Ruminations on Michael Schumacher

One of the jobs that I do in Formula 1 is to be the Grand Prix correspondent for a wonderful publication in Australia called Motorsport News. I have done the job for 12 years (I think) and I like the magazine very much because it remembers that motor racing is a sport and should be treated as such. Deadlines are always a little bit difficult because out there in Australia they are living life eight hours before we do. Thus on a Sunday evening when we journalists are hammering away on our keyboards, the Australians are already well into Monday morning and printing presses are waiting for words to reproduce. Formula 1 may be a media sport but the numbskulls at Ferrari do not understand that the world runs on different time zones and so last weekend I ended up writing two columns: the "Michael Schumacher retires" column and the "Michael Schumacher stays on" column. This meant that whichever one proved to be correct could be slotted into the page 10secs after the announcement was finally made and sent off to the printer.

And then came a phone call on Friday morning.

"Forget about Schumacher," they said. "Brockie's been killed."

In the world of Formula 1, they will never understand that Peter Brock could be a bigger story than Michael Schumacher. They just don't get it. Most of the F1 circus likes to visit Australia but very few of them really understand how motorsport Down Under works. In the self-obsessed world of Formula 1, nothing else matters apart from what the people in the business are doing. But think on this for a moment: when Peter Brock died Channel 7's lead news story was about Brockie and it monopolized the first eight and a half minutes of the national news. The following day tabloid newspapers led with pages and pages about Brock. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition both spoke about the man and this week he will be given a state funeral.

For the rest of the Monza weekend, I was incredibly busy, talking to people about Brock, getting reactions in F1, and trying to deal with all the Schumacher stuff, the qualifying scandal, plus all the usual race weekend work. It was not until I got home late on Monday evening that I had a chance to think about putting Michael Schumacher into some kind of historical perspective.

I saw every single one of Michael's victories. In fact I have seen every F1 race he has done. In the early years I interviewed him many times but I never succeeded in breaking down the walls he had built up around himself. I never got to see Michael the man, at least not how he saw himself. From years of watching I concluded that he was a fundamentally a good man, a man who gave much to charity, a family man who was intensely loyal to his wife and family. And yet, all too often, when he was out on the race tracks, he seemed to adopt a completely different personality; becoming a man who was capable of pretty much anything. Even in Formula 3 he was ruthless, sending Mika Hakkinen into the wall at high-speed in Macau when the Finn tried to overtake him.

In F1 we saw that unsporting streak with Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and again at Jerez with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. We saw it most recently at Monaco this year.

These were the dramatic moments but behind them there was more. Michael had contractual clauses about the status of his team mates and the men who raced alongside him at Ferrari accepted large sums of money but always had to help him. Sometimes they would lift off a fraction early to give him the lead at a first corner, sometimes they did the donkey work for him, using up their supply of tyres so that he would be able to use the knowledge to his advantage, sometimes they acted as hares to break the opposition in races. Once or twice he handed over wins when he no longer needed them, to say thank you, but when all was said and done Michael had an unfair advantage.

Perhaps it was his acceptance of this and the fact that there were other allegations in his early career that Benetton used illegal traction-control systems in 1994 that led some in F1 to conclude that every car he ever drove was somehow illegal. Perhaps this was a reflection of his apparent acceptance that there was nothing wrong with having an unfair advantage over his team mate. Where the theory breaks down is that intellectually-speaking, any intelligent person knows that cheating is really only cheating oneself. Ayrton Senna, the man who should have been Michael's rival for longer, would insist that any system he did not think was legal should be taken off his car. He wanted to know that he was the best and would not accept that winning was enough. Michael is an intelligent man and should have reached the same conclusions.

In a lot of respects Michael was the victim of his own success. There were simply too many Sunday afternoons when they played the German national anthem. Things would have been different if Senna had lived. After Ayrton's death, Michael was like Gulliver in Lilliput. He towered over the opposition for years. Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve won World Championships against him but those Williams-Renaults were awesome racing machines and the Ferraris he drove were not very good. For a long time Mika Hakkinen's challenge was blunted by the after-effects of his accident in Adelaide in 1995 but eventually it was the Finn who emerged as Michael's main real rival, beating him in 1998. But then Michael broke his leg in 1999 and so we did not see the two men go head-to-head until 2000. After that Ferrari's investment in people and infrastructure was such that no-one could get close to this industrial machine. Michael was supreme and often magnificent. The ultimate irony of course was that when the other teams made the same investment as Ferrari, the Italian team whinged about the need for cost-cutting.

Michael broke all the records in F1 history and yet his critics argue that greatness is not about statistics. It is about character and integrity - and about the people that one is competing against. Stirling Moss is still seen as one of the absolute greats of the sport but he never won a World Championship.

At the start of an F1 career, people are usually willing to give the new boys the benefit of the doubt but Michael's controversies in the early years never ceased and in time the older observers came to see that these elements were not youthful errors but rather part and parcel of the man.

His retirement was an interesting point. Ferrari needed to look at the bigger picture and had the opportunity to sign Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn would not accept being number two to Michael - why should be? - and Ferrari could not risk missing Kimi or Fernando Alonso and being stuck without a star if Michael retired suddenly. But the team made it clear that Michael could have stayed on and raced alongside Raikkonen. He chose not to. And thus his chance to prove that he did not need the unfair advantage has gone.

People who do not remember the sport before Michael look for a new hero to take his place but those who remember the late 1980s will recall the magnificent era when there were four great champions fighting one another: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. All had strengths and weaknesses. All were great characters. Much will depend on the machinery of course, but the disappearance of Michael Schumacher could lead to a new golden age of F1 with a new gang of heroes.

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