In treacherous, rainy conditions, he spun on Lap 47, crashing into a barrier that lined the start of the pit entry.
As he made the short walk back to the pits, the fans in the grandstands stood and applauded. He was handed a Brazilian flag and lifted it over his head. As the applause continued, emotion overcame him.
When Massa reached the pits, mechanics from Mercedes gave him an ovation. It was followed by one from members of the Ferrari team, with which he spent eight seasons.
“I didn’t want to end my last race in Brazil like that, with a crash,” Massa said. “But maybe that crash gave me more than I expected. It was really an amazing moment for me, for the people that follow and support me. It was really beautiful.”
He said his goodbyes to members of the Williams staff at the team’s Christmas party shortly after the final race of the year, in Abu Dhabi. Two days later, he received a text message from Claire Williams, deputy team principal, asking him about returning.
The team knew it was losing Bottas to Mercedes, which had to find a replacement of its own when Nico Rosberg surprisingly announced his retirement after winning the drivers’ title.
Claire Williams recalled that approaching Massa was not easy.
“For us, trying to work out who would replace Valtteri was really difficult,” she said in an interview. “Every other driver had signed contracts. We had a number of discussions at board level, and then someone said, ‘What about Felipe?’ I immediately replied, ‘He has retired and doesn’t want to come back.’”
She added: “When someone has made it very clear they are happy with their decision, it’s quite difficult to think ‘I’m going to have to make a phone call and ask him.’ But bringing Felipe back was absolutely a no-brainer. He had been with the team for three years, had delivered, and with his experience, and going into a season with new regulations, we knew he would be hugely beneficial for us.
“So I plucked up the courage and put the phone call in. I thought he would tell me he had made his decision, but he said, ‘Yeah, would love to,’ which was the best thing ever.”
Still, before committing himself, and with new technical regulations due for this season, Massa sought assurances about the performance of the car.
“The most important thing for me was to discuss the technical side, the aerodynamic side, because last year was not good,” Massa said. “When I spoke to Claire, I said to her there were things that needed to change, otherwise I didn’t think it would be the right thing to go through another year like last year.”
He added, “After I heard everything I wanted to hear about the technical side, that’s when things changed in my mind.”
Massa learned that the team would appoint Paddy Lowe as its chief technical officer. Lowe had spent four years as executive technical director at Mercedes, where he was an important figure in its three consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles.
Although Williams is only fifth in the constructors’ championship and Massa 10th for the drivers’ title, Massa said the team had made progress after a poor 2016.
“I am happy with the performance of the car, the direction of the team, and I’m happy with the way I’m driving,” he said. “I really understand and love the car. It’s more aligned with my driving style, and I love the new rules.”
He added: “I feel I’m driving so well. Although I was a little unlucky in Canada and Azerbaijan, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going.”
Massa was involved in a first-lap crash last month in Montreal, where he was hit from behind by Carlos Sainz Jr. of Toro Rosso. In Baku, Azerbaijan, he was running third when his car sustained a broken rear damper, eventually forcing him out of the race.
Despite these disappointments, Massa is content and says he hopes there will be no need to announce his retirement again, suggesting he would like an extension to his contract.
“If things continue to go the way they are going, with the way I’m driving the car, I don’t think there’s a need to change,” he said. “I feel competitive all the time I’m in the car. I’m really doing a good job. I’m not in a hurry to decide things now, so we’ll see, but I don’t really see a reason to not carry on and keep doing what I’m doing for the moment.”
The team said it had not decided, either. “It is far too early in the thought process,” said Williams, the deputy team principal. “You always consider your options, but when you’ve a driver in your team that is doing a great job for you, he is always in that group under consideration.”
She added: “When I was thinking about this the other day — what’s the answer to Felipe staying or not staying, what do I say — I thought, ‘Any driver that is doing a good job, why should they be forced out of the sport?’ A good driver who is delivering, whether he stays in your team or moves to a different team, should be in Formula One.”
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