Monday, October 09, 2006

How Schumacher beat himself

Technically speaking, it's not quite over yet. If Michael Schumacher were to win the Brazilian Grand Prix in two weeks and Fernando Alonso failed to score then he would, against all expectations, take his eighth world title. Realistically though, the odds on that have to be very long indeed. Michael himself acknowledged in the post race interviews that it is out of his hands now - that he can't base a strategy for Interlagos around Alonso not finishing. He must surely be hoping only that he can end his career on a high - with a race win, if not a title. Somehow, I think that would be a fitting send-off for a man who has undoubtedly been the sport's towering figure over the last decade and a half, but who this season, finally met his match in the young Spaniard from Oviedo.

Watching the race at Suzuka - I found myself thinking back nearly 20 years, to the race that settled the 1989 world championship. It was a race which had the same kind of character - a tense, deadlocked affair where the two title protagonists were rarely close enough to fight it out on the circuit - but the leader was never far enough ahead to be able to relax - where the gap never got to be larger than a few seconds. It was one of those races that holds one spellbound despite the absence of any real, wheel to wheel racing on the track (at least once Alonso had dispensed of the two Toyotas with a pair of singularly inspired moves at the first corner). Just as in 1989, we never got to see the battle all the way to the end. This time, though it was a mundane, if incredibly rare, mechanical failure, rather than an on-track collision, which settled the matter.

It would be easy for a casual observer to say that Schumacher lost this year's world championship because of an engine failure at Suzuka, that Ferrari, rather than its number one driver, were to blame for their defeat. Easy, but wrong. In terms of mechanical reliability, Schumacher and Alonso have had an engine failure apiece. Suzuka merely served to even the score between them. In order to understand why the title has gone to Alonso, rather than to Schumacher, one needs to remember a few events much earlier in the season.

Events like, for example, the Australian Grand Prix. A peculiar race, where the sheer unseasonal coldness of the place had thrown the tyre alchemists for six and left the drivers scrabbling for grip - which was to result in an awful lot of scrambling of safety cars to deal with the resulting accidents. Michael Schumacher had been utterly unable to make his car work in qualifying and had ended up way down the order in 11th on the grid. The race was never going to be anyone's but Alonso's, but Schumacher found his car much more to his liking in race trim and, on his second set of tyres at least, was right on the pace and pushing Jenson Button for fifth. Then, coming out of the final corner on lap 33, he pushed too hard and threw his Ferrari into the wall. An understandable error, given that he was coming from a long way back, but an error nonetheless, and one that probably cost him at least 5 points, since neither Button nor Montoya would make the finish.

At Monaco, in the dying moments of qualifying, another crucial moment in the story of Schumacher's championship challenge. What seemed for all the world like a deliberate attempt to prevent Alonso or Raikkonen from beating his pole time by blocking the track (see here for what I said at the time) resulted in his being sent to the back of the grid. In the race, he was in a class of his own, setting fastest lap and dragging his way up to fifth place. But whether a moment of madness, or a cynical ploy of the highest order, his qualifying 'error' cost him, at the very least, a 2nd place, and more than likely, given his race pace, a win. Another 4 points went begging.

Fast forward to Hungary, and, as at Australia, Michael Schumacher found himself on the back foot as a result of the inferiority of his Bridgestone tyres. This time though, due to rain, rather than in the cold. Unlike any of the other Bridgestone runners, however, Schumacher was able to remain in the chase sufficiently that, as the laps were ticked off, following Alonso's retirement, he was running in an impressive second place, albeit on horrendously worn Bridgestone intermediate tyres with a bone dry track. Pedro De La Rosa was bearing down on him fast in the Mclaren, but Heidfeld was a good way back in the BMW and it seemed third place was assured. Rather than accept the inevitable, though, Schumacher tried every trick to keep De La Rosa behind, including, on one occasion, cutting the chicane in order to hold on to the position (a move, which, given that he did not later yield to De La Rosa, should have led to a penalty and did not). In the end, the inevitable happened and De La Rosa found his way past, but in putting up such a fierce defence, Schumacher had cost both of them a lot of time, and suddenly had Heidfeld breathing down his neck with 3 laps to go. Once again, Schumacher opted to fight - and this time the result was contact at the chicane and a broken track rod, ending Schumacher's race. Another 4 points lost (five if you believe that Schumacher could have held onto third had he not fought De La Rosa so hard).

And so on to the Otodrom Istanbul. Here, Ferrari clearly had the best car, and yet Alonso, while unable to do anything about number 2 driver Massa, was able to finish just ahead of Schumacher, after a fiercely fought final few laps. There was more than a little luck involved. Massa was running ahead on the road when the first safety car came out, which obliged Schumacher to wait in the pits behind his team mate as they both took on fuel and tyres. And yet..... had Schumacher not made a mistake on his qualifying lap, he would have had pole, and would never have been behind Massa in the first place. The Ferrari was sufficiently quick that he was able to harry Alonso in the run up to the final stops, but once again, a small driving error at the ultra fast quadruple-apex turn nine cost him vital seconds, which were to enable Alonso to remain ahead as the race went into its final phase. And so Schumacher lost another net 6 points.

It is hard to point to similar such mistakes on Alonso's part. There was the moment of madness in free practice at Hungary, that resulted in a 10-spot grid penalty, but the truth of the matter is that he more than redeemed himself in the grand prix itself and would have won that race, had his team not screwed up his final pit stop such that he lost a wheel. If one were to look for mistakes that Renault had made, as opposed to its lead driver, one might add the pitstop bungle in Shanghai, or the qualifying fuel blunder in Malaysia which left Alonso out of position and allowed Fisichella to take his only victory of the year, but the driver himself really never put a foot wrong on the track.

In the paragraphs above, I might have given the impression that Schumacher had driven a bad final season, but I don't mean to. Schumacher played a vital part in Ferrari's fightback from seemingly nowhere to become serious title contenders. There was the early-season win against the run of play at Imola. Then there was the incredible wet qualifying on ill-suited Bridgestones at Shanghai, which ensured that he, alone of the Bridgestone runners, was in a position to take advantage when Renault dropped the ball. Come to that, he was the only Bridgestone runner who looked even close to the pace in the rain at Hungary. All in all, there can be little doubting that even as he approached forty, and the self-imposed end of his career, Schumacher still had most, perhaps even all, of the incredible car control and relentless pace on which he has built his career. That was remarkable in itself. It is almost an axiom that really successful racing drivers tend to slow down over their careers. Sometimes, as in the case of Niki Lauda, (at least before his precipitous collapse in form in his final season) or Nelson Piquet, an aging driver can compensate with sheer guile and tactical nous. Sometimes, they embarrass themselves, continuing to race as pale shadows of their former selves. One thinks of Graham Hill failing to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix he so dominated at the height of his powers - or Nigel Mansell's shambolic final few races for Mclaren in 1995. Whatever, the truth is drivers slow down. For some perhaps, its marrying or having children, and no longer wanting to put one's neck on the line to quite the same degree. Others grow up and discover a life outside of Formula 1, in the process finding they can't quite dedicate themselves to the sport - to the relentless training, or the endless debriefs - to the same degree. And they find themselves outpaced by younger, hungrier, more single minded men who have yet to reach that point in their life.

Schumacher, it seems, never did reach that point. He never seemed any less than 100% committed to his racing, even in the last of his fifteen seasons of Grand Prix racing. After all the time, he was still fundamentally a restless soul, he still needed absolutely to prove he was the fastest guy in the world. If you have any doubt how much the sport still means to him, just remember for a minute his reaction after his incredible win last week in Shanghai.

No, this year he was beaten, as much as anything, by the achilles heel he's had all along, but which his sheer speed behind the wheel has so effectively masked before now. And that is - put Schumacher under real, sustained, pressure and he will make mistakes. Few drivers have ever really been fast enough to be able to put Schumacher under serious pressure - at least not without a very significant car advantage - but in the end, Alonso was able to do it, and unlike Hill, Hakkinen or Villeneuve, he didn't need the benefit of a better car to do it.


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