Saturday, 28 May 2011

Delusions of grandeur

When Michael Schumacher and Ferrari made the long awaited announcement back in 2006 that the seven-time world champion would be retiring from the sport he had dominated for many a year, the consensus was that the German had been pushed out via the imminent arrival of Kimi Raikkonen from McLaren.

The shoddily handled announcement came immediately after the chequered flag fell at the end of the Italian Grand Prix and in the post-race press conference, Michael was as uncomfortable as I had ever seen him. Despite his best efforts to deny it, it was clear the Maranello hierarchy had decided to announce the deal with Raikkonen and that Michael – who ideally wanted more time to finalise a decision, would have to like it or lump it.

The team was, correctly, looking after the interests of itself and it’s investors. One couldn’t help but feel that the man who had helped transform the once limping horse into a prancing one that galloped all over the record books, was being forced into early retirement.

The following years saw Michael unable to prevent the urge to ‘race’ from rearing it’s addictive head and before long the German was competing once more, albeit on two wheels rather than four. An accident in a minor bike race in 2008 resulted in a hairline fracture of the vertebrae and apparently a lucky escape from more serious damage.

After Felipe Massa’s unfortunate crash in Hungary 2009, Ferrari needed a replacement and immediately the rumour mill went into overdrive suggesting Schumacher would make a comeback. Initially, it seemed as likely to happen as seeing the Pope come out of a brothel but within days it was confirmed that yes, the red Barron would don his helmet once more. Ultimately however, the neck hadn’t healed sufficiently to permit a return and so with a heavy heart, Michael confirmed he would not, after all, be seen in a racing car once more.

Fast-forward six months and with Jenson Button leaving the Brawn GP which had just been bought outright by Mercedes – previously only the engine supplier to the team, there was now available a potentially race-winning seat. While the rest of the world was asleep, Schumacher and former partner-in-crime Ross Brawn quietly came to a deal for the German to return to the sport via a 3-year contract.

While many questioned the move, most were anticipating the prospect of seeing how the old master would compare with the likes of new team mate Nico Rosberg and more importantly, the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

Inevitably, much fanfare accompanied the German at the start of last year’s return to action but it was in essence, a disaster. The MGP-01 held not a candle to it’s predecessor which had taken Button to the title and Michael was emphatically out performed by his team mate in most areas.

Many have begun to wonder if the German will put himself through another winless year and perhaps more poignant, for the first time in his career, sorry, careers, his employer is contemplating a replacement for the seat he occupies.

Back in 2005, the BAR team - and in particular Jenson Button, were prevented from reaching the top step of the podium several times courtesy of Michael Schumacher who was enjoying another year of driving the best car in the field.
Despite being one of the main reasons Button had to wait a further year before his first win, the 2009 world champion is convinced that these days, grand prix racing is more competitive and thus, Schumacher’s end goal is all the more harder to achieve.

“Michael is in a very different situation to the one he was in before he retired,” Button declared during a recent McLaren Mercedes teleconference. “When he was at Ferrari he was in a competitive car and he knew that at almost every race he went into, he had a chance of winning.

“It’s a very different situation now and for me, over the last twelve years I’ve raced in the sport, it has got more and more competitive in terms of drivers and teams that can fight it out at the front.”

There is little doubt that with age comes a gradual decline in performance. Ok, yes Nigel Mansell was 39 when he strolled to the F1 title in 1992 and yes, Andretti was still racing competitively in Indycars at the age of 53 two years later but the fact still remains that performing at the level of your immediate competitors in the hardest championship in the world, is not easy for a man of 42.

At the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, Niki Lauda casually informed Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone that he was retiring from the sport with immediate effect; declaring that he no longer wished to "drive around in circles" and that he had simply had enough.

His charter airline Lauda Air was in need of his attention and so it was that the then double world champion hopped on his plane – literally, and turned his back on the sport, returning home to Austria.

Fast forward three years and Lauda, now requiring additional funds to stabilize his business, was back, now a McLaren driver intent on winning a third title. Despite initial concerns about his speed having lost some polish from team sponsor Marlboro; the Austrian promptly won his third race back on the streets of Long Beach before winning that elusive third crown in 1984.

Granted, having John Watson as team mate was never going to be a problem for Lauda and the fact that in McLaren, he had a car at his disposal that was usually there or thereabouts in terms of pace. For his title winning year and his final one in 1985, a young Alain Prost arrived and immediately out-paced his more experienced team mate. Aware that on speed alone, Prost was untouchable, the calculating Austrian won the championship through strategy and stealth before limping out of the sport for the final time a year later – annihilated by the younger Frenchman who picked up the first of his four titles.

“I think that today, it’s a lot tougher for a driver that’s spent three years out of the sport to then come back,” Button says. “I don’t know if Michael is as good as he was in his twenties but I think it’s more competitive now and he has a competitive team mate in Nico. I think he’s doing a pretty good job but he’s not setting the world alight because he is racing against some very talented drivers.”

The trouble for Michael though, is that because unlike Lauda before him, he has returned, then quickly won a race, his reputation as a race winner is being devalued with every passing grand prix.

The German Grand Prix is scheduled to be the 278th start of his illustrious career and what better way to celebrate it than by announcing his retirement. At least this way - and unlike the fa├žade that was Monza five years ago, he could bow out under his own terms, safe in the knowledge that the employee was dictating proceedings, not the employer. 

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