Michael Schumacher. Portrait.
There is no more demoralising outcome to any sporting event than to come fourth. Just to miss out on a podium spot and to see others picking up the trophies and basking in the limelight. And yet the fourth-place finish in Sao Paolo that marked the end of the most successful racing career ever in Formula One did not actually come as a disappointment for Michael Schumacher. Ever the realist, he had already written off the tantalising prospect of an eighth world title well before the grand finale of 2006. And ever the perfectionist too, he gave his 250th and last Grand Prix everything he had got, despite all the setbacks as the race progressed. For his own personal pride, for his team and for the sport he loves. Schumi’s last demonstration of his status as the best racing driver in the world and the champion of the millennium.
The man who made Formula One into ’Formula Own’ is adaptable in every sense of the word. It is Michael Schumacher’s keen perception and apparently intuitive ability to adapt instantly to changing conditions that set him apart from every other racing driver of his generation. Add to that his ability behind the wheel, his indomitable will, his grasp of technical issues plus his talent for motivating the whole team and you have the most complete four-wheeled maestro ever to have graced Grand Prix racing. He has effectively redefined what it means to be a professional driver. His close rival Damon Hill, whom he first came up against in the championship battle of 1994, was later to draw a parallel that was latched onto by many commentators: "If I ever need a heart bypass, then I hope I get the Schumacher of surgery to perform the operation, because you know you can rely on someone like him." The legendary ’Schumi factor’ was the sum of many individual talents. He himself would never claim to be up on a pedestal with Fangio or Senna, but he is certainly on their level, if not one step higher.
Credit where credit is due. Niki Lauda too is quick to pay his respects: "In the broader picture of Michael Schumacher’s career, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference whether he adds another title to his tally." Even the traditionally hostile British media honoured the German for the manner of his departure and for allowing deeds to speak louder than words. Schumacher’s fourth place in the Brazilian GP may not stand out from a set of statistics that is bulging with records - and yet it must count as one of his greatest personal triumphs. Manager Willi Weber, who is not normally known for displays of emotion, said without any sense of exaggeration: "Michael showed that he is the greatest. He stole the show today. And he did that without even winning the race."
The grandstand finish to his final performance in autumn 2006 once again made clear why Schumi was able to achieve what he did in his career. He was writing his own epilogue and retiring with dignity. Following this dramatic final race, many experts were asking whether it was possible that a man like him could quit after putting in such a fabulous 250th performance. Apparently it was. In a relaxed mood, the centre of attention goes on record as saying that he is not sad about retiring: "Otherwise I wouldn’t have made the decision I did." He had already known for some time that, following a long holiday, he would be back in harness doing a different job for Ferrari.
In everything he does, Michael Schumacher’s consistent obsession has been the desire to avoid error. The only limiting factor he has ever recognised has been ambition itself. The few mistakes he has made were therefore all the more painful. But it is only the contradictions that complete the Schumacher myth. Seen through the soft focus of history, even the heavy-handed tactics against Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve at Adelaide in 1994 and Jerez in 1997 no longer seem quite so brutal.
"I am not a legend," asserts the record F1 title holder defensively. "I’m just someone who happens to be good at doing something he enjoys." Figures over and above actual lap times are of little interest to him: "Snatching a victory out of a hopeless situation always gives more satisfaction than any set of statistics could ever do." For a long time, he remained unimpressed by all the mythology surrounding Ferrari. He needed to discover this for himself first and then to work out what it all meant in his own terms. Much that he achieved was based on intuition. Much more, however, came about as a result of his thirst for information. But the factor that brought him on most was his own experience.
His approach has consistently been based on sound traditional values, and in this regard, he has always tried to set an example to others. The demands he has made of himself have often verged on the ruthless. On the go-kart track in the gravel pit at Manheim he would poke around in the evenings, salvaging tyres that still had some wear in them but had been dumped by the offspring of more affluent parents - and on these reject tyres, he went on to outshine them all. This is not some sort of romanticised view of Schumacher’s background but simply explains the secret of his success: the driving force within.
Michael Schumacher can now retire from the parade of champions in the sure knowledge of what he has achieved and begin to make up for lost time away from the track. Formula One will remain his personal ’Formula Own’. He has crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s in Ferrari red. And also added a great big red exclamation mark.
Extracts from an article, that was published in Automobil Revue after Michaels retirement.