I hadn’t prepared an entry on Michael Schumacher’s retirement in advance of it happening – mainly because I honestly didn’t think he was going to retire (I wrote as much back in April).
Michael Schumacher polarises opinion in much the same way as his immediate ‘great’ predecessor, Ayrton Senna. And it’s easy to be taken in by both points of view.
Everyone loves a winner, and Schumacher has won more of everything in Formula One than anyone else. More wins, more pole positions, and above all, more championships. What’s more, he did most of it with that team everyone loves to love – Ferrari.
He has mesmerised us with his speed, impressed us with his professionalism, and above all has flabbergasted us with his metronomic race speed.
Today only Fernando Alonso can hold a candle to him in terms of being able to pummel in lap after lap at the limit of the car’s capabilities, while still having the spare mental capacity to assess a race situation and make crucial decisions in a split-second.
But there is the dark side too: the man the media called “Schumel Schumi” in his Benetton years. The man who would win at all costs with no regard for the rules, for sportsmanship, for safety, as long as he could get away with it.
His detractors repeat the major scandals like a mantra: Adelaide ’94 (ramming Hill), Jerez ’97 (ramming Villeneuve), Austria ’01 and ’02 (team orders), Indianapolis ’02 (fixing the finish). Even in his final year there was a new outrage – at Monaco, when he stopped his car in qualifying to try to prevent Alonso beating him to pole position.
These are the indelible stains on his reputation that, in the eyes of many, no number of championship titles could ever erase.
When I remember Michael Schumacher I will think of him as a driver of such transendental ability that no rival seemed able of matching him for any substantial length of time.
I will also remember with sadness the missed opportunities. Above all, what a struggle there might have been between he and Senna had the Brazilian not suffered such an untimely death at Imola in 1994.
And the other missed opportunities: That he quit when, in Alonso, he finally had an opponent who could tax him to the absolute limit of his abilities week in, week out.
And finally, that he never accepted the challenge of a talented team mate in equal machinery with equal support from the team. Already people are asking whether he left Ferrari because that was what he truly wanted, or whether he was unwilling to accept Kimi Raikkonen as a team mate in 2007.
Which would be a most unfortunate way to remember the man who rewrote the F1 record books.
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