Felipe Massa is seeking more than just monetary compensation for the ‘Crashgate’ scandal that led to his losing the 2008 Formula One drivers’ championship to Lewis Hamilton by a single point. He wants “to get back what is fair, which is the world championship.”
In an English-language exclusive interview with The Athletic, the former Ferrari driver looked back on the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix and its aftermath, saying the race was “manipulated” and that Renault’s subsequent punishment was “bulls***.” Asked if he is seeking to cancel the race result, Massa said, “This is what we are fighting for. This is (why) we get together a group of lawyers to fight because this is the correct thing to do.”
The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix is known for ‘Crashgate,’ one of F1’s most infamous scandals, where Renault’s Nelson Piquet Jr. purposefully crashed after being told to do so by team leadership. The resulting Safety Car period shuffled the race order to the advantage of Piquet Jr.’s teammate, Fernando Alonso, who went on to win, while Massa endured a disastrous pit stop when he drove away with the fuel hose still attached. After starting on pole, he finished outside of the points and eventually lost the 2008 world championship by one point to Lewis Hamilton. Had the race results been thrown out (if the rest of the season played out as it did), Massa would have taken the crown.
F1’s ‘Crashgate’ scandal returns as Felipe Massa seeks justice for a lost title
It wasn’t until the following season that Massa and the rest of the world learned about the manipulation. What’s different now is that it has recently become clear that high-ranked FIA and Formula One members knew Piquet Jr.’s crash was intentional in 2008, with enough time to investigate before the awards ceremony.
In light of this recent development, Massa looked at his legal options and sent a Letter Before Claim (which must precede a lawsuit in the U.K. legal system) to the FIA and Formula One Management on Aug. 15, demanding a “substantive reply” within 14 days. Both entities acknowledged they received the letter, according to Massa, and now it’s a waiting game. The FIA confirmed to The Athletic it received the letter, adding “The matter is under review and we will not be providing comment at this stage.”
“We are pretty confident (in) the situation,” Massa said. “We will fight them to the end because it was not correct. It was not fair for the sport, what’s happened.”
Looking back on 2009
The World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) did investigate what happened in Singapore and determined the crash was deliberate. Massa recalls being surprised by the rulings.
“The punishment was no punishment,” Massa said. “Nobody paid for that.”
Renault received a suspended permanent disqualification. This meant it would be disqualified, but only if the team was found guilty of a similar breach until 2011. Massa said, “For me, this is — sorry for the word — but it is bulls***.”
Additionally, former Renault team managing director Flavio Briatore was banned indefinitely. Pat Symonds, then the team’s director of engineering, received a five-year ban. But both bans were overturned in court because of irregularities, and Briatore and Symonds later reached an agreement with the FIA to not work in the sport until 2013. (Symonds returned as Williams’ Chief Technical Officer from 2013-2016 and now serves in the same role for F1. Briatore now serves as a Formula One ambassador.)
Back in 2009, Massa called for the Singapore GP results to be tossed and even consulted with Ferrari’s lawyers. However, a rule didn’t allow for a change in the results after the end-of-the-season awards ceremony. “This is completely unacceptable rules. I don’t know who made that rule, to be honest,” Massa said.
It’s worth noting that around the same time, Massa endured a “life-threatening” accident during the 2009 Hungarian GP weekend when he was hit in the head by a competitor’s suspension string and crashed out. The driver was airlifted to the hospital with skull fractures that required surgery. He returned to Formula One and competed until 2013.
“Everything came out in (a) very difficult moment, you know, for me, with knowing about what’s happened (during) that race in Singapore, then my accident. Everything was together, so it was definitely not easy,” Massa said. “The most important thing I had in my mind was to get back to the car.”
The sport moved on from ‘Crashgate,’ but that changed this season. “But then after 15 years, you hear that people knew (and) they didn’t want it to do anything not to destroy Formula One’s name because it was a very serious situation, like Crashgate. So then, it was a big shock.”
There’s more to the case than Ecclestone’s interview
‘Crashgate’ returned to the headlines earlier this season after former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone was quoted in a story published by F1-insider.com saying he and former FIA president Max Mosley “had enough information in time to investigate the matter.”
“According to the statutes, we should have canceled the race in Singapore under these conditions,” Ecclestone was quoted as saying “That means it would never have happened for the World Cup standings. Then Felipe Massa would have become world champion and not Lewis Hamilton.”
Ecclestone then told Reuters that he doesn’t remember the quotes or doing the interview. Massa, though, feels Ecclestone “remembers so much well, all of the answers he was doing on that interview, so this is not important for me anymore.”
Ecclestone’s remarks align with another interview that arose this year, from former F1 race director Charlie Whiting for the 2021 documentary ‘Mosley: It’s Complicated.’ Not all of the interviews from Whiting and Mosley were included in the final cut, but motorsport.com saw the full segments and reported that Whiting said he was informed of the intentional incident at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix by Nelson Piquet Sr., Piquet Jr.’s father.
“He came to see me in my office, and we were having a chat. And then, all of a sudden, he shut the door,” Whiting said, per motorsport.com. “He held his foot against the door, so no one could come in, and then told me about what happened in Singapore. It was aimed at Flavio [Briatore] because, basically, the essence of what he was saying was that: ‘Flavio made my boy crash.’
“I said, ‘Wow, this is pretty serious stuff.’ I don’t know who else he had told, but he just said, ‘Keep it to yourself.’ In doing that, he would have known that I would tell Max (Mosley).”
Per the film’s interviews seen by motorsport.com, Piquet Sr. told investigators in 2009 that he did inform Whiting.
Mosley was notified of the situation by Whiting. Though he told the filmmakers he “suspected” it, the FIA didn’t immediately investigate. He added, “But of course, I said nothing to anyone. There was no evidence.” According to the film’s interviews seen by motorsport.com, Piquet Sr. later spoke with Mosley in Monaco the following year, and that’s when Mosley involved investigators for a formal statement from Piquet Jr.
Massa wants the FIA, F1 to ‘fix the situation’
In various interviews over the last few months, Massa said he wanted justice and to understand what happened in 2008. But what exactly does that mean when it comes to legal actions?
When asked what he hopes for from the FIA and F1, Massa said, “I hope that they understand that the situation that happens, the investigation, and everything that happens (at) that time was not right for the sport, was not fair for the sport.”
Since ‘Crashgate,’ a new parent company has taken over F1, and new leadership runs both the sport and FIA. Massa hopes they “fix the situation.” When asked to clarify what that means to him — whether it’s retroactively changing the championship results or monetary compensation — Massa reiterated that F1 and the FIA need to “understand” what happened.
“They really understand that it was manipulation. They really understand that it was a race, it happened — a very serious situation like corruption, like manipulation — that is not the correct thing for the sport,” Massa said. “I really hope they look back, and they fix what was not fair for the sport and for the people.”
According to the Letter Before Claim, a copy of which The Athletic obtained, Massa suffered a heavy financial loss by not becoming world champion if he would’ve won that year. This included “substantial bonuses” and potential “lucrative agreements.” The document states that Massa estimated his losses “are likely to exceed tens of millions of Euros,” which “does not cover the serious moral and reputational losses.”
When discussing how being a world champion helps a driver when it comes to matters like image, contracts and sponsors, Massa added the Singapore Grand Prix was “a race that could change the result of the world champion.”
Ultimately, that’s what Massa says he’s fighting for “the championship. I won it, so I need to get the confirmation that that is exactly what’s happened in the correct way.”
Despite what has happened, Massa made it clear that he respects Formula One and trusts the sport’s integrity.
A fight bigger than himself
Clearly, Massa feels he should have been the 2008 world champion. But when asked what his message is, he said he’s pursuing this “not only for me, not only for my dream.” He says it’s for his country: Brazil.
“I’m doing that for the developing of the motorsport in Brazil, developing of the drivers in Brazil,” Massa said. “We know how much important is the title for a country.”
He proceeded to point out the impact Ayrton Senna had on the country. Senna is one of three Brazilian F1 drivers to win a world title (and he won three at that: 1988, 1990, and 1991). “Now we don’t have a Brazilian driver in Formula One anymore, so you can understand how much this is important for our country.”
Massa said said he’s also fighting this for Ferrari and its tifosi (the team’s fans). Kimi Räikkönen won the driver’s championship in 2007, the last Prancing Horse title to date.
Massa still loves and respects F1. To him, this fight is a way to uphold the sport’s integrity.
“I really believe that situation is important to show what is Formula One, what is important for the sport, the example we give to so many kids, the example we gave to so many people,” Massa said. “How many people is big fans of Formula One, you know? And I am a big fan, as well. So I’m doing that because I think this is the correct thing to do for the integrity of the sport.”
(Lead photo of Felipe Massa in 2008: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)