I don’t think of the past. The only thing that matters is the everlasting present – W. Somerset Maugham
Three at best very average seasons in ‘the great comeback’ have almost come and gone. How will Michael Schumacher’s reputation emerge from, what on the face of it, has been one of the most underwhelming returns to the sport he once dominated?
Legacies are notoriously difficult to gauge and are more often than not in danger of entering hagiographical territory. Schumacher left F1 in 2006 after being soundly beaten by an emerging Fernando Alonso. Indeed, he was even often shown the way by his team mate, Felipe Massa. So was Schumacher on the wane even in 2006 and what in his ultra-competitive mind did he believe he could accomplish by elongating his career, well in to his forties . Was the second bite at Formula One merely further evidence of his monumental self-belief? Could it possibly have been influenced by some kind of distain for the new generation of Vettel, Hamilton, et al? In his fallow years of 2007-2009 he watched these angelic, artisan upstarts as they splashed colour on a brand new F1 canvas. It was all so reminiscent of the 22-year-old Michael Schumacher in 1991.
First, it is necessary to try and appraise Schumacher’s ‘initial’ career in F1. From 1991 to 2006 he set new records and standards on the track. Seven World Titles, 91 race wins and so on. Schumcaher is the most successful driver in F1 history and that may never be taken away from him. The big questions remain though. In that period who was he up against that truly rivalled his own undeniable talent? Hakkinen in his pomp – yes. The emerging Alonso in 2005/6, yes. But, who else? Coulthard occasionally, Villeneuve over one season in 1997 perhaps. Montoya when the Colombian firebrand fancied it and had his head together but compared to the era we are so in thrall to now it’s not exactly dense with top-liners is it?
Team mates? Well he was the master puppeteer wasn’t he. A quick look at his ‘patsies’ from 1991 onwards show an aged champion on his way out in the shape of Nelson Piquet in his rookie half- season. Martin Brundle provided a stern and possibly career defining test in 1992. Journeymen like Eddie Irvine from 96-99, subservients like Barrichello and Massa from 2000 to 2006 freed him to dominate. It was only when Massa started to outpace Michael in 2006 that significant cracks started to emerge and Luca Di Montezemelo who, as sharp as they come in realising when the time is right for change, was by then of the opinion that Kimi Raikkonen should be the Scuderia’s future pot collector.
In 2010 Schumacher met one of the new generation he had observed from the Ferrari ‘prat perch’ in the fallow years – Nico Rosberg. Like a lost soul, wondering the paddocks, kicking his heels for three long seasons, Michael watched and wondered. Nico wasn’t one of the very elite, yet he was still feted enough to give the ageing champion a chance of moulding the Silver Arrows around him – Michael Schumacher – again, wasn’t he?
Nico Rosberg was 16 years Michael’s junior. For perspective, when Michael pulled on those green overalls of Jordan F1 for the one and only time at Spa in August, 1991, Nico was one month in to his sixth year on this planet! Indeed, one of the drivers that was rumoured to be in the running for the Jordan seat that weekend was Nico’s Dad, Keke, then a gnarled and streetwise (wasn’t he ever thus!) 38-year-old sports car driver who was five years on from collecting his F1 carriage clock.
The generation race was well and truly on when Michael was announced as a Mercedes F1 driver just before Christmas 2009. There were those who said he would win races, even challenge for the title. It was never going to happen. F1 had moved on in every sphere possible. Michael at the age of 41, lined up for the 2010 Australian Grand Prix and little did he know, but he was about to make the biggest mistake of his brilliant career. Not only was Schumacher about to show the world how much the present and future generation had moved on, but he also risked the very questioning of his true standing in the pantheon of great F1 drivers.
An undisputed champion seven times crowned, Michael reverted to type in a way that nobody wanted. He became a liability. Again he was feared when racing wheel-to-wheel but this time he was nowhere the front and he was prone to making rash and downright dangerous manoeuvres. The desperation of his ‘move’ on Barrichello’s Williams at Hungary in 2010 was worrying. So too the seemingly flawed peripheral and perspective anticipation of other cars around him, particularly in the murk of Singapore.
A key indicator of Schumacher’s psyche is the fact that despite his uncompetetiveness he never truly reflected on his own legacy as an F1 great. Michael has never given a consideration to the history of the sport. Indeed, at the 1998 French Grand Prix when he and his team mate Eddie Irvine scored a clear 1-2 finish, he asked the astonished media throng if it was the first time Ferrari had indeed finished in that order before. Stunned silence. Then again, why should he know anything about the sports history that he dominated for so long. After all, he was creating it wasn’t he? The point is that if he wasn’t winning or challenging for wins then why at least could he not have regard for his fellow competitors? The answer sadly is likely to be ‘because he’s Michael’.
Perhaps he may have been better off realising his own failings at such a stately age over the last three years. Anathema perhaps to one of his disposition but possibly sound advice nonetheless. His standing in the record books is unsurpassed and will be for many years. However, his character and the method in which he achieved the records will be forever debated and not in positive voice. The aftertaste of Adelaide 94, Jerez 97 and Monaco 06 still lingers. When he should have been a statesman for the sport he loves, he was merely an ever present in the steward’s room.
One former F1 driver told me recently that he was aghast at how little Michael knew about the sporting regulations and rules of on-track discipline. He even suggested that Michael thought that the rules were not necessary for Friday running at Grand Prix’s! This astonishing belief from a man who has competed in over 300 of them.
Maybe this in itself is merely a carryover from the ‘Senna doctrine’ of winning at all costs. Even if it means deliberately ramming a fellow competitor off the road at 150mph at the start of a Grand Prix with 24 other drivers in close attendance. The baton from Senna to Schumacher was a morally grimy one in this respect. Happily it appears that this has skipped a generation now, as the sensational clean, hard but fair Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Button style of wheel-to-wheel combat attests.
So the question remains why did Schumacher return to F1? For all the criticism it is likely that an answer is poignant and pure. It’s because he just loves racing F1 cars. What else was he made to do? Michael wanted to pit himself against Hamilton, against Alonso, against his heir – Sebastian Vettel. Something within him thought back again to 1991/92 when he was the young buck and grew a need to send a lightning bolt up Senna, Prost and Mansell’s backsides. It was coming full circle now. Schumacher was book-ending his career and thought he could defy the years, defy the genes. Of course,he could not and there is no escaping the fact that reflexes and optical function dim with age. We used to think of Michael as an automaton superhero, the fittest of the fit. Now he is just an also-ran, the motor sport equivalent of Diego Maradona at the 1994 World Cup, minus the ‘sharpeners’!
The man, at least to the watching world, won’t give a damn about his own legacy. Privately though, one suspects it will rile him more than the impenetrable outer shell suggests. His almost lunar detachment must slip when his chateau doors are locked. The ungainly and coruscating performer of recent years casts a long shadow over the brilliance he stamped on the sport. The present is not everlasting, it is unforgiving, as Michael Schumacher has just found to his cost.