SO the curtain is to come down on Michael Schumacher’s Formula One career for a second time and, on this occasion, there is a palpable sense of warmth towards the seven-time champion.
In terms of statistics, there is simply no-one to match the 43-year-old German – perhaps there never will be. Seven world titles, 91 race wins, 155 podium finishes, 68 pole positions and 77 fastest laps. Yet, while Schumacher had an army of fans, there were those who questioned his approach to racing during a first part of his career that rewrote the record books.
His ruthless attitude towards title-deciding collisions with Damon Hill in 1994 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 raised the ire of many, and his aggressive – some would say over-aggressive – defence of his position drew plenty of criticism. Even in 2006, the final season before his first retirement, he was penalised after pretending to misjudge the Rascasse corner in qualifying at Monaco, the result being that he simply parked in the middle of the track, meaning his rivals had no chance of beating his time.
So, when he exited the sport that winter, there were a few who were not exactly unhappy to see the back of him. But to attempt to exclude Schumacher from the pantheon of greats because of a ruthless streak is uncharitable in the extreme. Isn’t that an attribute possessed by all great sportsmen and women?
There are those who will say statistics aren’t everything. They are right. Great drivers need to produce great drives. Performances where they rise imperiously head and shoulder above their rivals. Schumacher had plenty of those moments. Spa in 1992 and 1995, Spain in 1996, Hungary in 1998, Japan 2000, Austria 2003…there are many more that could be mentioned. The sad element of Schumacher’s comeback with Mercedes was those magical moments were few and far between. There would be a rare glimpse – the fastest qualifying lap at Monaco and the Valencia podium this season – but the apparently superhuman individual who had set new standards of fitness and strategy understanding had been rendered simply human.
By and large Schumacher dealt with his fall from prominence with good grace, engendering an empathy towards him that was not obviously present during his first stint in F1.
That warmth could be felt as the assembled media applauded the former Jordan, Benetton and Ferrari driver wholeheartedly after he had finished his emotional announcement.
Regardless of how competitive he was with Mercedes, Schumacher will be missed. Every sport needs its heroes and those who raise it up to a previously unseen level. Michael Schumacher is unquestionably one of those heroes.