LONDON: Felipe Massa believes Saudi Arabia’s arrival on the Formula E starting grid can help accelerate the all-electric car series’ ambitious drive to challenge Formula One’s global popularity.
The Saudi capital of Riyadh will host the first Formula E race in the Middle East — and Massa’s debut in the four-year-old championship — on Dec. 15.
It is the 2018/19 season-opener, which will be staged in Riyadh’s Old City of Ad Diriyah, the first of 13 races the electrically powered cars will tackle across the globe.
Massa ended his illustrious 15-year career in F1 in 2017, so is well placed to assess how Formula E compares to motorsport’s premier championship.
His Formula E bow coincides with the arrival of next-generation cars, and Massa admits he has been astonished by the level of interest in his new discipline as it prepares to take the Kingdom by storm.
“Can Formula E challenge Formula One in popularity? I think so. You never know. Everything is possible,” Massa, who won 11 grand prix, told Arab News.
“Things change really quickly and electric cars are the future. Maybe in a few years, most of the cars on the road will be electric. I would say maybe I have more sponsors now than I had with Williams. The number of companies interested in Formula E now is unbelievable.
“If you see how much the season is growing with new cars, it shows the level of the championship and shows how much it is growing. I think that’s really amazing to see that and amazing to be part of that.
“I think it will be a championship that will grow more compared to other championships.”
The Brazilian ace, who will be racing for the Monaco-based Venturi team, hailed Saudi Arabia’s arrival in Formula E as “a great thing” both for the Kingdom and the fast-growing sport.
He says the Kingdom can profit hugely from the international recognition it will gain — just like Bahrain and the UAE, which held their first Formula One grands prix in 2004 and 2009 respectively.
“Nobody knew much about Bahrain before their Grand Prix but I think F1 helped Bahrain to grow and improve, get bigger and get more internationally known,” said the 37-year-old, who raced for Sauber, Ferrari and Williams in F1. “The same thing happened in Abu Dhabi and I think more or less the same (can happen) with Saudi Arabia. Everybody knows how strong the country is, but (not many people) go there. This will be a great experience to go there to develop the sport in the country.
“I know that Saudi Arabia is investing a lot to develop the country, inside the country, to promote itself as more international. Sport is the best thing for that and I am really looking forward to racing there as I really enjoyed all the races I did in the Middle East.”
It is understood that activities for women will be a feature of December’s ground-breaking race, much to the delight of Massa.
He described this as “very important” in the year that Saudi has lifted its ban on women and, when asked whether a female motorsport star could ever emerge from the Kingdom, he replied: “Why not? Definitely. I support ladies in motorsport. It would be fantastic to be fighting (on the track) with a woman. I had Susie Wolff as my teammate when she was a test driver at Williams. We did fantastic together and now she’s my team principal (at Venturi).
“I really hope some other ladies can have an important future in motorsport and one day we can have a great driver coming from Saudi Arabia.”
Massa, racing alongside the Swiss-Italian Edoardo Mortara, has not set any specific targets for his first season in Formula E.
“For the moment, my target is to do my best all the time on the track. I need to learn the tracks as I don’t know any of the tracks I’m going to race on.
“I prefer to keep my feet on the ground, keep learning and keep understanding and hopefully have a good season. I want to be competitive and fight for some podiums and maybe (secure) victories.
“That would be fantastic if we can achieve that and I hope to stay in this championship for a long time.”
Massa’s longevity in Formula One is laudable given that he competed against all-time greats such as Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
His best performance came in 2008 when Hamilton pipped him to the championship by just one point, but Massa has no regrets overall.
“I really have nothing to regret and I am really proud of everything I did. At the end, I am looking forward.”
Massa is lavish in his praise of the all-conquering Hamilton, who is all but assured of a fifth world title this season — just two behind the record haul of Michael Schumacher.
“Can he beat Schumacher’s record? I think so,” he said of the Mercedes maestro. “To see his age (33) and see the car he’s driving now, how competitive it is, I think he will definitely be fighting for the championship in the next years. I don’t think big changes will really happen next year or the year after.
“He will be already five times world champion this year and for his age, everything is possible to beat the number of championships that Michael Schumacher won but also the number of victories as well.
“He can have every record. He deserves it. What he did in the second part of the season is amazing.
“For sure Ferrari and [Sebastian] Vettel have made many mistakes, but Lewis did an amazing job.”
Massa expects Vettel to be Hamilton’s greatest challenger again next season and reckons Charles Leclerc of Sauber can “be a big future champion.”