Explained: Why is Felipe Massa legally challenging Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 World title?

Thomas Maher
2008 F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton with runner-up Felipe Massa pictured on the podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

2008 F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton with runner-up Felipe Massa pictured on the podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Felipe Massa’s ongoing court case to legally challenge the 2008 F1 Drivers’ World Championship is an intriguing aside in the build-up to the 2024 season.

Felipe Massa finished as championship runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in the 2008 Drivers’ Championship, following a hugely dramatic and controversial ending to the season finale in Brazil that left everyone guessing until the chequered flag.

15 years later, Massa opted to begin legal action in a bid to have the outcome of the championship changed – the logic behind this move stemming back to a hugely controversial race earlier in the year, the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, in which an event known as ‘Crashgate’ occurred.

What happened at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, and what is ‘Crashgate’?

Midway through the inaugural race at Marina Bay, Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jnr. deliberately crashed his car, having felt under pressure to do so as the Brazilian driver attempted to keep his career alive after a tough spell with the Enstone-based squad.

The crash brought out the Safety Car, which helped Fernando Alonso through into the lead due to perfect pit-stop timing, with the Spaniard going on to win. Massa, who pitted due to the Safety Car, lost out as a result of driving off with his fuel hose still attached – a catastrophic blow to his championship after leading the race.

Massa would go on to lose out in the World Championship battle to Lewis Hamilton, who claimed his maiden title, with the title formally done and dusted under the FIA’s own regulations when the trophy was handed over to Hamilton at the Prize Giving Gala after the season.

The race became hugely controversial within 12 months. This is because, upon being fired from Renault in mid-2009, Piquet Jnr. revealed he had been ordered to crash deliberately.

With the skulduggery of Singapore 2008 coming to light, an investigation by the FIA and the World Motor Sport Council would go on to reveal that most of the top brass at Renault were involved in the operation – with the exception of Alonso himself.

At an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in September 2009, the ING Renault F1 team admitted to conspiring with Piquet Jnr. to cause a deliberate crash.

“Renault F1 stated at the meeting that it had conducted a detailed internal investigation, which found that: (i) Flavio Briatore, Pat Symonds, and Nelson Piquet Jr had conspired to cause the crash; and (ii) no other team member was involved in the conspiracy,” read the FIA’s statement at the time.

“The World Motor Sport Council considers Renault F1’s breaches relating to the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to be of unparalleled severity.”

What’s important is that the timeline at the time suggested that Max Mosley and the FIA, as well as Bernie Ecclestone and FOM, only became aware of Renault’s actions during the 2009 season.

But an interview Ecclestone gave during 2023 revealed details that reset that timeline back to being before the end of the 2008 season – back to a much earlier point than what had been the generally accepted version of events.

“Max Mosley and I were informed during the 2008 season what had happened in the race in Singapore,” he recalled to F1 Insider in an interview dated 1st March.

“Piquet Junior had told his father Nelson that he had been asked by the team to drive into the wall at a certain point in order to trigger a Safety Car phase and such to help his team-mate Alonso.

“Piquet Junior was worried about his contract extension, so he was under a lot of pressure and agreed.

“We decided not to do anything for now. We wanted to protect the sport and save it from a huge scandal. That’s why I used angelic tongues to persuade my former driver Nelson Piquet to keep calm for the time being.”

While Ecclestone has since retracted those comments, claiming he doesn’t remember the interview, the interview understandably piqued Massa’s interest.

Having missed out on a large points haul in Singapore as a result of a pitstop error made under Piquet’s triggered Safety Car, the possibility of having that race nullified from the championship would change the outcome of the 2008 championship.

Felipe Massa begins legal proceedings to challenge 2008 title

Before the 2023 F1 summer break, Massa began to put the wheels in motion for his legal challenge, alleging that losing the World Championship had cost him millions in income as well as “moral” and “reputational” damages.

“Since the very first interview, I’ve said I’m here to be recognised as World Champion,” he told PlanetF1.com.

“This is the most important thing for me, this is our target, this is my target that I will fight until the end to be recognised as World Champion for 2008.”

On August 15th, Massa’s lawyers contacted both current F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem with a Letter Before Claim, establishing the details of his legal challenge and claiming Massa was “the victim of a conspiracy” in 2008 as both organisations sought to avoid a scandal.

Massa received a response from both the FIA and Formula One Management to his original letter but was left dismayed after being informed that it was impossible to provide a formal response when key personnel were away during F1’s annual summer break in August, with more time required.

This resulted in a back-and-forth on establishing a deadline before the matter would be filed in the UK High Court. That deadline was November 15th, 2023, with Massa taking the matter to the UK High Courts.

Felipe Massa: Nothing we’re doing is against Lewis Hamilton

Obviously, with Massa challenging for the 2008 title, the potential loser in the situation is Lewis Hamilton. The then-McLaren driver won the title on merit, with no involvement in any of the Singapore controversy.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with PlanetF1.com, Massa explained that his decision to challenge the title through the courts has absolutely nothing to do with hurting Hamilton, but only against the outcome of the manipulated race.

“Everything that we are doing is not against Lewis,” he said.

“I mean, I really respect Lewis as a driver for everything that he’s done, he’s one of the best drivers in the history of Formula One. So many records, with many titles.

“But what I’m doing is against the result of a manipulated race. At the point in the race where the manipulation happened, I was leading, I was first in that race. So it’s nothing against Lewis.

“I really like Lewis as a driver and he’s doing a lot of things for justice, so many different kinds of justice in the world. I think, one time, he will need to speak and to talk about the situation. I think it’s pretty clear I’m not doing anything against him.

“I’m doing it against the justice of the sport. When I am at home, and I see my phone after the Bernie Ecclestone interview, after the Charlie Whiting interview in the Max Mosley documentary that he knew at the last race of the season at Interlagos what happened in the Singapore race and after my son knew about it – he asked me ‘you are not doing anything?’

“So I’m doing that for justice. I really believe what I’m doing is correct because this is not acceptable. We’re not talking about a broken engine, or someone pushing me out of the race. We’re not talking about the sporting situation, we’re talking about the manipulation that changed the result.”

“He is an important ambassador for the sport and has always defended sporting integrity. He is an honorary Brazilian citizen and very well-liked by Brazilians, so I hope he will support us,” Massa’s lawyer Bernardo Viana told Reuters.

“We have absolutely nothing against Hamilton.”

Hamilton himself has opted against speaking out on the matter.

How Felipe Massa’s legal case escalated

In September 2023, Massa’s legal team sent preservation notices on documentation to several associated parties in the case.

Ferrari, the team Massa raced with in 2008, received such a notice, as did Alpine (the current iteration of the Renault F1 team).

Renault’s 2008 title sponsor ING, Briatore, Symonds, and FIA sporting director Steve Nielsen (then-sporting director at Renault), were also given notices. These were instructions to all parties that they have a duty to the court to ensure the preservation of any relevant documentation under their control that may be relevant to the proceedings.

A preservation notice is an instruction to ensure documentation is not deleted, destroyed, altered, or annotated in any fashion.

Any and all documentation and information pertinent to the case, which could include sponsorship agreements, clauses, renewals, communications with FOM and the FIA about the events of 2008 and ’09, and any documentation regarding the investigation into Renault and the World Motor Sport Council’s reportage were also to be retained.

In a statement to PlanetF1.com, Massa’s legal representative Bernardo Viana said: “FIA and FOM are completing an internal investigation.

“They have requested one last extension to the deadline they initially asked for, from October 12th to November 15th.

“We have agreed to this final period because, if the new administration is indeed looking into the matter in good faith, they will certainly reach the same conclusion we and so many people around the world have.

“We would like to know what Formula 1’s new leadership’s position is on the recently disclosed scandal and the injustice faced by Felipe Massa.”

Has Felipe Massa got much support from within F1?

Massa’s decision to challenge for the 2008 title through the courts has resulted in a very mixed response from those within F1. Some, including former FIA President Jean Todt, have agreed the Singapore GP result should have been cancelled.

Ironically, the current F1 CEO is Stefano Domenicali – who was Massa’s team boss at Ferrari during 2008 and the race in question. This means that, despite the duo now being on opposite sides of the argument, their relationship remains intact.

“Stefano is a big friend,” Massa told Motorsport.com.

“I always talk to him, apart from everything that happened, so there’s nothing really to say about that.

“He never changed the relationship or the behaviour with me, and he will never change.

“In the end, it’s the same company, with different people, also the FIA.

“But anyway, I really hope that the people that are now taking care of FIA or FOM are doing the right thing, for the justice of the sport, so what’s happened in the past can never happen again.”

Massa’s former race engineer Rob Smedley also recently spoke up on the topic with The Race, saying: “What I will say is that this is something that Felipe feels strongly about.

“It’s no secret that Felipe is a really good pal of mine, he’s like a little brother to me and if this is something that he feels strongly about, and passionately about, and when he talks about it, he’s very compelling and he’s very convincing in the fact that he’s doing this for what he feels is justice.

“Everybody has a personal right to pursue whatever they feel is just, and that’s the case with Felipe here.”

“I have a lot of support, to be honest, I have a lot of support from the drivers, many drivers,” Massa told PlanetF1.com.

“Even drivers that were there, to be honest. So from the people at home, everywhere I go – in the airport, in the restaurant, in the shopping mall, in the supermarket, wherever, everywhere I go, people stop me and people push me saying that I need to fight for the justice of the sport.

“So not only in Brazil, but in other countries as well. So what I’m doing is the fight for the justice of the sport, which was not fair and it was not correct what happened.

“I understand that so many people, sometimes, prefer not to speak, they prefer not to comment. Maybe because they are afraid of something related to this world, but I have zero doubt that I don’t have any help, any support, you know? I have massive support, and I really have no worries about the support that I have from the people on the road, and also in the sport.”

With the majority of active racers adopting a watching brief on the situation, the interest in the case is huge – despite the current quiet workings in the background.

Success for Massa could lead to various other legal challenges of the outcome of races and titles – a particularly pertinent example being the FIA’s handling of the final laps at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP.

Timo Glock, who Hamilton overtook at the final corner of the final race of 2008 to win the title, said he isn’t sure a Massa victory would lead to good things.

“This opens up a lot of cases where other drivers could raise their hand and say, ‘Guys, listen, in whatever championship in that year, if that would have not have happened, I would have been Champion, you know?’” Glock said.

“I mean, in the end, it’s racing – incidents happen, situations happen, which you cannot steer in a direction. It’s part of racing sometimes. Sure, there are unfair situations, and there are unfair decisions made in any sport. If you take football, you could argue every game, I would say, that there were decisions taken in the past, which were not right.

“I think it’s not another great sign for the sport if decisions are taken in front of court every time.”

Whatever happens, Massa isn’t concerning himself with such matters. The Brazilian isn’t letting go of his push for what he feels is justice, and he said he isn’t concerned about losing the goodwill of F1 or the fans after handling his defeat with humility and dignity in the 2008 season finale in front of his home crowd.

“Zero, for sure,” he said when asked about that concern.

“To be honest, I always respected the people that I worked with, the people that I didn’t work with, the media, so I was always respected really a lot in Formula One.

“So, on that podium, I didn’t know that I lost the championship because of a race that was manipulated, you know? So I used my heart completely to try to show other people what I was thinking. But then, a few months later, we discovered what happened in Singapore, and what happened in Singapore was not fair for the sport.

“So, definitely, I am not concerned. I know who I am, I respect the people, I was always really, really fair to everyone. I am fair because I’m definitely here to show that what’s happened is not part of the sport. That’s why I’m doing this and that’s why I will fight them to the end to show that what happened in that race in Singapore was not fair.”

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