Thank You, Michael

As the new season dawns upon us, it struck me how the debate for the pay drivers in Formula 1 have been raging on for the past few months. The very teams and people who bleat the most about it, ironically, are the ones who actually have the power to ensure that they can change the situation.

One can understand the rising budgets in Formula 1, coupled with a downturn in the economic might of many entities around the world, have had a big factor in this. Teams simply need more cash to compete. I can’t disagree, but I think knowing your place would also be good; no matter how much of a shot in the arm Marussia gets, they are not likely to get all that much better overnight.

Steering back on track, though, the point of me writing this is not about the financial situation of Formula 1 teams. Rather, it is the demise of the proper pay driver, and in this season, the most proper of them all, Michael Schumacher, is no longer around.

Eddie Jordan may claim to differ, but despite the fact that he is officially the team boss who first hired the senior Schumacher, those in the know knows that Mercedes, as much as anything else, had a huge say in how things went when it comes to replacing Bertrand Gachot. The taxi driver assaulted by him may disagree, but he unwittingly played a part in giving birth to one of the most competitive men of the era, a legend who truly defined the sport.

Sport. A funny word to consider when one talks of sports in general these days. I can’t for a single moment believe that the financial might and support of any major sports teams does not play a part in harnessing the physical attributes of its atheletes. Ultimately, it is still man vs man, but the other factors are becoming ever more important, if not already so, and in Formula 1, nothing was ever truer of this.

Michael Schumacher became one of the most effective sportsmen of all time. Not many will agree with his tactics and strategies, but few would deny wanting to be in his spot. On a more micro level, his level of fitness and preparation has few peers, as he consistently pushes himself to ever greater heights of readiness. Even after he had broken his leg, he came back half a season later, fresher and faster than ever.

Playing the wingman to Eddie Irvine, however, may not have floated his boat completely. It must be said that Eddie himself messed up the season finale in Suzuka, supposedly his favourite track, but Michael must have been smiling more than just a little on the inside, for it preserved the chance for him to become the first champion driver for Ferrari since Jody Scheckter in the late 70s.

And that leads to the macro, for since then he harnessed one of the most brilliantly drilled winning machines of any time in any sport. I honestly believe that while it does lead to many races being nothing more than mere processions before his eventual ascension to the top step of the podium, it hightlights the magnificent superiority that he held over the rest of the field. Think Tiger Woods dominance earlier in his career. The Real Madrid team of the 1950s. Pete Sampras’s stranglehold on Wimbledon in the 90s. Unexciting to the neutral, perhaps, but for me, sporting excellence should not be dismissed simply because some failed to understand the complexities of such magic taking place.

It must be said that his time in the sport was not without its incidents, and quite frankly I think that there’s a number of times where he could have been the grown up. His constant putting down of teammates to serve his, ultimately the team’s cause, was also unbecoming to behold at times. Johnny Herbert was one of those who didn’t come out too well from this, but it must be said that Johnny had a number of other things working against him as well.

Of course, having broken practically every record in the books, he then retired, but here’s where my respect increased. He could have stayed retired. He was a champion many times over, he had more money than he could have spent many lifetimes over, and a beautiful family he could just kickback and relax with…but he did not. The calling deep within him was too much to resist, and he came back for three underwhelming years with Mercedes GP.

At least, on the outside, it appeared to be underwhelming. Here’s the rub from my view. I don’t think he truly enjoyed the whole business of not doing all that well this time around. Fact: he didn’t win a single race this time around, though that had a lot to do with other factors as well. Fact: Nico Rosberg was constantly using him as a stepping stone, outshining the old man with a number of grandstanding performances (but only a number, mind you; he has to step up now that he’s paired against Lewis Hamilton).

Fact: What would you have Michael Schumacher do, though? He tried racing on bikes, and only got himself injured. It didn’t work out, because that wasn’t his calling. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is a man who had answered his calling, who had done everything anyone could have dreamed of and more, becoming more successful than any individual driver in the history of the sport…and he still came back for more.

Like I said, it didn’t work out the way he had wanted it to, at least on the outside. But on the inside, to have taken the chance, to have attempted to respond to the questions that must have swirled in his heart and mind, to have loved and lost rather than to have never loved (again) at all…I suppose on that level at least, there could be no one happier.

And to think he started out as a kind of pay driver.

Thank you, Michael.