There are two kinds of people in F1 fandom – those who love Michael Schumacher, and I mean adore him from the very bottom of their heart, and those who don’t. I have always been pretty clear where I belong – in the latter group.
The reasons are many. There is a litany of a list dating back to 1994 – that terrible, tumultuous year. It was also the year when he won, quite contentiously I may add, his first Championship. Why then, am I writing him a good-bye note? The answer is simple. There is that one underlying reason underneath all that anti-Schumacher sentiment. He is, without doubt, one of the best racers F1 has had. He hasn’t been the nicest of all champions, but he is one of the best. The figures say it all: 91 race wins, 155 podiums, and 7 world championships. It’s a vast repertoire that dates back to 1991 when he made his debut.
When Schumacher retired (the first time), I was happy. It brought an end to a never-ending reign, one that I have described in many a conversation as ruthless, cunning and unsportsmanlike. I accused him too of making F1 too clinical, of killing the passion in the sport. I snorted in derision as he made his comeback in 2010. Oh no, I thought, not again!
But now, in the third year of his comeback, after Schumacher has announced his retirement, and as I write this post, I feel a tinge of sadness. Here is the end of an era, very different from what I imagined. Perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to see him on the podium, just so I could snort in derision once again. After all, Schuey was a large part of my F1 history. Three years since his return, and the best result he has been able to bring to his team, has been a single podium finish – at Valencia this year. There have been ‘incidents’ – one that stands out the most is his run-in with Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore. It has been obvious that Schumacher has not been able to catch up with the Alonsos, Webbers, and Vettels of the world. He hasn’t been able to catch up with his teammate either. The worst was Kimi Raikkonen’s comeback. The Ice Man hit the ground running – almost as if he never retired. Comparisons were inevitable and unfortunately, in all of them, Schumacher was at the losing end.
So it was sad when his team, very unceremoniously, announced his exit from Mercedes AMG Petronas while declaring his replacement: Lewis Hamilton. A few days later, came Schumacher’s announcement. Gone was that man with the killer instinct, that evil genius I had created in my mind. Instead, here was a calmer, much nicer champion. I have never seen this side before.
In his announcement, Schumacher said, “I have decided to retire from Formula One at the end of the season, although I am still able to compete with the best drivers of the world. This is something that makes me proud, and this is part of why I never regretted my comeback. I can be happy with my performance and the fact that I was continuously raising my game during the last three years. But then, at some point, it is time to say goodbye.”
“Already during the past weeks and months, I was not sure if I would still have the motivation and energy, which is necessary to go on; and it is not my style to do anything, which I am not 100% convinced about. With today’s decision, I feel released from those doubts. In the end, it is not my ambition to just drive around, but to fight for victories; and the pleasure of driving is nourished by competitiveness.”
“I said at the end of 2009 that I want to be measured by my success, and this is why I had a lot of criticism in the past three years, which partly was justified. It is without doubt that we did not achieve our goal to develop a world championship fighting car within those years. It is also without doubt that I cannot provide a long-term perspective to anyone. But then, it is also clear that I can still be very happy about my overall achievements in Formula One.”
“In the past 6 years, I have learned a lot, also about me, and I am thankful for it; for example, that you can open yourself up without losing focus. That losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning; something I had lost out of sight sometimes in earlier years. That you have to appreciate to be able to do what you love. That you have to live your convictions. I have opened my horizon, and I am at ease with myself.”
This was a different side. It was a likeable Schumacher. It is obvious that these three years have been difficult for him. But they have also put his career in perspective. I do hope though that people, F1 fans of today, do not weigh his career by just these three years. I hope they do not judge his racing as brutally, as I have. I am not saying I love him now. Nor am I saying that I have changed the way I look at him. It’s difficult. There’s too much water under the bridge. But despite all of this, I admit, Michael Schumacher was and is a star. He changed the way my generation looked at F1, for good or for bad. My hero will always be Ayrton Senna, the king of F1. But Schumacher does make that list – the list of racers who have changed Formula One.