On the twisted streets of Monte Carlo, high downforce is vital for a Formula 1 (F1) car to be quick. But the most important is driver skill in negotiating the kerbs and closed-in barriers, while chalking out the quickest lap-time possible, which makes the Monaco Grand Prix one of a kind.
This May, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the world of Formula One was buzzing in anticipation. A silver car—with just a dash of red—clocked the fastest time in qualifying. It belonged to Michael Schumacher.
Official records, though, will tell you that Red Bull’s Mark Webber started the race on pole position. Schumacher started sixth after suffering a five-spot grid penalty for an incident in the previous race. Two weeks prior, in the Spanish Grand Prix, he had slammed his car into the back of Williams’ Bruno Senna. The seven-time former world champion went on to claim that it was the other driver’s mistake; he had swerved more than once in the braking zone. The race stewards thought differently, but most telling was Senna’s post-race comment, “Has Michael ever admitted he is at fault?”
This fortnight perhaps best defines Schumacher’s comeback to F1. On the streets of Monaco, the old champion was at his best—showcasing to the world that even at 43, he has more skill than teammate Nico Rosberg, 16 years his junior. At Barcelona too he was his wily old self, wanting to win at all costs, not surrendering an inch.
But champions have their flaws. The Senna incident wasn’t a one-off. In 2011, at Monza, Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) gave him chase for quite a few laps. As great a duel as it was to watch, Mercedes was clearly the slower car. Schumacher went off the racing line on quite a few occasions to defend his position. Hamilton held off his charge, otherwise it would have ended in tears. Then there was Hungary in 2010, where he nearly drove Rubens Barrichello, once his Ferrari teammate, into the wall, at 180 miles per hour, all for one championship point.
Schumacher apologized the morning after. But former F1-driver turned commentator David Coulthard, whose McLaren Schumacher smashed his Ferrari into at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998, wrote this in The Telegraph on 3 August 2010: “Not only does Michael employ the crudest tactics imaginable on occasion, he refuses to apologise for them, even when demonstrably in the wrong. Until now that is (the Barrichello incident). So are we to believe he has turned a corner? Or is he simply trying to stem the tide of moral outrage?”
It is unfathomable that a personality set in stone for the better part of two decades can undergo such dramatic change overnight. F1, though, is quite fickle. It doesn’t take too long for the mighty to fall, and the reverse is also true. The fierce competitor in Schumacher never died. He just grew old enough, unable to wring out the best from his machinery under a changed set of rules. There has to be a distinct difference in the swagger of a five-time consecutive champion and an also-ran, struggling for a race win in three seasons.
“In the past six years, I have learned a lot about myself,” said Schumacher while announcing his second retirement on 4 October, in the build-up to the Japanese Grand Prix, after three winless years at Mercedes. “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 sight of this in the early years,” said the driver, who won a record 91 races for Benetton and Ferrari (1992-2006), after a winless debut season with Jordan in 1991.
These words are the closest he will ever come to apologizing for his many transgressions. Jacques Villeneuve will never get an I-am-sorry card for the attempted crash at Jerez in 1997 (for which Schumacher was stripped of his second position in the final championship standings), nor will Damon Hill for the 1994 Adelaide incident, quite similar to his coming together with Villeneuve. When Coulthard asked after their Spa run-in in 1998, if he had ever been wrong in life, Schumacher replied, “Not that I can remember.”
He will never admit that he deliberately parked his Ferrari at Rascasse (Monaco GP) in 2006 (for which he was demoted to last on the grid) to prevent Fernando Alonso from taking pole position. Or that Ferrari were wrong in issuing team-orders to Barrichello to let his world-championship leading teammate through for a win at the A1-Ring (2002 Austrian GP) with half the season remaining.
“You know the song My Way? I think that fits how I feel about F1,” Schumacher once said.
Remember the best
The bottom line is that the F1 universe doesn’t remember this flawed aspect of the genius it is so deeply in love with. Instead, they cherish how he drove a midfield-at-best Benetton to double world championships in 1994 and 1995. They recall how he cried after winning the Italian Grand Prix in 2000, on equalling his idol Aryton Senna’s record of 41 race wins. They still celebrate his joy and disbelief from when he gave Ferrari their first drivers’ championship at Suzuka (Japanese GP) later that season, after a gap of 21 years. And that he made the Tifosi weep after winning at Monza (his fifth Italian GP victory overall) when announcing his first retirement in 2006.
Schumacher was always known to push the limits. But the rules had changed when he came back in 2010 in an attempt to win some more. In came DRS (drag reduction system) and KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) to aid overtaking and reduce the aerodynamic efficiency of modern F1 cars. In-season testing was banned and there was only one tyre supplier. He couldn’t grind down the car to understand and improve it. He became an analogue player in a digital world.
“Many fans will be disappointed that he has not been taken up by Ferrari or Sauber, but F1 is an unsentimental business and the sport is moving on, like a train, leaving the 43-year-old behind on the platform for good,” wrote James Allen, F1 commentator and author of Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness.
Mercedes have signed Hamilton for 2013 onwards and thereby forced Schumacher’s hand. It is a repeat of 2006 when Ferrari pushed him into a premature first goodbye, because they were looking for a new direction under Jean Todt.
In a parallel world, his Ferrari-loving friend and Indian cricket’s Sachin Tendulkar is being berated by a few million people to hang up his boots. These two belong to a rare category of men who have known only one purpose in life. Yet, someday, they must move on, and find a new direction.
It cannot be easy.
Chetan Narula is the author of History of Formula One: The Circus Comes to India.
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