Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One Last Time

One of the odd things about life as a professional sportsman is that, as you hit your early 30s, just as your contemporaries in more pedestrian walks of life might be finding their careers shifting into gear, your own professional life will be beginning to head inexorably downhill. Depending on your sport, your level of physical fitness and, to be blunt, how much you really want to do it, you might go on into your late 30s, but, goalkeepers and golfers aside, there are very few sports stars the far side of 40.

The trouble is, what do you do next? If you're one of the special few who were amongst the very greatest of your generation at your chosen sport, there is every chance that you won't have any financial imperative to work, but putting your feet up for the next forty years is not going to appeal to everyone - and certainly not the kind of highly driven, motivated people who reach the highest echelons of professional sport. But at the same time, there must be the nagging fear that, whatever you turn your hand to, you are unlikely to be as successful, as exceptional, as you were at whatever it was that had brought you such fame and success in your youth. Yes, there are exceptions - Kenny Dalgleish has been as successful as a football manager as he was as a player, but the experience of four time World Champion Alain Prost with his hapless F1 team was perhaps closer to the norm for sports stars going into team management or similar such ventures. As a recent Guardian article noted, an awful lot of sports stars struggle to work out what to do with their lives after retirement.

It is a problem which I rather suspect Michael Schumacher has been wrestling with since he retired at the end of 2006. I wondered at the time whether he might simply walk away from the sport and never been seen or heard of again. He never gave the impression, while he was racing, of having any great, all-consuming passion for motor racing, as opposed to for competing. Yet as it has turned out, he has been a regular presence on the pitwall at Ferrari since his retirement. Quite what was his actual role there was never terribly clear to me. Mentor to Felipe Massa? Tactical adviser? Or simply a highly decorated hanger-on? It left the impression that he had realised, in retrospect, that he had walked away from the sport too soon, and without a clear idea of what he was to do next.

The aborted comeback last year to stand in for the injured Massa added to my belief that, while he might be behind the pitwall, really he felt his place was still behind the wheel. But at 40, and with Fernando Alonso offering his services to Maranello from 2010, he was not the future as far as the team which had once been his own, Ferrari, was concerned. It seemed that Michael would simply have to learn to live with his decision to retire - the F1 world had moved on, and team bosses, or at least those running cars capable of winning Grands Prix, were now more interested in children of the 1980s - Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Kubica, than in giving a man in his early 40s a chance to relive his glory days.

But then, of course, Jenson Button unexpectedly walked away from his drive with title-winners, Brawn, to join Lewis Hamilton at Mclaren, and Mercedes, the team who had paid for Schumacher's first F1 drive, all the way back in the late summer of 1991, bought the team from Ross Brawn. It is widely rumoured that Mercedes are angling for Sebastian Vettel in the long term, but with Barrichello having already left the team for Williams, that left a vacant seat alongside Nico Rosberg for 2010. With all the very top drivers, aside from Kimi Raikkonen, having already been signed up for 2010, it was an ideal opening for Michael. The Mercedes car will be based on the machine which won the title for Button this year and, while they probably won't enjoy the kind of advantage they had in 2009, there is every chance that they will still be front-runners. A chance to come back for one last go, to reunite with Ross Brawn, and to show the new generation of F1 stars that he can still perform...

But can he? Some question whether a man in his 40s can have the physical fitness to be truly competitive in F1, perhaps recalling Nigel Mansell's rather embarassing comeback with Mclaren at the age of 42 in 1995. Myself, I doubt this will be a problem. Schumacher was always amongst the very fittest drivers on the grid, and if Lance Armstrong can run competitively in the vastly more physically demanding Tour De France at the age of 39, Schumacher ought to be able to cope with the stresses of racing an F1 car.

On the other hand, I do wonder if he can overcome the race-rustiness that must have set in during his three year break from the sport. We saw just how badly this affected Luca Badoer when he stood in for Felipe Massa at Ferrari last summer, and while Badoer was never a driver in Schumacher's class, and he had been out of racing for a much longer period of time, I still think that he might struggle to find that last few per-cent of performance that he was able to access before his retirement. He is fortunate in that, in Nico Rosberg, he has a good barometer for his performance - Rosberg is quick enough that Schumacher will need to be reasonably near the top of his game, but not so quick that, if he really is still as quick as he was at his peak, he would cause him any trouble.

Those who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I was no great fan of Michael Schumacher. He was undoubtedly a huge talent, but I felt he resorted to tactics and gamesmanship which were unbecoming of one with his enormous natural ability, and I was never impressed by the fact that, it is widely reputed at least, that he had it stipulated in his contract that his team mates could not race him. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to seeing him back in F1 this year, not so much because I've missed him over the last three years, but because I'm genuinely curious to know whether, three years out of the sport, and now in his early 40s, Schumacher still has what it takes. Hamilton in a Mclaren, against Alonso in a Ferrari, against Schumacher in a Mercedes. Oh, and Vettel in a Red Bull. 2010 just mught be very special indeed.

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