Monday, August 02, 2010

Schumacher should go quietly

In Formula one, as in other sports, the statistics can sometimes lie. Look at World Championship successes and you won’t find the name of Stirling Moss – but few would not place him in the top five of F1 drivers. Similarly do Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles make him the best of all time? Perhaps not – my own top three would put him on a par with Senna and Clark - but I wouldn’t want to call the order. And others would make justifiable cases for Fangio (who I never saw) Stewart, Prost and Lauda to be somewhere on the podium.

The case for Schumacher is a persuasive one – he had not only more world titles but also more pole positions, podiums and fastest laps than any other driver – albeit that his career until his first retirement was one of the longest spanning sixteen seasons. Quite how Schumacher maintained exceptional performances over such a long career it is difficult to pinpoint but it was probably a mixture of genius and effort. The effort was his absolute commitment to the cause – an obsession with fine tuning the car to allow him to get the very best out of it. Schumi was the driver every mechanic and engineer wanted in the cockpit – his analysis of performance after a few test laps was exceptional and practical – and at this he got better and better as the years progressed. But it was the genius that really set him apart – it is no exaggeration to say that, all other things being equal, Schumacher was half a second a lap faster than the field. Unbeatable at his best – and he was usually at his best. 91 wins out of 249 starts (36.5 %) is an astonishing record. Senna, by comparison, won 41 out of 161 (25.5%), Clark 25 out of 72 (34.7%).

After his retirement in 2006 Schumacher continued to attend Grands Prix and carried out some ill-defined role at Ferrari. I saw him at a few Grand Prix and the spark was gone and the smile was false. He obviously missed doing the thing that he was obviously on Earth to do – to drive a Formula one car. So when Ross Brawn ill-advisedly offered Schumacher a drive, in the world champion team remember, for the 2010 season it was no surprise that Schumi jumped at the chnace. And Mercedes were deluded into thinking that their name on the car, and Schumacher in it would enhance their brand. In fact the reverse has happened - from being half a second a lap faster Schumacher is half a second a lap slower than the front runners - something he never experienced in the whole of his 16 year career. True the Mercedes is well off the place – how shrewd Ross Brawn was to sell out when he was on a high at the end of last season, and how smart Jenson Button was to fly the coop. But although the car is no great shakes Schumi’s team mate Nico Rosberg has consistently out-driven his much older partner. Rosberg is a decent driver but arguably far from ever likely to be a world title contender – he has yet to win in 82 races. But at 25 he has, unsurprisingly, the reflexes of a still young man whilst Schumacher, at 41 has simply lost the edge he once had. No disgrace there – but modern Formula one is not a sport for old men.

At the Hungarian Grand Prix Michael Schumacher was in a battle for tenth place with Rubens Barrichello and it was doubtless the realisation that he was nowhere near the head of the field and that he was certain to be an also ran once again for the twelfth race in succession that made him squeeze Rubens almost into the wall. Schumi has previous of course and this has never made him as popular a champion as he might have been if he had always been more sportsmanlike. That he was a flawed genius we knew – but the number of incidents was fairly small and in 249 races during which he was mostly competing to win it is perhaps unsurprising that ambition occasionally took over from fair play. But at the Hungaroring yesterday there was absolutely no excuse and Schumacher has tarnished a comeback that was already looking an embarrassing failure. Have a look at the footage of the incident and I’m afraid Ross Brawn’s defence that "Michael was defending his position, trying to encourage Rubens to go around the outside. I don't think for a moment that he saw Rubens there and thought 'I will squeeze him' is phooey. Schumacher knew exactly what he was doing and he should be ashamed of himself. Time to go Michael – sooner rather than later.

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