After years of climbing the mountain to race at the pinnacle of the sport, how should one step down when the time comes? Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Mark Webber have got it right, says Charles Bradley.
Elton John sang that Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, but I’d beg to disagree with Sir Elton – and his lyrical partner Bernie Taupin – I believe the hardest word is always: ‘Goodbye’.
In Abu Dhabi, Formula 1 waved farewell to Felipe Massa and, to all intents and purposes, Jenson Button.
Between them by Sunday evening they will have shared 555 Grands Prix starts. In their stead for F1 2017, Lance Stroll and Stoffel Vandoorne, with a sum total of one F1 start! Time waits for no man…
In a way it feels like Massa’s already said his goodbyes with that emotional trek back to the pits from his crashed car in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Reflecting on that this weekend, Massa says he was overcome by what transpired.
“It was an amazing feeling,” he admitted. “It’s impossible to describe what I was feeling.
“And then when I got to the pit lane, I saw all the teams out, I couldn’t believe. It is still in the middle of the race and the race just stopped!
“I really hope Jenson feels the same here in this race, because it’s a very special feeling and a very special emotion and I’m really thankful for everything that I passed through.”
For Button, there remains the off-chance of a return in 2018 – but that’s the last thing on his mind by the way he’s talking right now.
“It is true that I have a contract for 2018 but, at this moment in time, I don’t want to be racing in 2018,” he said. “So this is my last race, that’s the way I think about it at the moment.”
When asked to reflect on his career, he added: “You get to Formula 1 with many dreams and you aspire to be something and hopefully you leave the sport with memories. That’s something I definitely do have from my 17 years of racing in Formula 1.
“Lots of amazing memories, lots of life-changing memories – some good, some bad – and also to walk away with the world championship is a very special feeling as well.
“Over 300 Grands Prix. I will definitely step away from Formula 1 happy with what I’ve achieved and knowing that my life really does start now.”
Of course, both Massa and Button plan to race on in 2017 outside of F1.
Massa seems most likely to take a break and then race in Formula E, with WEC and DTM also on the table, while Button looks set to mix some Super GT in Japan with Global Rallycross in the United States.
Taking that final step
But in years to come both will also have to consider that final goodbye to the sport, from a competition side at least. It’s something that Mark Webber – someone with another 215 F1 starts to his name – did at Bahrain last weekend following his final professional motor race.
Webber bookended his career with a stellar WEC career that yielded eight wins from three seasons. Le Mans success might have eluded him, but it’s a race that’s he’s never got along with – I think he’s happy to let that one slide by, especially with a World Championship finally nailed in 2015.
Webber bowed out on the podium last Saturday night, and it was fair to say he’d done so at a point where he hadn’t lost his edge in the slightest.
“I’m still driving reasonably well,” he said, “So it’s good to have that sort of memory and feeling and not being frustrated because you’re not driving that well, or being involved in things you don’t want to be involved in. With age, I see more and more risk and I've been very fortunate to walk away from some close shaves. For that I'm grateful.
“Nothing is forever, I’m stopping at a good time. In the end, it’s been a really nice year.”
A classy way to exit, you have to say – and one that reminds me of Tony Stewart’s adieu to NASCAR on Sunday night in Homestead. Maybe he raced for a season too long at that level, but he earned his farewell tour.
So who’s next?
In F1, the drivers closest to their use-by date (in terms of age, at least) are Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. In Kimi’s case, he’s already had a taste of an ‘outside F1 career’ – in World Rallying, NASCAR and he tested an LMP1 car – while Alonso has firmly hinted that he wants to carry on racing in the WEC some years down the line.
And after them, who's next in this generational shift? Well, we’re into Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg age-group territory!
And which will be the first of them to say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road?