JUNE 4, 2003
Michael and retirement
A racing driver knows that he is beginning to get old when people keep asking him about his retirement. In recent years this has started happening to Michael Schumacher.
The fact remains that, despite all his success, Michael is 34 and there is not a hint that he is losing any of his pace or motivation. In fact he is probably driving better now than he has ever driven. And Michael likes winning. He likes winning a lot. His motivation is such that he is constantly testing between races, keeping up with all the development programs and keeping on top of his game. After the race at Monaco he was frustrated that his Bridgestone tires were not better performing. He was not resigned to the fact. Many of the other drivers in F1 (including some of those touted as the new superstars) are accused of not putting in enough effort. To Michael working hard comes naturally.
And, by far the most important thing, he gives the impression that he still loves to race more than anything else.
In the old days there was much more motivation for a driver to retire young. Thirty years ago Jackie Stewart retired earlier than he might have done today because of the safety issues in the sport. Today safety is so good that, while still being an issue, it is not what once it was. It is perhaps worth noting at this juncture a recent court action in the United States of America in which NASCAR star Jeff Gordon's estranged wife Brooke argued that Gordon should not be entitled to a disproportionate share of the couple's assets, which he is claiming because racing is a "hazardous, life-threatening occupation". Mrs. Gordon claims that Jeff's fortune has been derived from a "relatively safe occupation".
When a team and a driver are winning there is little motivation to stop. Ferrari and Williams look like winners on occasion but the expectation at every race is still that Michael will win. The challenge for a team like Ferrari, which has enjoyed so much success, is to see how long the winning streak can last. It has long been believed that when Schumacher goes the current Ferrari team will break up and by the end of next year Rory Byrne will be 60, Jean Todt 58 and Ross Brawn 50 but many of the others at Maranello are still young.
Talk of retirement should thus be treated with care. It may be part of a negotiating process that is going on. It may be that he is quietly becoming weary of the constant stress and strain of an F1 career after 13 seasons and 185 races. But that is not an extraordinary statistic. Many people have gone on longer. And there is still the ultimate goal of winning more World Championships than Juan Manuel Fangio. At the moment they are tied on five apiece but Michael must have his eye on that record. He may have achieved that by the end of 2004 but Michael will need to keep his options open if he has not.
Michael's manager Willy Weber says that nothing will be decided before September and this is perhaps significant because by then it will be clear whether or not Michael will have the sixth title in his pocket. Yet, even if he does, one cannot help but think that the passion for racing is still too strong for Michael just to walk away. It is an easy thing for a journalist to write, but facing the idea of never getting back in another F1 car is something which Michael may find difficult to accept. He may need a year or two on the slippery downward slope to convince him that enough is enough.
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