Sport is littered with the reputational corpses of athletes who over-reached their longevity in search of one last pay day, or misjudged grab for glory.
Requiring the resources of Croesus just to get a car on the grid, F1 has largely avoided the spectacle of the retired driver coming back to whatever fanfare he can still hear above the tinnitus; why re-hire a guy who lost his mojo when there are ten others who just found theirs at a fraction of the cost?
Whilst the means of Felipe Massa’s “return” (did he ever, technically leave?) was hardly conventional, he would do well to avoid suffering the fate of all but one of the following four case studies for his 15th season in the sport.
Two consecutive years of flying in straight lines for his recently started Lauda Air outfit appeared to alter the Austrian’s mood, however, and he was back for more circuitousness in 1982, this time at Mclaren.
At the opening race Lauda reminded the world that a few years of airline food hadn’t dampened his appetite for being anti-establishment, orchestrating the now infamous “Super Licence” strike, in which the drivers barricaded themselves into a South African hotel room to hold out against what Lauda realised were driver contracts loaded heavily in the teams’ favour.
Lauda hadn’t returned to F1 to resurrect a reputation for stroppy militancy, however, and having emerged victorious from that face-off, laid to rest any fears people – sponsors Marlboro in particular – had that Lauda had lost his mojo by winning the third Grand Prix of the season at Long Beach.
Lauda wasn’t done yet, however, and despite partnering with the acknowledged – by Lauda himself – fastest driver Alain Prost managed to squeak home as the 1984 world champion by half a point; after cheating death at the Nurburgring in ’76, perhaps his greatest triumph, (along with ensuring Rosberg and Hamilton didn’t kill each other in his subsequent role at Mercedes, of course).
Comeback: 1983 & 1985-’86
The bullish no-nonsense Aussie first quit F1 at the end of 1981 with 12 wins and a world title under his (increasingly capacious) belt. Taking on Ferrari’s 1982 offer following Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi’s disastrous accidents might have carved another notch in the Jones legend, but its rejection, unfortunately, heralded not one, but two poorly judged comebacks.
Perhaps kicking himself for turning the Ferrari offer down, Alan agreed to a one-off Arrows drive at the US Grand Prix in 1983, but qualified poorly and retired thanks to fatigue. Even if other drivers found it difficult, clearly the Oz sedentary lifestyle caught up with the now less than svelte Australian.
A more concerted effort two years later with F1’s (first) Haas outfit was even more disastrous, however. Despite – or perhaps because of – works Ford engines and a Lola chassis, Jones qualified over nine seconds behind pole-sitter Ayrton Senna at the teams debut at Monza in 1985.
Vaguely encouraging performances were few and far between the following year and the writing was on the wall for the entire outfit, let alone Jones, whose reputation was beginning to look much like his bloated stature in the face of regular beatings at the hands of the similarly unretired Patrick Tambay.
The team eventually went bankrupt, and Alan was out of both job and suitors, just in case the 40-year-old had been harbouring any “third-time lucky” thoughts, this time retiring permanently to Australia to enjoy the barbeque weather. Although mainly the barbeques, judging by subsequent appearances.
Retired: 1990, 1992.
Comeback: 1991, 1992, 1994 & 1995
“Our” Nige famously retired three times, although – much like his championship assaults – only one ultimately proved successful.
After an emotional 1990 British Grand Prix, where his Ferrari broke down less than 10 laps from glory, a hastily arranged press conference/chaotic media scrum saw the Englishman make the first of his emotional retirement announcements. The Scuderia weren’t to be trusted, he claimed, so he would leave the team and the sport to spend time with his family.
Two years later, devoid of cherished family memories but clutching the desperately craved World Championship courtesy of Williams in compensation, the Brummie announced his second leave of absence – once more citing political skullduggery, but this time hatched in Didcot, rather than Maranello.
Leaving F1, Mansell popped up at Indycar outfit Newman-Haas the following year, duly winning the ’93 title before once again being tempted back to Williams for a series of 1994 cameos, culminating in victory at the final race of the season in Adelaide.
Retirement eventually got the better of Nige, but only after one of the most poorly judged and shortest racing partnerships in F1 history.
Mortified their new car couldn’t contain the Englishman’s bulk, Mclaren spent two races carving a bigger opening into the MP4/10 for their expensively acquired driver only to regret ever bothering when, after 17 hair-raising (but slow) laps of the 1995 Spanish Grand Prix, Mansell brought the car into the garage, citing a handling imbalance. He was never seen in a Mclaren (or on an F1 grid) ever again, for which both parties were probably thoroughly grateful.
Schumacher’s apparently insurmountable wins-to-starts ratio might have been even more intimidating if his F1 itch hadn’t proved so hard to scratch.
In 2006, five consecutive titles still wasn’t enough for the Scuderia, once they’d got it into their heads Schuey was a bit long in the tooth. The German was “encouraged” out of the team with the knowledge Raikkonen had already been hired thereby squashing Michael’s unfettered number 1 status.
Despite his apparent geriatric status, Schumacher nonetheless returned to the sport after a three-year hiatus in 2010 thanks to Mercedes’ curtailment of an even longer absence (they’d officially been out of F1 as a works team since the 50s). Armed with the intense desire to kindle what, for them, was the perfect marketing synergy – Germany’s most successful driver and car manufacturer, together at last – felt like a match made in Himmel for the Stuttgart behemoth.
Like a punch drunk, latter-day Muhammed Ali, Schumacher – despite the odd flourish – was a walking accident waiting to happen, and often an impatient one at that. Coupled with the apparent embarrassment of being taken to the cleaners by relatively unfancied Nico Rosberg each weekend, and the sudden availability of Lewis Hamilton, the writing was on the wall for one of F1’s winningest driver who at least managed to bow out poetically; letting compatriot, fan and official mantle inheritor, Sebastian Vettel past to clinch his own third title at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Even if it hadn’t been raining, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.