Brazilian driver Felipe Massa doesn’t doesn’t own many records in Formula 1, as far as I can tell, but I think he’s about to set a new one, for the shortest voluntary retirement in the modern era. The tears had barely dried from his coveralls before it was announced that he’d be returning to Williams. Obviously, the circumstances had been unforeseen. The stars had to align in a particular way to allow Massa return to the fold.
First of all, Nico Rosberg made the shocking announcement of his own retirement, creating a vacancy at Mercedes. It was so late in the season, that most of the potential candidates had already secured new contracts. I’m thinking of Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and perhaps Kevin Magnussen, although the latter would be a long shot.
With no super-attractive drivers left on the market, it became obvious that Mercedes had two options: either go with a relative rookie, such as Pascal Wehrlein, who’s part of their young driver program; or steal a driver currently under contract to another team. Perhaps steal is too strong a word. Strike a deal, let’s say.
As everyone knows, they chose the latter option. Their choice of Valterri Bottas was a smart and safe one. But the next necessary link in the chain was getting Bottas released from Williams. Fortunately, Toto Wolff has ties to the team: he was once a partial owner, and he was part of Bottas’s management team. Plus, Merc supplies Williams’ engines.
But they naturally had to sweeten the deal. Williams had hired Lance Stroll, an 18 year old rookie, who would need mentoring from an older team mate. Plus, with a host of new technical regs for 2017, it would be important to have an experienced driver on board as a reference point. Bottas fit the bill nicely. Williams certainly wasn’t willing to let him go easily.
The word on the street is, to get Bottas released, Merc offered a discount on engines, and a subsidy for a payment to Massa to bring him out of the aforementioned short-lived retirement.
Merc’s deal with Bottas is supposed to be one-year, with options. Once can’t help but think that Wolff and Niki Lauda are eyeing 2018, when both Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are out of contract. If they can’t snag one of those two drivers, they’ll still have Bottas optioned. Most of the risk seems to lie with Bottas. If Hamilton beats him like an old rug, it could take the luster off of a once promising career. On the other hand, if Bottas makes a better showing than Rosberg did over the past several years, and actually outperforms Hammy, it would make him a hot property. So it’s a roll of the dice for Bottas.
But to return to the Williams half of the equation, clearly luring Massa back from his brief sabbatical was the obvious choice. Although he was generally outperformed by Bottas in 2016, he has a wealth of experience, knows how to win races, gives good technical feedback, and will be an excellent reference point for development of the 2017 car. And, equally important, he’ll be an excellent mentor to Lance Stroll.
But, as to the lead question of this post, is it smart for Massa to return? I would say yes, . I’m guessing that Williams gave him a sufficient financial lure, to begin with. But, beyond that, he’ll be under no pressure to perform to retain his seat. Apparently, he has a one-year deal, paralleling the Bottas arrangement at Merc. He’ll be a bridge or transition driver. For 2018, Williams will either go shopping for a fresher face on the open market, or will rehire Bottas, assuming Merc is able to hire Vettel or Alonso.
Massa also feels a sense of loyalty to Williams. They apparently have treated him more respect than he was accustomed to at Ferrari. In fact, he never quite recovered from the incident at Hockenheim, in 2010, when he was asked to move over for team mate Alonso. So coming back to Williams for a year is, in a manner speaking, returning a favor.
Finally, if it’s understood that 2017 is really going to be his last year in F1, it will allow him to follow up the shortest retirement on record with the longest farewell tour.
And as for his “retirement,” and what followed, one wonders what might have been if Ferrari had had second thoughts about the Raikkonen-Massa matchup, and had made a similar offer to bring Michael Schumacher back to the team in 2007.