up 11 wins while Ferrari was still a prime championship-challenging force in the 2000s, and one that included a bid for the 2008 drivers' title that's still creating headlines today.

Stake

So while the art of engineering and the secrets to a relationship like his with Massa were the focus of Smedley's appearance on The Race F1 Podcast this week, we had to ask what he thought of Massa's challenge of the 2008 title outcome and his pursuit of recompense for the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix being manipulated by Renault Nelson Piquet’s deliberate crash.

Massa had been leading but his race was ruined by being released from his pitstop with the fuel hose still attached, meaning he finished out of the points in 13th place. As Lewis Hamilton finished third, that meant a six-point swing against Massa in a championship fight he ultimately lost by one point.

Massa has been pressuring F1 and the FIA to take action based on his belief they were aware of what had happened before the end of 2008 - fuelled by Bernie Ecclestone’s comments in an interview. When the Singapore controversy came to light the following year, it was too late to adjust the results of the previous season and Ferrari accepted the action taken.

A right to seek justice

Smedley supports Massa’s right to pursue action, but he sees what happened as ancient history.

“I've always been a person that, whatever happened yesterday, whether it was good or bad, I get up and dust myself off and move on,” he tells The Race F1 Podcast. “More pots and pans, more medals whatever you want to call it, is fairly meaningless for me. I'm interested in what's happening today and tomorrow and the day after that. But that's my personal opinion.

“What I will say is this is something that Felipe feels strongly about. It's no secret that Felipe is a really good pal of mine, he's like a little brother to me. If this is something that he feels strongly and passionately about - and he when he talks about it he's very compelling and convincing in the fact that he's doing this for what he feels is justice - everybody should have their personal right to pursue whatever they feel is just. That’s the case with Felipe here.

“There's a lot of different parties involved, we're starting to look back at the past. Where this will end I've got no idea. I keep a watching brief on it, that's all I can or want to do. It’s of interest but if it does get flipped, what does that open up at that point in terms of sporting decisions, not only in Formula 1, but in the past?

“That's not to say that's right and wrong, I'm not trying to fall on either side of the fence. It's just a really interesting element of all of this. If there is a decision that favours what Felipe's gone after, that will then be very interesting in general how sport deals with past unjust decisions.”

There was no 'butterfly' effect...

Smedley’s position on this is nuanced and reasonable. He’s absolutely correct that Massa sincerely feels the injustice of Singapore 2008 very deeply and has long carried that around with him. However, he’s also right to say that this would open up a can of worms.

He also stresses that while the crash cost him the race lead and was followed by the pitlane incident, the fuel hose mistake was not a direct consequence of what happened.

“We came in and then obviously we had the problem of the fuel hose, which was nothing to do with anything that has happened,” says Smedley.

“It’s not a butterfly flaps its wings [moment] and all of our ills from that point are to blame. All of the controversy that came out after that, that was nothing to do with us getting it wrong in the pitstop.”

...but suspicions were immediate

Similarly, it’s impossible to know how a different result in Singapore would have influenced what followed in the remaining three races of the season. So even if there were some way to adjust the result, there’s no way to restore the path that history didn’t take.

Realistically, the only way to have tackled what happened in Singapore fairly would have been for it to emerge immediately and be dealt with by the normal processes. The trouble is, it wasn’t for lack of suspicion that this didn’t happen because that was widespread within the paddock.

Believing something to be the case and having the evidence to prove it are different things, though, and it wasn’t until Piquet raised what happened and later agreed to give evidence in exchange for immunity that it could be pursued.

“I'd have probably said to you Mark [Hughes, also appearing on the podcast] if I'd have seen you in the paddock afterwards that was the most...how you crash there I've got no idea,” says Smedley. “I wouldn't crash there and I don't go over 30mph. I've got no idea how young Nelson crashed there. Well, we've got an idea...

“I was watching it thinking 'strange', then you see the replays and by the third replay you're like, 'OK, I understand what's happened now'. It's fairly simple to work out. It was obvious straight after what had happened. Then what the ramifications and the repercussions [are] and how you gain justice and all the rest of it [is another step].

“I don't think there was anyone with any element of doubt, especially within my close circle, within Ferrari, within the guys I would have talked to in the paddock. We'd have said, 'Yeah, that's pretty clear what happened there'.”

It's clear that the curious circumstances of the crash and that Alonso had opted for an early pitstop that he had already made, defying the usual strategy for a car down the grid, were extremely suspicious. But without evidence, it isn’t something that could be acted on save for leading to a search for such proof.

You can argue that perhaps rival teams or the FIA should have looked harder at the time, or that there was a misguided reluctance to do so 'for the good of the sport'. But ultimately nothing can unravel the chain of events that followed Piquet’s crash.

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