Today’s Brazilian Grand Prix will mark an emotional moment in the hearts of many Formula One fans as Michael Schumacher hangs up his helmet for the final time.
Schumacher returned to the category in 2010 to drive for Mercedes following a three-year absence and while there have been momentary peaks; he has been unable to consistently rediscover his form of old.
The seven-time World Champion currently sits 15th in the standings, having claimed only 43 points so far in a season blighted by poor reliability.
However despite the lack of results, Schumacher’s speed made more of an appearance in 2012, thanks in part to this year’s compounds from tyre manufacturer Pirelli.
Fastest in qualifying at Monaco, as well as superb stints in Shanghai and Austin reinvigorated his reputation somewhat; however several serious errors served to initially counter that reputation, before overcoming it completely.
It is believed his brain fade at the Singapore Grand Prix, resulting in an accident that took out not only himself but also Jean-Eric Vergne, was the final straw for Mercedes management.
Not long afterward, Lewis Hamilton was announced as Schumacher’s replacement, effectively closing Schumacher’s stint with a top-level team. Rather than trudge on with independent squad, the 43-year-old decided to call it a day.
Mercedes development driver Anthony Davidson believes that, despite his gradual improvements, the time is right for Schumacher to leave. “Some people would argue the reason why he ever came back – surely he had a chance to lose out on a great record. He was never going to uphold that.”
Although Schumacher took two titles with Benetton in the mid-90s, the German really made his mark in the early part of the last decade with five consecutive titles.
Yet some followers of the sport have always had doubts about Schumacher’s success, often dubbing the FIA “Ferrari International Assistance” with regard to the special treatment the team often received.
“There have been moments and I think for all the doubters that say he only won because of X, Y and Z, we can’t forget what he did in Monaco this year in qualifying and we can’t forget that he’s been the faster driver this year (at Mercedes). When you look at all the lap times through qualifying and the races, he’s been the faster driver out of the two and for a driver in his 40s, that clarifies the stuff he did in the past.”
Davidson continued: “You can’t bring the kind of performances he did this year in an ill-performing car against a very good teammate in your 40s unless you are very, very special. In Austin, how on Earth did he get 5th on the grid – it’s performances like that give you a wake up call every now and again and I think that was special and I’ve enjoyed those moments.”
Schumacher’s record of seven titles may well be beaten by a driver of this generation and for all his faults, one must still look back on his record in the early part of the last decade with some admiration.
From the 2001 Hungarian Grand Prix to the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix – twenty-four races – Schumacher won fourteen races and finished on the podium a further seven times, dropping down on three occasions to take two 4th’s and a 6th place finish.
During the 2004 season, Schumacher won thirteen of the eighteen races. That’s dominance – proper dominance – even if the manner with how it was achieved was occasionally questionable.
In a time when Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and to a lesser degree Lotus are all proving competitive, it is unlikely that the German’s replacement will enjoy the same sort of success. “From a driver’s point of view, I can feel [Hamilton’s] frustration. He came into this year really wanting to try to win the world championship and he drove with heightened maturity.
”He had a bit of a difficult phase when it came down to decision time about his future, but all along the way he’s driven impeccably well and has been a joy to watch – especially when he’s got the bit between his teeth, like in Austin.
“There have been too many races where he’s driven a polished weekend, just for the car to let him down. It’s part of racing, but it just seems to happen to him far too often.”
Despite Mercedes’ difficulties this season, Davidson is convinced they can become championship material – in time. “He’s joining a team that have won a world championship in the past and although this year has been a struggle for Mercedes, it’s been clear that they have been focusing their attentions on next season and more importantly 2014 when the regulations change massively.
“In the same way that Brawn capitalised on a huge regulation change at the time, they might do it again and I’m sure that’s why he made his decision.”
When it comes to the future, the former Super Aguri driver is convinced Hamilton will perform, irrespective of what kind of car Mercedes give him.
“One thing’s for sure, I’m convinced he’s going to drag more out of that car – he’s a proper fighter and if he drives every race in the Mercedes like the one he did in Korea, then we’re not going to be disappointed.”