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Hit the road, Schumi...
RELATED INFOGRAPHICTITLE NO 4: 2001, Ferrari
When Michael Schumacher left in 2006, he did it on his terms. In 2012, he has no option but to. He had seven world titles when he first bid goodbye. Today, In 2012, there's a different seven to his name - the number of times he has failed to finish a race.
Greg Lake, the vocalist and bassist for the progressive rock outfit King Crimson and later on for Emerson, Laker & Palmer, once said, "Making a comeback is one of the most difficult things to do with dignity. " Frank Sinatra's My way or the highway is Michael Schumacher's favourite song but the German driver, whose permanency in the record books was never in doubt, would have to agree with Lake's statement, even if reluctantly.
At the end of 2006 when Michael Schumacher left, he did on his terms. In 2012, he had no option but to. He had seven world titles and the undying love of millions of fans with him when he first bid goodbye to the paddock. In 2012, there's a different seven next to his name - the number of times he has failed to finish a race. Since returning to the sport in 2010, he has achieved just one podium position, in Valencia this year;there were 154 in his earlier career. So dominant was he that instead of being celebrated for it, he was often blamed for making Formula 1 boring. In the damp squib that the sequel his return has proved, dominance didn't even make a guest appearance.
The affection of most fans has remained unflinching though many did flinch when he rear-ended Jean Eric Vergne in Singapore. Schumacher's comeback, as healthy it was for Bernie Ecclestone and FOM's bank balance, did deduct from Schumacher's greatness. It took away the dignity that comes with being a champion.
How does a man with 91 wins to his name look at his results of the past three seasons and not feel pain;pain that begins somewhere in the chest and instead of spreading just intensifies, like a fire in your chest. Schumacher must have punched a hole or two in the wall after looking at his figures from the last 53 races. No win and just one podium. Four fourth places from 53 races since his comeback. He scored points on 30 of those 53 races, but if it weren't for some mechanical failures, especially this year, where he has retired five times with reliability issues, that haul might have been higher. "I've had two distinct careers;one where I won everything and the second in which I learned what it means to lose. Yes I've learned how to lose. But this has made me more mature and also more patient, my age is part of that, " he said in an interview to an Italian newspaper last month.
The German is a fiercely proud man who made up his own rules of what's fair and what's not - as long as it helped him win. Remember Monaco 2006 when he parked his car in front of Fernando Alosno's Renault? There was scepticism over whether the 43-year-old could ever match his peak, in spirit and in sport, when he announced a return to F1. Romantics welcomed it with open arms. Critics panned him.
Agreed that his Mercedes is nothing like the Ferrari he drove for years, decimating the field. Even his pairing with Ross Brawn, with whom he painstakingly rebuilt Ferrari, couldn't bring Mercedes up to the level they needed for Schumacher to be dominant.
Technically brilliant, confident and ruthless to an extent, struggling and fighting in the middle of the pack has not been kind to his reputation, or ego, and while he has been unlucky he has also made mistakes that were previously unthinkable. Planting his car in the wall in the wet during free practice in Germany or crashing into Vergne at the Singapore Grand Prix must have left him as puzzled as it did onlookers.
Paddock rumours suggest that Schumacher is angry that he wasn't given the space and the stage to announce his own plans. Instead, Schumacher, 43, was forced into retirement - for the second time - by Mercedes' decision to hire Lewis Hamilton. Even though Schumacher was undecided about next year and Sauber was thrown as an option, the Hamilton announcement really left him with no choice.
At Suzuka, where he announced that he would hang up his racing boots for good, he said, "During the past month I was not sure if I still had the motivation and energy which is necessary to go on. It is not my style to go on if I'm not 100 per cent with it but with today's decision I feel relieved. 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. . . But it is also very clear that I can still be very happy about my overall achievements in the whole time of my career. "
Schumacher will be closer to his 44th birthday when he races in his last Grand Prix at Sao Paulo and yes, history books will still show him as a seven-time world champion. But has Schumacher's aura lost that wee bit of sheen? He bid farewell as an invincible champion. He leaves now as the humanised version of an icon.
Catching a glimpse of him strolling down the paddock still elicits the loudest shouts from fans lucky enough to get that close. Schumacher still tops the list of answers that one receives to the question, "Who's your favourite driver?" But ask anyone who they want to see winning, and MSC is never the answer. Like one indulges a sweet but old aunt, Formula 1 fans are happy to get Schumacher's signature on their cap or jersey even if he no longer evokes the same passion and praise in fans that he used to thrive on.
In the three years that Schumacher was away, the sport changed. Three years is a long time in a sport where mere tenth of a second can change a race around. Perhaps, it is equivalent to the decade in international men's tennis that Bjorn Borg ruled, if one considers just the changes in rules and equipment. Borg stunned the world in 1983 when he announced his retirement at just 25. The Swede had at home six French Open titles and five Wimbledon crowns but he chose to put his wooden racquet away. He then made a doomed comeback eight years later, with the same wooden racquet. He never won another match in 10 miserable tournaments over two years.
In sports, it's perhaps better to not wait that long to make a comeback. In 2010, Schumacher found himself having to completely change his driving style. Would Schumacher have done better had he made a quicker return ? He very nearly drove for Ferrari in 2009 when Felipe Massa injured himself but the German who had sustained injuries in a motorcycling accident earlier in the year hadn't quite recovered to withstand the rigours of gforces. Did that sow the seed of return in his head? It might have. But even if he felt like his older self, the sport had seen a dramatic change. Rules were different, drivers were different. New tracks had been drafted in, new champions had emerged. Once Formula 1's leading player, on return Schumacher quickly became a character actor in a sport that had long found fresh-faced leading men to replace him. The younger brigade might have made all the right noises about how great it was for F1 that Schumacher was back in the paddock. But did they fear him anymore? No. His return showed us glimpses of why he was infamous but offered little sign to what made him great. So now he returns to Corinna and his children Gina-Maria and Mick to his home in Switzerland, where the only driving he would want to do would be the trips to the kids' school and back.
Born 3 January 1969 (age 43), H?rth, West Germany
Formula One career
Benetton, Ferrari, Mercedes
304 (303 starts)
7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
1991 Belgian Grand Prix I
1992 Belgian Grand Prix I
2006 Chinese Grand Prix
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