Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Most Unprofessional Foul

Rewind 16 years to the Macau Grand Prix of 1990. Long recognised as one of the gold riband events for the rising stars of F3 - a real chance for the cream of each year's crop to make their mark and announce their presence to the F1 team bosses. Two men stood head and shoulders above the rest that weekend - the newly crowned British F3 champion, Mika Hakkinen, and German F3 frontrunner, Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen won the first race and merely had to sit behind Schumacher to take the Grand Prix on aggregate (this in the days when the Macau GP was run as the aggregate of two separate races). Instead, it ended in a controversial collision where Michael appeared to present Hakkinen with an overtaking opportunity, only to run him off the road (thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can watch it for yourself here). More than a few observers felt the young German had deliberately engineered the collision in order to secure victory. His victory stood though, and Hakkinen went home empty-handed.

Fast forward to Monaco last weekend and Michael Schumacher is a seven times world champion with little left to prove: More wins, more titles, more pole positions and more points than any other driver in the history of the sport. And yet with a very solid chance of winning the Monaco Grand Prix anyway, and a slot towards the front of the grid guaranteed, he still felt the need to tilt the game still further in his favour with the most contrived looking, half hearted staged crash imaginable. It is of course, impossible to prove that it was anything more than an uncharacteristically banal error - a serendipitous loss of concentration. Impossible to prove, but it was hard to find a single person outside of the Ferrari garage who seriously believed that what we had seen was anything other than gamesmanship of the most cynical kind - a deliberate attempt to ruin Alonso and Webber's chances of knocking him off the pole. The stewards, who, unlike the armchair experts, had access to the telemetry data from his Ferrari, came to the same conclusion and sent him to the back of the grid (access to telemetry data, incidentally, had been crucial in their decision a year earlier to punish Juan Montoya for his deliberate brake testing of Ralf Schumacher in free practice at Monaco). If it really was a serendipitous error, then it had become anything but (one can't help but feel that the whole farcical situation could have been involved by introducing the Champ Car qualifying rule, by which any driver who causes the session to be stopped loses their best times, regardless of whether their accident was deliberate or not).

Michael himself insisted there was a "reasons" for his apparently incomprehensible error, but unhelpfully told the world that "I don't really want to elaborate on it. It's not really anyone else's business even". A remark which rather missed the point - if Schumacher really wished to convince us that contrary to all appearances, what happened was an innocent mistake, then the least he owes us all is as full an explanation of what happened as he was able to give. As British law states these days "you do not have to say anything, but....."

The professional foul is nothing new in motorsport, even if, just as in football, it does seem to be a rather more common occurrence these days. Perhaps the most famous instance was Ayrton Senna's deliberate collision with Alain Prost to take the 1990 World Championship (full analysis here), although there are those who might argue that Alain Prost was actually the first man to claim a world championship by deliberately engineering an accident, a year before against, yes, Ayrton Senna (for the ins and outs of that argument, try here ). These incidents though, somehow felt different. The result of a fierce and rancorous rivalry between two drivers who loathed each other immensely, and who were head and shoulders above anyone else of their generation. By contrast, Michael Schumacher has been involved in a number of incidents which seem to be the result of a more cold, calculating and cynical mindset.

The two most controversial moments of Michael Schumacher's career both came in championship deciding races. The 1994 incident, in which he won his first championship following a collision with Damon Hill, always stuck me as the lesser offence (again, there is an exhaustive analysis of events over at the Atlas Court). There were a number of mitigating circumstances: Schumacher was out for his first world championship; He had only a matter of seconds to decide whether to try to close the door on Hill; He was young and perhaps immature; He might have felt legitimately hard-done-by by the FIA during the course of the season - and might have suspected that their ulterior motive for his disqualification from no less than five races might have been a cynical attempt to artificially maintain a battle for the world championship; There was too, the underlying feeling that he was by far and away the driver who had performed better that year. All the same, his elated reaction to Hill's retirement which he himself had caused - deliberately or otherwise - hardly served in his favour.

The climax of the 1997 world championship, at Jerez, was another matter. For one thing, it was immediately, undoubtedly clear that Schumacher had very deliberately decided to remove Jacques Villeneuve from the race - which would guarantee him the title, regardless of whether he finished or not. The in car camera makes any other conclusion impossible. For another, there seemed to be none of the mitigating circumstances that applied in Adelaide - Michael was older, a double world champion, and it didn't look like a spur of the moment decision. Indeed, some suggested that Michael's Ferrari sounded sick in the laps immediately preceding the accident, and, knowing that he wouldn't finish, he decided to try to take Villeneuve's Williams out before he went himself. As we all know, the attempt failed and Michael limped clumsily into the gravel trap alone.

Frankly, this provided the powers that be with an ideal chance to stamp out this kind of behaviour altogether, and had they banned Michael from the following year's championship, I doubt we would ever see behaviour of this kind again. Instead, they came down on him like a ton of feathers, "removing" him from the 1997 championship standings and sentencing him to "community service" with the FIA. Had he been forced to sit out the 1998 season, perhaps he would never have come back to the sport, and the records of Prost, Fangio and Senna might still stand to this day. As it was, Schumacher was provided with an opportunity to redeem himself, and he duly did - winning five more championships without ever again resorting to anything quite so blatant (though there have always been murmurings of discontent about his track-manners). All the more a pity it is then, that with seven championships under his belt, he took the opportunity to remind us all of the less pleasant side of his nature. A second or third place at Monaco behind Webber and Alonso would have done nothing to detract from his achievements, but his needless gamesmanship did.

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Anonymous HBoss said...

This was Schumacher at his worse and it has come just in time to remind people of that Schumacher which seemed gone. It doesn't matter when he retires now, you'll see marks of Schumacher's unsportmanship in all phases of his career.

3:01 PM  

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