Sunday, 18 November 2012

Michael Schumacher: Saint or Sinner?

In two races time, Michael Schumacher will hang up his racing boots forever. He has decided that it is time to leave the stage for the second  and final time. Its going to be emotional. Big time.

How do you say goodbye to a legend? There’s no way one blog can do the great man justice so I’ll just have to do a few mini blogs to cover everything I want to!

First up, where there’s Michael Schumacher there’s often controversy not far behind. Schumacher polarizes opinion like no other F1 driver in recent times or perhaps ever. Every sport needs a villain of the piece and for many people that person was Michael Schumacher. More than any other driver (although Senna shared the same streak of ruthlessness) he was prepared to go to absolute extremes in search of victory. Over the last 20 years, his stellar career has been marked with controversy. But was all the savage criticism of Schumacher’s driving tactics fair? Lets revisit the big flashpoint incidents in Schumacher’s F1 journey.

Adelaide 1994

Schumacher arrived at the final race of a turbulent yet captivating season with a 1 point lead over title rival, Damon Hill who had just beaten Schumacher in an unexpectedly thrilling wet Japanese GP. On lap 36, while leading, Schumacher skidded off and hit a barrier. As he returned to the track, Hill (perhaps rashly) went for the inside line and the two cars collided, both subsequently retiring from the race. Schumacher had clinched his first title.

Schuey and Damon in happier times

Schumacher literally shut the door on Damon and his title chances. Was it done deliberately? The jury is still out but subsequent Schumacher race incidents might suggest that yes it was a pre-meditated act of aggression. But was it any worse than Senna’s deliberate collision with Prost at the first corner in the 1990 Japanese GP in 1990? After failing to persuade the FISA president, Jean Marie Balestre to change the position of his pole to the cleaner side of the track, Senna had famously said that he would try to take the lead into the first corner no matter what. Adelaide actually is more reminiscent of the previous season’s Prost-Senna title deciding crash, where Prost moved across to block a charging Senna and both drivers refused to yield and dramatically collided. Did Prost intentionally run into Senna? Was Senna overambitious in his overtaking manoeuvre? Or a bit of both? Long before Schumacher, final race collisions often used to decide the championship.

Jerez 1997

Schumacher approached the final and deciding race with a 1 point lead over his title rival (once again in a Williams) – this time the feistier Jacques Villeneuve. Sound familiar? After Schumacher passed Villeneuve at the start, Villeneuve started catching Schumacher at a ferocious rate. On lap 48, Villeneuve made his move and took the inside line, braking very late. First Schumacher turned away then he suddenly turned into Villeneuve. Schumacher ended up in the gravel, Villeneuve finished 3rd and was crowned world champion.

Jerez 1997

The FIA was not best pleased. Schumacher was stripped of all his points for that year. Not his finest hour and unquestionably a more blatant ‘collision’ than Adelaide.

Austria 2002

Rubens Barrichello led his team-mate, Schumacher, going into the final lap before suddenly slowing. Schumacher then passed him on the line for the win. When Schumacher was awarded the winners trophy on the podium, he gave it immediately to Rubens. Awkward to say the least.

Awkward much?

This was the day that F1 died of shame and shredded its integrity. But in the defence of the Ferrari drivers, they were only responding to team orders. The way of the world in F1 since Time Immemorial. Anyway the FIA fined Schumacher, Rubens (c’mon, fining poor Rubens!) and Ferrari a whopping £1 million and banned team orders. Yes, because we have never seen team orders again have we? <Looks hard at Red Bull>

Indianapolis 2005

Only 6 Bridgestone cars (Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi) on the grid started the race after all the Michelin cars pulled out due to safety concerns. It was a total shambles and hugely damaging for the sport’s profile in the USA. Schumacher lined up in his Bridgestone car and took his only win of the season. Schumacher and Ferrari were rounded upon for refusing to make any concessions and for not supporting the other drivers.

The win was all-important for Ferrari and Schumacher especially in a season where Michelin had by and large outclassed Bridgestone. Was it Schumacher’s or Ferrari’s fault if Michelin had brought the wrong tyres? There were other more powerful and influential figures in F1 who could have and should have ensured a proper show was put on for the US fans.

Monaco 2006

And finally to Rascasse-gate. With title rival (and the man that Schumacher had identified 4 years earlier as the man most likely to steal his crown) – Fernando Alonso – on a flying lap, Schumacher parked his car on the penultimate corner at Rascasse. Qualifying was yellow-flagged, Alonso’s lap was ruined and Schumacher took the all-important-at-Monaco pole position.

Schuey off to face the music but what is going on with those overalls?!

You almost have to admire the sheer audacity of it and the fact that even in the last year of (the first phase of) his career, he was still so intensely competitive. But his reputation was further besmirched in the process. Anyway after hours and hours of deliberations (one thing the FIA can do well is deliberate and cogitate For An Eternity), the FIA demoted him to the back of the grid. Schumacher’s performance in the race the next day was mesmerising. He got in the car and did what everyone said was impossible at Monaco and finished 5th from last place on the grid. In a way that whole weekend encapsulated perfectly the genius and controversy that are the twin trademarks of Michael Schumacher’s career.

Schumacher’s controversial incidents have been so ferociously and endlessly debated that you could be forgiven for thinking that he alone brought controversy to Formula 1. In fact the sport has always had a shadowy side. Senna himself blazed the trail in demonstrating a ruthless will to win at all costs. In recent years, we have had an espionage scandal involving two of the biggest teams in F1 (McLaren and Ferrari); Crash-gate when Nelson Piquet Jnr revealed he had deliberately crashed in the Singapore GP in 2008 to help his team-mate (Alonso) win the race; and Lie-gate where it transpired that McLaren had lied to race stewards after the Australian GP in 2009.

Schumacher raised the bar more than any other F1 driver before his time or subsequently. He tore up the old job description (of simply being able to drive a fast car very fast) and redefined what was expected from a racing driver from the super-human fitness levels, the complete professionalism and the ability to drive every lap on the ragged edge. This new holistic approach pervades the whole of F1 today and is exemplified in the commitment shown by champions like Alonso and Vettel. When the dust settles on the heat of the controversies, this is what should be remembered along with Schumacher’s many virtuoso drives (a blog of my Top Five Schumacher Races is in the pipeline!). 

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