Yes, you’ve heard this one before: Michael Schumacher has called it a career.
The difference this time is that the seven-time world champion did it on someone else’s terms after Mercedes announced that Lewis Hamilton would take his seat at the Formula One team in 2013.
Sadly, Mercedes’ move in cutting the legs from under Schumacher put to rest any doubts that there’s sentimentality in F1.
The Stuttgart-based manufacturer announced its three-year deal with McLaren driver Hamilton last week, citing Schumacher’s sloth in making a decision about whether he’d stay with the team in 2013 as a reason why it went after the 2008 world champion. In the end, fans were left thinking that Mercedes simply went out and signed another guy to take Schumacher’s place and sent out a press release, stripping one of the sport’s legends of the opportunity to make a graceful exit.
With virtually no viable option for 2013, 43-year-old Schumacher announced his re-retirement at the Suzuka Circuit last Thursday as the teams prepared for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. That news came a week after Mercedes introduced Hamilton as the driver who would join Nico Rosberg at the team next year. Although there was some speculation Schumacher might return to Ferrari for a final year or move to Sauber, he called it quits instead.
Now there may have been undisclosed factors involved that forced Mercedes to act, but Schumacher fans, haters, and those somewhere in between must realize that a seven-time world champion deserved better.
And it’s not like Mercedes played down his importance to its fledgling F1 program. From the start, F1’s most successful driver who owns just about any record that matters in the sport was central to Mercedes’ return to grand prix racing three years ago. He was easily the focal point of the team, paired with the more-than-capable but less-than-legendary Rosberg.
Mercedes played up Schumacher’s star status, billing his decision to come out of retirement as a reunification of two racing powerhouses – Schumacher started his professional racing career with driving sports cars for Mercedes in 1989 – that would take on the world. When the manufacturer announced the return of its young driver program, Schumacher was again trotted out as a coach for the up-and-coming Mercedes stars racing in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Series, even though it was clear the F1 driver had little time to attend races or offer tips to anyone. But it was great public relations.
Schumacher ended a three-year retirement from F1 in 2010, when Mercedes hired him to spearhead its return to the sport. He retired at the end of the 2006 season, two years after his string of five consecutive championships with Ferrari was ended by an up-and-coming star named Fernando Alonso.
In his 15 full seasons in F1 to that point, Schumacher amassed 91 wins, 68 poles, and 154 top three finishes in 248 starts. Since his return, he has yet to add to his win total and many felt he has disappointed with his less than phenomenal performance.
In just under three seasons with Mercedes, Schumacher has only one podium finish to show for 52 starts. That was a third place in this year’s European Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia, Spain.
In all, he has scored 191 points in his time at Mercedes, roughly 59 per cent of the amount amassed by his less experienced teammate Rosberg, who has 324 in the same period.
While he hasn’t set the world on fire in 2012, Schumacher’s performances compared to his teammate have improved this year. He has outpaced Rosberg in qualifying in 2012, putting up a better time than his teammate in nine of 15 races this year. He took the pole in Monaco but the place was taken away due to a penalty for avoidable contact at the previous race in Barcelona, Spain.
In races he hasn’t capitalized on his potential, scoring only 43 points so far this season. To be fair, his total would have been much higher had the reliability of his Mercedes been better. His car has failed him five times in 15 starts heading to Japan after pretty much anything that could go wrong has for the veteran. He had a gearbox die in Australia, a mechanic didn’t put a wheel on properly in China, a fuel pump failed in Monaco and his drag reduction system – the gizmo that flattens rear wing on straights to increase top speed – jammed open in Montreal.
Unfortunately the seven-time world champion also has been involved in a couple of embarrassing incidents this year where he’s driven into the back of cars. Early in the season in Spain, Schumacher rammed the Williams of Bruno Senna after missing his braking point and knocked both cars into a gravel trap. Two weeks ago on the streets of Singapore, Schumacher repeated the deed, this time running into the back of Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne on a restart.
The incident in Singapore had many calling for the veteran to retire for good and now his critics got what they wanted.
In Japan, the first race weekend in his six final Formula One appearances didn’t exactly make things easy for him either.
Even before he arrived in Suzuka, the deck was already stacked against him. The mistake in Singapore delivered a 10-place grid penalty for the race in Japan and he started second-last in 23rd spot on the grid after qualifying 13th.
But he showed good form in the race, gaining 12 places by the end of the 53 laps to cross the line 11th, missing a points finish by less than a second.
Better yet, he didn’t run into the back of any cars.
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