Michael Schumacher: The long goodbye
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Motivational speeches about life and second chances aside, second acts in sport rarely turn out well. For every Andre Agassi who redeemed his professional and personal reputation with his comeback, there's a Michael Jordan, a legend not quite tarnished by his misadventures on a baseball field following his first retirement, but one who certainly became more of a punchline after his third and final retirement from basketball. As Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix brought the curtains down on the 2012 Formula 1 season, it was clear that Michael Schumacher's second go-around was more Jordan than Agassi.
It was always going to be difficult for Schumacher to emulate his own staggering success. By the time he made his comeback in 2010, he was a (very fit) 41-year-old competing in a sport that seems to get younger each passing year. F1 tends to evolve quickly, and the sport had changed dramatically in the three years he had been away, after first retiring as a Ferrari driver in 2006. Expectations were nonetheless high; he re-teamed with old collaborator Ross Brawn at a brand new Mercedes works team, returning to the fold, as it were — his F1 debut in 1991 was funded by Mercedes.
But through the 2010 season, it became painfully clear that the heady days of 2000-04 were long past. Schumacher had younger, hungrier rivals; he struggled to come to grips with the new tyres; and most incredible of all, his reaction times were slower. Time had caught up with the man many compared to a robot for his metronomic consistency and left him behind. Still, given how much success in F1 is about the car, there was reason to hope 2011 would be different. When that failed, fans pinned their hopes on 2012 — even if he couldn't win another title, surely race wins were possible?
As it happened, Mercedes did build a race-winning car this year. Only it wasn't Schumacher climbing on the top step of the podium for a record-extending 92nd time; it was his teammate, Nico Rosberg, who won his — and Mercedes's — first F1 race. It was a massive reality check: the fiercely competitive Schumacher, long thought to demand preferential treatment from his teams, defeated by his own teammate! Schumacher 1.0 certainly wouldn't have stood for it.
When Schumacher retired the first time, he went out at the top, vying for the championship with Fernando Alonso. In Brazil in 2006, there was a palpable sense that it was the end of an era, that F1 would never be the same. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were yet to make their debuts, and the box office appeal of F1 was still (largely) Michael Schumacher. He was the best racing driver in the sport's oldest and most storied team, and Bernie Ecclestone must have had some concerns about how F1 would cope in his absence. Even if his farewell didn't quite keep to the script, with an engine failure at the penultimate race in Japan all but scuppering his title hopes, he could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the field and come agonisingly close to winning. Flash forward six years and his exit, though dignified, couldn't be quieter. He retires not as a contender, but as an elder statesman. The sport moved on and found a new, equally controversial, star in Hamilton.
In the years between his two careers, Schumacher fans would posit counterfactuals. What if he was still around when traction control and driver aids were eliminated in 2008? Would his skill as a driver magnify the gap between him and the field? When Ferrari floundered in his absence, with Kimi Raikkonen barely lucking into the 2007 title, there was a little schadenfreude: Schumi (as he is popularly known) was perhaps not quite ready to hang up his helmet and was rushed into retirement, and Ferrari were reaping just desserts. Then he made his comeback and the rest, as they say, is history — only not of the sort Schumi fans wanted him to write.
Still, though Schumacher 2.0 was less successful, he had some good moments. At Monaco this year, his best and worst were on display: he qualified on pole at a circuit he has always loved, but a five-place penalty dropped him down to sixth on the starting grid. The penalty was vintage Schumacher, coming from a trip to the stewards' office after a questionable collision at the previous race. But there were few such revelations of past skill in the comeback years, and he lost the aura of invincibility he once had, when you could bet the farm that Schumacher would drive a car as fast as the laws of physics would allow. The only thing you could be certain of was that he would be as ruthless and uncompromising on track as in the past.
It is painful to see a legend of any sport struggle so in the twilight of their careers. To see Schumacher's retirement reduced to a footnote in a sport he once dominated must be an abject lesson for other sports legends faced with the agonising prospect of retirement.