Even though the announcement that Michael Schumacher will retire at the end of 2006 was not really a surprise, it’s still hard to believe that the man that put F1 on the world map will soon bid farewell to it all.
By Mike Fourie – Editor
Even though the announcement that Michael Schumacher will retire at the end of 2006 was not really a surprise, it’s still hard to believe that the man that put F1 on the world map, the most successful grand prix driver and one of the most hero-worshipped, misunderstood, maligned and/or detested sports personalities in living memory, will soon bid farewell to it all. Schumacher could have waited until he clinched his eighth world title – which looks increasingly likely following his 10-point haul and Fernando Alonso’s mechanical failure at Monza – before deciding to end his eventful, and undoubtedly stellar, career. However, it was no secret that Ferrari had recruited Kimi Raikkonen to join the team, and the German decided to end countless months of speculation, give the relentless media corps what it wanted to know and, young pretenders a chance to shine in their own right. Had Schumacher continued into 2007, Felipe Massa’s promising career could have gone into reverse or the mercurial Raikkonen would have moved sideways.
F1 traditionalists dislike Schumi because he’s always willing to throw sportsmanship to the wind and bend the rules past breaking point to achieve Ferrari’s goals and he has seven world championship titles, global fame and billions of bucks to show for his efforts. Isn’t it ironic, then, that Ferrari seemed to force the German to announce his retirement on Sunday?
We’ve been led to believe that the German could have stayed on at Ferrari as long as he wanted… The Bridgestone-backed Scuderia is the dominant team and will probably be in the same position next year - so if there was an eighth or ninth driver's title in the offing, why wouldn't Schumi continue? Team boss Jean Todt’s deer-in-the-headlights expression at the pit wall (when Michael took the chequered flag), and the uneasy embrace between the German and Ferrari kingpin Luca di Montezemolo (during the post-race celebrations) suggested otherwise. Before the US Grand Prix, Schumi and Ferrari seemed a spent force – the Scuderia had to look to the future – and that’s why Raikkonen was hired… It may sound like Marxist rhetoric, but the Finn would cost the Maranello-based team a lot less money to employ and because Schumi was no longer winning races (or so it seemed), the German was deemed expendable.
Even if Michael wasn’t urged, coerced, nudged or implored to call it a day… It is all too understandable that the German would be fed up with the Machiavellian and incredibly politicised sport that is current-day Formula One. When four-time champion Alain Prost decided to call it a day in 1993, it was not only because Sir Frank Williams had recruited the Frenchman’s arch-rival, Ayrton Senna, for the 1994 season – he could simply no longer stomach the administration-heavy, neé draconian, F1 establishment. Schumi, who critics argue benefits more often than not from decrees issued by the supposed Ferrari-friendly FIA and Bernie Ecclestone hierarchy, was on the receiving end at both the Monaco and Hungarian Grands Prix. His rival, Alonso, seemed in control of the championship until the FIA decided to ban Renault’s mass damping system (which had been deemed legal for more than a year before FIA technical whip-cracker Charlie Whiting decided otherwise), then the Spaniard got penalised in Hungary (the jury’s still not out on that one) and received an abominable five-position grid penalty for supposedly holding up Massa during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. Ridiculous!
If Alonso was guilty of unsporting conduct at Monza, Schumacher should have been tarred and feathered for understeering into the barrier at the Rascasse and blocking the track during the Monaco Grand Prix qualifying session. But, it doesn’t really matter to what extent the two protagonists were at fault in Monaco, Hungary or Monza. F1 is a ruthless and zealously regulated sport in which drivers are merely de-humanised pawns. We don’t want manufactured entertainment or artificially-created drama – just good, old-fashioned sport. From next year, the three-year “engine freeze” rule will further rob F1 of its glamour – surely the ultimate motorsport formula should remain at the technological forefront of internal combustion engine development and expertise?
In conclusion, Schumacher is an icon – and very much a product of his time. He won’t leave the sport as Senna did - a mythical, immortalised genius that died for the cause – and he won’t be remembered as an endearing or charismatic personality, but Formula One fans will only realise in years to come what the German did for F1. His legacy will be that of the methodical and consummate professional, who re-wrote the record books and whose brilliance was at times overshadowed by the regularity at which he defeated his competitors, achieved his goals and, until recently, manipulated the F1 machine.