AUGUST 7, 2006

Michael Schumacher to retire?

Michael Schumacher is behaving oddly. He made a stupid mistake in qualifying in Hungary and paid for it with a penalty that dropped him to 11th on the grid. In the race his driving ability was as brilliant as ever, but his strategic thinking seemed to have gone to pieces in the final laps of the race. On a day when Fernando Alonso was out and would score no points, Michael was second and heading for eight points. That would have closed the gap in the championship to just three points. His tyres were shot but presumably Michael was confident that he could hold off de la Rosa. In order to achieve that, however, he sacrificed a 15secs advantage over fourth-placed Nick Heidfeld. With nine laps to go Michael was lapping 2.3secs a lap slower than the BMW driver - but there was traffic between them. With a clear track Heidfeld might have caught Michael in seven laps but the timing sheets reveal that in the laps that followed the BMW driver lost three and half seconds with traffic and only closed on Schumacher because Michael was losing more time in his fight with de la Rosa.

Thus if he had let de la Rosa go, he would have dropped two points in his tally and would have closed the World Championship gap to five points. Instead he was outrun by de la Rosa and then crashed into Heidfeld in a desperate attempt to stop the BMW driver overtaking. In doing so he wiped out any score and was fortunate that Kubica's disqualification gave him one point. The gap to Alonso is now 10 points. All things considered it was very un-Michael-like state of affairs and a huge missed opportunity.

At the same time, the sudden burst of activity in the Formula 1 driver market suggests that some important decisions have been made that mean that middle-ranking drivers are no longer waiting to see if they can move up Formula 1's greasy pole and are signing deals because they see no better opportunities. The Red Bull announcement that Mark Webber and David Coulthard will be its drivers next year, means that Scuderia Toro Rosso will now almost certainly keep Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed. That means that there is no place left for Felipe Massa to go if Ferrari was planning to park him somewhere else and run the superteam of Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen. Massa is absurdly confident that all will be well and that hints that he knows what he is doing next year. And if that is the case, Michael Schumacher has to be retiring because Raikkonen is not going to Renault and it is almost certain, given the Webber move, that Renault will sign Heikki Kovalainen to partner Giancarlo Fisichella.

There are people who think that the superteam idea is still possible but Michael's little team of people at Maranello have never worked with team mates having equal opportunities. Michael has always used his number two as a servant to do the dirty work for him. Raikkonen is not going to do that. On top of this Jean Todt and Ross Brawn are both saying that the management structure at Ferrari will be revealed at the end of the year. If they were staying one would have thought that the team would have made some kind of announcement, if only for the sake of stability and to stop stories like this one being written. And if Todt and Brawn are on the move, then the only logical conclusion has to be that Michael is stopping - and is hoping to go out with an eighth World title in his pocket.

One must assume that delaying the announcement is designed to keep up the momentum of the Ferrari charge to the World title.

No doubt Ferrari will deny this story but as always time will tell whether we are right.