Why Schumacher’s legacy is undamaged by comeback
So Old Man Michael, one of the travelling F1 circus’ main attractions, has decided he doesn’t want a part of the freak show any more. Instead he will simply be an exhibit in the Museum of F1, which is probably how it ought to be.
The problem with Michael’s comeback is that it never really felt like him. Yes, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn with 2005, when Ferrari built an absolute dog and he struggled for most of the season, but other than that, this was the first time we’ve seen him genuinely struggle in his F1 career. From the day he stepped into a Jordan for the first time, he’d been wowing people. The Michael of 2010-12 was a diluted Schumacher, who struggled to match his team-mate’s pace, made numerous errors and was noticeably more aggressive than most of his contemporaries in wheel-to-wheel combat. Maybe he was over-driving. Maybe the recent rule changes haven’t suited his driving style. Maybe he just can’t hack driving in the midfield. I’m not sure really.
There were brief glimpses of the talent he has or had. There were the phenomenal first laps where he would carve his way through the field no matter how poorly he had qualified. There was the “pole” lap at Monaco. There was the fortunate but deserved podium in Valencia. But there have been just as many crashes as successes, very uncharacteristic of a driver that in his prime could always been relied upon to bring the car home. This year he has been hindered by various technical issues that have beset his car in particular, otherwise he would no doubt be much higher up the championship table and may have featured on the podium more. But the Mercedes has faded badly this year and it looks unlikely that we’ll see him at the front again, which leaves me with a nagging feeling that he should have just left it at that after that brilliant drive at Interlagos 6 years ago, where no one was in any doubt that he was still at or very near the top of his game. You can’t say that now.
But all of this does not change the fact that he is Michael Schumacher. He might not seem like the same Michael Schumacher out on track – he seems more like a cheap imitation Michael Schumacher made in Taipei or Dhaka – but it is definitely him. He who won 7 world titles. He who won 91 grands prix, just one short of the combined total of Senna and Prost. He who holds all the records bar the most starts. This cannot be taken away from him just because he decided he was bored and wanted to race a bit more again. He is still the greatest.
It’s important he leaves now, mainly so that he stays safe and doesn’t hurt himself, but also because he isn’t good enough any more to compete at the highest level and at nearly 44 he isn’t going to improve any time soon. However, I don’t believe he could tarnish his legacy – failed comebacks aren’t necessarily great to watch but no one ever remembers them. No one cares to remember the times when the great were merely good. In F1 terms, you don’t hear people talking about Lauda’s dreadful last season in 1985, Nigel Mansell’s stupid curtailed comeback season in 1995 with McLaren, Alan Jones’ botched comeback with Haas Lola, or Stirling Moss’ return to racing in the British Saloon Car Championship in 1980. In broader terms, Lance Armstrong’s legacy wasn’t ruined by his comeback but by the D-word, while everyone chooses to forget Muhammad Ali’s 1980-81 return when he lost to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Tiger Woods’ sad decline will not erase the memory of that period of domination. And Bjorn Borg’s 1991-93 return while still using a wooden racket was utterly embarrassing but no one refers to that outside of the context of Sport’s Worst Comebacks or Most Ludicrous Perpetuations of Anachronistic Pieces of Sporting Equipment (hey, it could catch on).
This won’t stop sportsmen coming out of retirement, even if it ought to serve as a bit of a warning. People who prematurely give things up that they enjoy will usually fancy another shot. It will keep happening as long as sport is fun and has lots of money involved. Kimi Raikkonen’s return to F1 this year proves that successful comebacks can be made. So Michael was absolutely right to come back, given that he wanted to do it – he needed to do it to put his mind at rest.
My respect for him has gone up enormously since he retired the first time, especially through his willingness to come back and challenge the young bucks. It could have gone well – had Mercedes built a car as good as the 2009 Brawn, he may have won more races and titles. Back in the 2009-10 off-season, there was no consistent line as to how this was going to go – the possibility of success was still there. Everyone was quite excited. It was a nice idea – though in hindsight it was probably one of those nice ideas that should have been just left to pub debates. But, having said that, if Michael’s mind needed to be settled by trying it again and seeing what happened, it was right for him.
We shouldn’t criticise Michael for the last three years. Instead, we should make the most of the time we have left with him at the wheel of an F1 car in competitive races. Because this time he ain’t coming back – this is the last chance we’ll have to see the best F1 driver of our time competing for glory, alongside the best of the current generation. After this, we’ll just be left with memories.
All image sources unknown and used in the spirit of fair use