Thursday, July 30, 2009

Schumacher -Returns

Formula One has produced more than its fair share of shocks already this season but Wednesday's announced comeback by Michael Schumacher surely takes top billing.

The German F1 legend, who will fill in for injured Felipe Massa until the Brazilian is fit enough to return, retired in 2006 as a multiple drivers' world champion.

A man of achievements and unequalled statistical records, he was dogged by controversy fuelled by his most unforgiving critics.

Schumacher was 37 when he hung up his racing helmet having competed in 250 Formula One Grands Prix, 180 of them for Ferrari.

He won 90 races, 71 for Ferrari, took 68 pole positions, 58 for Ferrari, and set 75 fastest laps on his way to seven drivers' world titles, including five for the scarlet scuderia.

He retired having just fallen short of Italian Ricardo Patrese's record of lining up in 256 races.

The man from the flatlands of Kerpen in northern Germany was a Teutonic machine, a human delivery system of speed and points and glory in a sport unused to such high standards of regularity, human reliability and sheer professionalism.

Nobody trained like Schumacher. Nobody was as fit as Schumacher. Nobody raced as hard as Schumacher. Nobody won like Schumacher. Nobody worked on and on and on like he did.

Tributes poured in after he had announced his intention to retire at the season's end.

Some were warm and loving, some were barbed and tinged with envy and some reflected a failure to understand that Formula One was bringing down the curtain on the greatest and most complete driver ever to have raced in a Grand Prix.

Among his critics were 1997 champion Canadian Jacques Villeneuve who claimed he was a flawed champion, a man whose records did not justify a reputation of being the greatest of all time.

Too many controversial incidents punctuated his time at the top, too many accidents, incidents and allegations of wrong-doing, including rumours that in 1994 and 1995 when he won his first titles with Benetton, that the team had an unfair advantage.

His critics talked of his questionable racing ethics, but his admirers spoke only of his virtuoso racing. As a result, his legacy was one of magnificent achievements but with a reputation that divided the paddock.

Purists argue that he should not be included in the pantheon of greatest racing drivers alongside Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, Scotland's Jim Clark or Englishman Stirling Moss, widely described as the greatest driver never to win the championship.

But the records speak for themselves and Schumacher will be remembered for his competitive instincts, his professionalism, his fitness and his relentless run of successes in the era that followed the 1994 death of Brazilian Ayrton Senna who was, arguably, the man who introduced bruising and aggressive tactics to the tracks of Formula One.

Schumacher's catalogue of alleged misdemeanours included a collision in Adelaide at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix where Briton Hill was forced to retire and so Schumacher lifted his first title, another in 1997 when he collided deliberately with Villeneuve, but lost out and not only failed to win the title, but was punished for it too by the sport's ruling body.

He was also accused of cheating early in 2006 when he left his car on the fast line ahead of Fernando Alonso's Renault in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix.

In short, Schumacher, though gifted with speed and other sporting attributes, was considered a bad loser but one who had mellowed in his later years.

A family man, he had little to do with the so-called glamour of the sport apart from being one of the drivers' leading spokesmen on safety and playing for their football team.

A great driver, a great competitor then for whom the lure of a return to competition ensures an explosive second half of the 2009 season.

Little did those thousands of red-bedecked tifosi fans standing on the asphalt of Monza to cheer him to the end after his 90th victory in 2006 think they'd have another chance to see their man on the grid again.

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