Now that Michael Schumacher is about to run his last F1 race, I'm ready to start pulling for him. Hey, better late than never.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to be rooting for Michael Schumacher when the 2006 Formula 1 season comes to a close in Brazil the weekend after next
The thing is, I’m not a Schumacher fan. Never was, never will be. In fact, I’m glad that he’s retiring. As far as I’m concerned, he embodies all of the worst flaws inflicted on the sport by Ayrton Senna, from start-line chops to working behind the scenes to marginalize his teammates. Has any driver ever been more ruthless on and off the track? Talk all you like about his 91 race wins and seven world championships. But what I’ll always remember about Schumacher is him taking out Damon Hill at Adelaide to win the title in 1994 and trying to take off Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez to manage the same trick in 1997. And he hasn’t mellowed with age. Earlier this year, remember, he received an unprecedented penalty for purposely stalling his car on the racing line during qualifying at Monaco.
Okay, okay, the guy isn’t a complete monster. I’m told that he loves his wife and kids, and his crew adores him, and with him gone, Peter Windsor’s going to have a hard time finding anybody who can string together two complete sentences back-to-back during the post-race Q&As. At the same time, I’ve also got to give the guy his props. Clearly a transcendent talent, he’s an all-time great who slots into the continuum that goes from Fangio to Moss to Clark to Stewart to Lauda to Prost to Senna and, post-Schuey, to Fernando Alonso. The numbers he’s posted so dwarf everything that’s come before him that it’s hard to take them seriously. Ninety-one wins! Seven world championships! Fifty years from now, F1 fans will still talk about him in tones of reverence and awe.
But ironically, despite all of the records, Schumacher has always been prone to making mistakes under pressure. Besides the obvious examples in 1994 and 1997, he suffered a major meltdown during his failed championship run in 1998, and although he earned hard-fought titles in 2000 and 2003, he hardly looked invincible down the home-stretch. This year, of course, there was the Monaco embarrassment. These are the kind of black marks you don’t find on the report cards of any great drivers, with the possible exception of Senna at his pigheaded worst.
That said, without Schumacher, 2006 would have been one of the dullest years in F1 history. He’s been the only driver with the talent and the car to go wheel-to-wheel with Alonso, and he clearly had the Spaniard covered at Suzuka right up until the moment his Ferrari blowed up real good with 16 laps to go. Even if Schumacher had beaten Alonso to the flag, he still would have had only a two point lead going to Brazil, and Interlagos hasn’t been a track that’s favored Ferrari in recent years. But that would have made for a supremely high-tension event, and I feel cheated now that the air has been let out of the balloon.
To win the championship, Schumacher has to win in Brazil and Alonso has to finish out of the points. Ladbrokes puts the odds at 8-1, and that seems way optimistic to me. (Alonso is going off at 1-25.) But we can expect Schumacher to fight to the bitter end. Like Andretti, Foyt and the other great never-say-die spirits of motorports, Schumacher doesn’t have an ounce of quit in him. Maybe it’s because I know that we won’t have him around any more to muck up the works, but I’m going to be pulling for Schumacher to pull one last rabbit out of the hat in Brazil.