Monday, September 18, 2006

Thoughts on Michael Schumacher

In amongst the barrage of statistical records that Michael Schumacher has claimed as his own, one fact that can easily be forgotten is the sheer length of his career. When Michael made his debut for Jordan, George Bush Sr was in the White House, John Major had only recently taken over as Prime Minister of Britain, the internet was little more than a toy for a small number of academics, and Nico Rosberg was barely out of nappies. Since then, he has competed in 247 Grands Prix over sixteen years - only Riccardo Patrese has taken more starts, and only Graham Hill's career has spanned a longer period of time (1958-1975).

His strike rate of 90 victories is a record which will surely never be beaten, and in addition, he also holds the record for the greatest number of world titles, championship points, pole positions and fastest laps. If greatness were about numbers alone, then there would be no question that Michael Schumacher has every right to be considered the best driver ever to have started a Grand Prix race. Only on his strike rate of victories per race entered is he beaten, and even then only by Juan Manuel Fangio. Yet, looking beyond the numbers, I would hardly be alone in wondering quite where Michael Schumacher stands in the pantheon of Grand Prix champions. Unquestionably, he is one of the greats, but the greatest? I'd argue not.

For one thing, there has been a willingness to break the rules which ill-befits a man who won so much, so frequently anyway. If there are questions marks about the manner in which he won the 1994 world championship, then there can be no doubt whatsoever about the cynical manner in which he tried to win the 1997 championship. You could point to the fact that Ayrton Senna did much the same kind of thing - and you would have a fair point if you did (although Richard Williams draws an interesting parallel with tennis in describing the difference between the two). The point, though, is that Stewart, Fittipaldi, Moss, Hakkinen, Clark, Fangio and countless others throughout the history of the sport did not.

Even the Senna comparison doesn't seem quite right. There was an intensity, a genuine antipathy, underlying the rivalry between Senna and Prost. It is perhaps not surprising that twice those passions boiled over and titles were settled in dubious circumstances (to quote the Autosport headlines of the time - Malice in Hondaland, parts one and two). The rivalry between Schumacher and Hill and Villeneuve was never of the same kind - few really thought either of the famous sons was any kind of equal to Schumacher, and one rather doubts that he had any great personal dislike for either man. His manouevres in Adelaide in 1994, and at Jerez in 1997, seemed coldly cynical.

Perhaps these could be written off as the youthful indiscretions of a man who subsequently matured into a one of the sport's finest champions. Well, perhaps. It would have been a lot easier though, if Schumacher hadn't indulged in the ridiculous qualifying gamesmanship at Monaco. Such a move, in the autumn of his career, seems senseless from the point of view of his own reputation and legacy, but it perhaps suggests that Jerez 97 and Adelaide 94 were not so much acts of immaturity as illustrations of a flaw in Schumacher's character.

None of which makes his achievements any less impressive, or his car control and sheer ability any less admirable, but it does go a long way to explain why many motorsports enthusiasts will always regard Michael Schumacher with a degree of ambiguity. There is more to it than silly anti-German prejudice, as Nicky Campbell suggested recently.

Martin Brundle suggested that it was a shame that Michael Schumacher is not doing a "farewell tour" next year, while Bernie Ecclestone has mischievously suggested that he might return with Renault next year (see the mixed reaction here.) Personally, I hope they are both wrong, and that he has no last minute change of heart. Formula 1 is no place for people with their mind only half on the job, going through the motions of a farewell tour. You can do that kind of thing in golf, or tennis, but not when there are a limited number of seats in dangerous high performance racing cars. By going at the end of this season, Schumacher leaves, if not quite at the height of his powers, then not far from it. Unlike numerous world champions before him, notably Graham Hill, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda, all of whom continued to race as shadows of their former selves.

In the end though, I am forced to concur with the late Denis Jenkinson, who remarked towards the end of his life that, while he knew Schumacher was a very good driver, he felt no real enthusiasm for him. I can't help feeling that when fans look back on him in years to come, it will be with admiration, but not with any great affection.

2 Comments:

Blogger gail said...

I am in agreement with anyone who writes good comments about Michael, i still cant believe that the media and such like still running this great guy down cant they get it in there thick skulls that this guy is multi talented genius and dosent want to be pulled down and bedraggled.i still makes me sick when people who dont know him give him grief, leave him alone.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

Actually nobody in other kinds of sports hasn't had such a long career

6:43 AM  

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