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Friday favourite: The brief F1 pairing that brought “fun” to Sauber

Felipe Massa’s first year in Formula 1 didn’t go entirely to plan, as he found himself relegated to a test driver role at season’s end. But it left an impression on Massa’s 2002 Sauber stablemate Nick Heidfeld, who singles out the Brazilian as his favourite team-mate

Felipe Massa, Sauber C21 Petronas, runs wide while following Nick Heidfeld, Sauber C21 Petronas

Felipe Massa, Sauber C21 Petronas, runs wide while following Nick Heidfeld, Sauber C21 Petronas

Motorsport Images

Had Nick Heidfeld’s career path gone as expected then he would never have spent the 2002 Formula 1 season at Sauber with Felipe Massa. The long-time Mercedes protege had won the German Formula 3 and International Formula 3000 titles in McLaren liveries, set the Goodwood hillclimb record in a 1998 MP4/13 and raced at Le Mans in the ill-fated CLR on what appeared a predestined path to becoming an F1 talisman for the Silver Arrows.

But Kimi Raikkonen’s emergence alongside second-year F1 racer Heidfeld at Sauber in 2001 meant it was the Finnish rookie that Ron Dennis instead called on to replace Mika Hakkinen for 2002, as the double world champion began a sabbatical which turned into a permanent F1 retirement. That left Heidfeld to continue at Sauber, joined by another newcomer in Massa who arrived fresh from dominating the second-tier European F3000 championship.

PLUS: How Raikkonen's rapid rise stalled his team-mate's F1 career climb

But far from letting any bitterness at what could have been overshadow their spell together, today Heidfeld picks out the Brazilian as his favourite team-mate from a lengthy career that continued in LMP1 and Formula E after his F1 opportunities dried up midway through a partial 2011 campaign with the Enstone team then known as Lotus.

“Felipe Massa was my favourite team-mate on a personal level, just such an all-around good guy,” explains Heidfeld, who retains the record for the most podiums without an F1 win with 13, including eight runner-up finishes. “He’s liked and loved all over the world not only for his skills but also for his personality. As a team-mate, I can only echo that he’s just a really nice guy.

“He was also really honest, which was not the case with everybody. We had a lot of fun together.”

In addition to Raikkonen, Heidfeld would also race alongside F1 race winners Jean Alesi, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mark Webber, Jacques Villeneuve and Robert Kubica. He won Petit Le Mans with Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost as part of a four-round American Le Mans Series programme in 2013 and later formed an effective double act with Felix Rosenqvist at the Mahindra FE squad. But Massa’s cheery demeanour and a regular pre-race routine stuck with Heidfeld.

Heidfeld enjoyed his time with Massa in 2002 after being overlooked by McLaren

Heidfeld enjoyed his time with Massa in 2002 after being overlooked by McLaren

Photo by: Sutton Images

“It sort of developed over the year we were together,” the German recalls. “Before the race, he would sit in the meeting and would go through the race by saying, ‘the start I overtake him, then this happens and then we have a fantastic pitstop’ – and in the end of his monologue he won the race. On each event! I don’t know if he still did that in the teams he went to afterwards.”

Heidfeld maintains that being overlooked by McLaren for 2002 “wouldn’t have changed anything at all, not the slightest, on how I did go about racing” and that his “motivation was completely unchanged”. However, “from a fun and non-racing perspective” Heidfeld says Massa’s presence in the team was a welcome tonic “especially when outside the car”.

“Back then Felipe already was a team player which is important and positive, he was open, I think he did try to learn,” reckons Heidfeld. “He did help put a good vibe in the team, which is always important.”

Heidfeld enjoyed going up against Massa in battles, regarding him as a “fair and good guy on the circuit”. They shared an F1 podium once, at Spa in 2008, the year Massa came oh-so-close to winning the world championship

Not uncharacteristically for a 21-year-old eager to make their mark in grand prix racing, Massa had a tendency for wildness in 2002. Famously, he incurred F1’s first 10-place grid penalty for breaking Pedro de la Rosa’s left-front suspension at Monza’s Ascari chicane, which Sauber ingeniously sidestepped by benching him for Frentzen at Indianapolis. But although Peter Sauber opted to replace him for 2003, opting to keep veteran Frentzen as Massa headed off to Ferrari to spend the year as a tester, he had showed glimpses of the potential that would earn a recall for 2004 in an all-new line-up alongside Giancarlo Fisichella.

Massa outqualified Heidfeld at the first time of asking prior to the first corner pileup that eliminated them both in Melbourne and, although he lost out 5-11 in their head-to-head, did contribute four points that kept Sauber ahead of Jordan in the constructors’ standings. The Swiss team ended up fifth, losing only one spot to Renault after reaching the giddy heights of fourth in 2001.

Massa joined Heidfeld in the points (only awarded down to sixth in 2002) in just his second Grand Prix at Sepang and again in Barcelona, where he peaked with fifth, and beat Heidfeld to the final point at the Nurburgring. He ended up 13th, three places below his team-mate, in the drivers’ championship.

Both Sauber drivers scored points in Barcelona as the team secured fifth in the 2002 constructors' championship

Both Sauber drivers scored points in Barcelona as the team secured fifth in the 2002 constructors' championship

Photo by: Sutton Images

Asked for his views on Massa being moved aside for 2003, Heidfeld remarks: “In motorsport and F1 you start to not be surprised by many things. But I think in those years more than I think people have in mind now, Felipe was highly supported by [Jean] Todt and Ferrari.

“It would be different being moved from a race team into just a test driver if you were just somebody, but with the close connection that Felipe had with Ferrari and Todt, I would assume that I didn’t think it was a bad thing because at Ferrari you learn a lot and it was not saying ‘okay, he’s put massively on the sidelines’.”

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Sure enough, after two more seasons at Sauber, Massa earned a race seat at Ferrari for 2006 and would go on to win 11 grands prix before retiring from F1 at the end of 2017. Heidfeld enjoyed going up against Massa in battles, regarding him as a “fair and good guy on the circuit”. They shared an F1 podium once, at Spa in 2008, the year Massa came oh-so-close to winning the world championship he is today seeking to overturn in the courts.

PLUS: Why precedent doesn’t favour Massa’s F1 legal challenge

While it remains to be seen whether his bid to annul the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix 15 years later will yield the outcome he desires, Massa’s weighty contribution to F1 as a driver and paddock personality is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry by admirers. And although his successes “reminds myself a little bit of what chances I did not have”, Heidfeld can certainly be counted among them.

Heidfeld says he appreciated the good vibe that Massa brought to Sauber

Heidfeld says he appreciated the good vibe that Massa brought to Sauber

Photo by: Russell Batchelor / Motorsport Images

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