Thursday November 1st, 2001
By Camila Moreira
Felipe Massa is Brazilian, has won titles throughout his young career and recently set faster times than World Champion Michael Schumacher in testing at Mugello.
So it was inevitable that when he was given a Formula One ride with Sauber earlier this month, comparisons were drawn with three-time F1 champion and Brazilian national hero Ayrton Senna. But when Massa got treatment from Senna's personal masseur and sidekick, it looked as if he was walking in the very footsteps of Senna, who died at Imola in 1994.
Hired by Sauber after just five tests, 20-year-old Massa is so busy that his only time for an interview was by phone from his car as he travelled to Switzerland, the home of his new team. Massa will make his F1 debut in 2002 with this year's Ferrari engine and the pressure promises to be intense on the young man, who, like Senna, is a native of the sprawling city of Sao Paulo.
But Massa will get special treatment to relieve the tension - massages from Joseph Lieberer, which were so key to Senna's career. The masseur has already taken care of Massa's neck pains after his first tests with Sauber at Mugello in Italy.
"The neck was the big problem the first two days and I had to do massages all the time," Massa said. "I was touched when Joseph asked to take a photo with me. I said he must have photos with many drivers and he responded no, with only a few. That means he was taking the photo because he liked me."
Until Sauber called in September for tests, the only contact Massa had within Formula One was with Benetton chief Flavio Briatore and Prost's Brazilian co-owner Pedro Paulo Diniz. These conversations "never went to the end," Massa said, although he had clinched this year's European Formula 3000 championship in his debut season.
The announcement that he was replacing McLaren-bound Kimi Raikkonen at Sauber came during the Japanese Grand Prix last month, but he has not met with team principal Peter Sauber since signing.
"I met Peter Sauber in April, during the Grand Prix in Imola, but we didn't talk much," Massa said. "Afterwards, he followed the F3000 and that was when Sauber called. I spoke three words with him when I went to adjust the seat for the tests. He came to say hello and wish me good luck."
In just five days of testing on the Mugello circuit in Italy, Massa acquired a taste for the peculiarities of Formula One, everything from the neck pains to the spinouts. The first time he got in the car he spun on the track four times and he admits he has a lot to learn.
"These spinouts happened because of inexperience in Formula One. Once it was because it raining and another time because the motor broke and the rest because of my errors," he said. But he did have the experience to know that something was wrong with his car on the first day and had the wherewithal to ask the mechanics to fix it.
"The car was veering in the front and I asked them to change it and they did for the next test," he said.
In Italy, the media is already suggesting that Ferrari is interested in Massa, a self-declared "Ferrarista" who lives in Italy. And, of course, the media continues to harp on the coming of the next Senna, a subject which makes Massa uncomfortable.
"The comparison with Senna is overwhelming," Massa said. "But Senna was Senna, as (Michael) Schumacher is Schumacher. I'm going to do my best just to be Felipe Massa."
Published at 17:45:58 GMT