Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Never forget how great Michael Schumacher was

Michael Schumacher was given a round of applause by the assembled media after he finished the prepared statement with which he announced his second retirement from Formula 1 at the Japanese Grand Prix on Thursday.

It was a mark of the respect still held for Schumacher and a reflection of the appreciation for what was clearly an emotional moment for the man whose seven world titles re-wrote the sport's history books.

Schumacher stumbled a couple of times as he read off the paper in front of him and once, as he mentioned the support of his wife Corinna, his voice almost cracked.

Once through the statement and on to a question-and-answer session with the journalists, he was more comfortable, relaxed in a way he has so often been since his comeback, and so rarely was in the first stint of his career.

Michael Schumacher after the crash with Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore

Schumacher's retirement from the Singapore Grand Prix had a familiar look to it. Photo: Getty

The Schumacher who returned to Formula 1 in 2010 with Mercedes was quite different from the one who finished his first career with Ferrari in 2006.

The new Schumacher was more human, more open and more likeable.

As he put it himself on Thursday: "In the past six years I have learned a lot about myself, for example that you can open yourself without losing focus, that losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning. Sometimes I lost this out of sight in the earlier years."

Most importantly, though, the new Schumacher was nowhere near as good.

In every way possible, there is no other way to view his return to F1 than as a failure.

When he announced his comeback back in December 2009, he talked about winning the world title. Instead, he has scored one podium in three years, and in that period as a whole he has been trounced by team-mate Nico Rosberg in terms of raw pace. In their 52 races together, Schumacher has out-qualified his younger compatriot only 15 times.

It is ironic, then, that there have been marked signs of improvement from Schumacher this season. In 14 races so far, he has actually out-qualified Rosberg eight-six.

And although Rosberg has taken the team's only win - in China earlier this year, when he was demonstrably superior all weekend - arguably Schumacher has been the better Mercedes driver this year.

Schumacher has suffered by far the worst of the team's frankly unacceptable reliability record and would almost certainly have been ahead of Rosberg in the championship had that not been the case. And he might even have won in Monaco had not a five-place grid penalty demoted him from pole position.

That penalty, though, was given to Schumacher for an accident he caused at the previous race in Spain, when he rammed into the back of Williams driver Bruno Senna having misjudged his rival's actions.

That was only one of four similar incidents in the last 18 months that have crystallised the impression that the time was approaching where Schumacher should call it a day.

It is unfortunate timing, to say the least, that the last of those incidents happened less than two weeks ago in Singapore, almost as if it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

That was not the case, of course. Schumacher has been vacillating on his future for months and in the end his hand was forced. Mercedes signed Lewis Hamilton and Schumacher was left with the decision of trying to get a drive with a lesser team or quitting. He made the right call.

His struggles since his return have had an unfortunate effect on Schumacher's legacy. People within F1 - people with the highest regard for his achievements - have begun to question what went before.

There have always been question marks over his first title with Benetton in 1994, given the highly controversial nature of that year. Illegal driver aids were found in the car, but Benetton were not punished because governing body the FIA said they could find no proof they had been used.

But since 2010 people have begun to look back at the dominant Ferrari era of the early 2000s, when Schumacher won five titles in a row, and begun to wonder aloud just how much of an advantage he had.

It was the richest team, they had unlimited testing and bespoke tyres. Did this, people have said, mean Schumacher was not as good as he had looked?

If you watched him during his first career, though, you know how ridiculous an assertion this is. Schumacher in his pomp was undoubtedly one of the very greatest racing drivers there has ever been, a man who was routinely, on every lap, able to dance on a limit accessible to almost no-one else.

Sure, the competition in his heyday was not as deep as it is now, but Schumacher performed miracles with a racing car that stands comparison with the greatest drives of any era.

Victories such as his wet-weather domination of Spain in 1996, his incredible fightback in Hungary in 1998, his on-the-limit battle with Mika Hakkinen at Suzuka that clinched his first title in 2000 were tours de force. And there were many more among that astonishing total of 91 victories.

So too, as has been well documented, was there a dark side to Schumacher, and it was never far away through his first career.

Most notoriously, he won his first world title after driving Damon Hill off the road. He failed to pull off a similar stunt in 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve. And perhaps most pernicious of all, he deliberately parked his car in Monaco qualifying in 2006 to stop Fernando Alonso taking pole position from him.

Those were just the most extreme examples of a modus operandi in which Schumacher seemed often to act without morals, a man who was prepared to do literally anything to win, the sporting personification of Machiavelli's prince, for whom the ends justified the means.

Those acts continue to haunt Schumacher today, and even now he still refuses to discuss them, won't entertain the prospect of saying sorry.

"We are all humans and we all make mistakes," he said at Suzuka on Thursday. "And with hindsight you would probably do it differently if you had a second opportunity, but that's life."

He was given a second opportunity at F1, and he took it because in three years he had found nothing to replace it in his life.

His self-belief persuaded him that he could come back as good as he had been when he went away, but he learnt that time stands still for no man.

He has finally been washed aside by the tide of youth that with the arrival of Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen towards the end of his first career already seemed to be replacing one generation with the next.

It seems appropriate in many ways that the agent for that was Hamilton, the man who many regard as the fastest driver of his generation.

That, after all, is what Schumacher was, as well as one of the very greatest there has ever been. And nothing that has happened in the last three years can take that away.


John Cordts David Coulthard Piers Courage Chris Craft Jim Crawford Ray Crawford

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