As Michael Schumacher cruised around the Monza circuit in September of last year, he announced to his team over the radio that this would be his last Italian Grand Prix as he had decided to hang up his racing boots and bow out of Formula One. After 15-and-a-bit years of driving at the sharp end of motor sport’s elite series, the Schumi-era came to a close in Brazil as Michael drove his last race in the sport.
Much has been written about the seven-times world champion – his code of practice, his phenomenal achievements, even his taste in music – but little has been written recently about the effect Michael had on Formula One, and how his absence will continue to shape future seasons. This post is all about Formula One, sans Schumacher.
I guess the first port of call in this post is to consider the impact Michael’s loss will be on the Ferrari team. Schumacher spent 10 years at the Scuderia, reforming and reshaping the team into a dominant force that saw him win 5 titles for himself, and contribute towards 6 constructor titles for the team. He broke the 21 year duck and raised the performance of the team into new, un-chartered heights.
Ferrari knew about Michael’s pending retirement for a while, and while they didn’t necessarily know which year it would be (and some say they did), they definitely knew it was happening soon. With that in mind, Ferrari set about organising the team for the day when Schumacher eventually decided to stop. Felipe Massa was brought on board – some say (myself included) that this was a big risk, but it has worked out okay – and Ferrari courted the fast Finnish driver, Kimi Raikkonen.
With these two contracted for 2007, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ferrari will continue to win, with Raikkonen considered to be very fast and Massa improving his form considerably during the last season. But a change in the team will not help, and a lot of pressure will be placed on Kimi’s shoulders. While he almost certainly won’t match the records of his predecessor, Raikkonen should be able to challenge for a title or two. Although I get the impression he isn’t in it for the long haul, stating recently that he doesn’t intend moving teams again. This instability could upset the balance at Ferrari, but knowing the Italian squad is his best chance for the title, I’m sure Kimi is staying put for the next three or so years.
Schumacher’s absence from the team will be matched by the temporary departure of Technical Director Ross Brawn. Ross worked with Michael for much of his career, and has masterminded many race wins with both Ferrari drivers. His knowledge will be sorely missed on the pit wall, and although the team do have momentum from last years season, I expect it to be a little harder for them in 2007.
Of course, Ferrari will still continue without Schumacher, and they will surely continue to win races and titles in the coming years. But without the dream-team, I imagine the tears will closely match the champagne.
Moving away from Ferrari and looking at Formula One in generally, has Schumacher made such an impact that will result in repercussions being felt from next season onwards?
For sure, Michael attracted a lot of followers, and while many of these fans will continue to watch Formula One, many have also stated that they only watched the sport to cheer on their hero. Now Michael has left, there may not be any attraction for these people to follow F1 anymore, and surely this will have an adverse affect on viewing figures. While I’m positive the difference will be almost nothing, I’d be interested to know what the attendance figures were from last years German Grand Prix, and then compare them to this year’s event. While Ralf Schumacher is still driving, and new boy Adrian Sutil has a full-time drive (and I suppose Rosberg is racing under German colours), I’m not sure this will not be enough to keep the punters coming to the Nurburgring and Hockenheimring. And with no German team to support (McLaren-Mercedes aside), will we see a decline in Germany’s support for F1?
Michael also did a lot of work with the FIA and the GPDA concerning safety of circuits and other issues facing the drivers. He also did a lot of ‘Safe Driving’ campaigns, although some of these were as a result of poor driving from himself (after the Jerez 1997 incident, Schumacher was forced to do some ‘community service’ for the FIA). While drivers continue to support the GPDA, I do not see any other driver stepping into Schumacher’s shoes regarding the helping out with the FIA. In fact, Fernando Alonso has received some recent criticism because of his apparent lack of effort.
Aside from actually driving, Schumacher also re-wrote the book on driver training and dedication, raising the bar higher than ever seen before. He took his health very seriously, and despite being in his late 30s, I’m sure Michael could happily continue driving competitively for another few seasons.
Unfortunately though, Schumacher did do some harm to Formula One, and many feel that these incidents do not make up for the good he did. The 1994 incident at Adelaide, the 1997 incident at Jerez, and his most recent bending of the rules in Monaco last season to name just the big ones didn’t endear him to F1 fans. Although Schumacher adopted the ‘win at all costs’ ethic, he often overlooked how this was presented to the people that keep Formula One rolling – the fans. Not all great racing drivers are angels – and Ayrton Senna certainly had his moments on track – but Michael’s demeanour after committing acts of un-sportsmanship behaviour left a bitter taste in many a fans mouth, as well as his colleagues and contempories. I guess from this standpoint, it is better to no longer have Schumacher in the driving seat, but conversely, many feel that this did attract new fans to the sport. I suppose it depends on your viewpoint – either ‘any publicity is good publicity’, or ‘F1 is a sport, and its competitors should uphold sportsman-like behaviour’.
Michael also dominated the sport for so many years, both with Benetton and Ferrari. While competition is good – F1 is a sport, after all – people tend not to watch if they can already guess the outcome of a race before it has even started. 2002 and 2004 were years that saw Ferrari and Schumacher give the world a driving lesson, and many fans turned away, instead looking for other motor sports that provided closer racing and less predictability.
Now Michael has left, will we see closer racing? Probably not, and if we do, it won’t necessarily be because of Schumacher’s absence. Unfortunately, the cars are designed with too much efficiency. We could be on the verge of seeing Raikkonen or Alonso dominate the sport, but I guess that depends on how well the respective cars turn out. For sure, we will no longer see Schumacher get into the lead and then set qualy-style lap after qualy-style lap as he extends his lead to the point where he laps the second placed driver. But Alonso has the talent, skill and experience to do similar (but not as regularly), as he has done in previous races. For now though, I think McLaren and Ferrari will be closely matched and this should provide us with better racing for next year at least.
The flipside if this though, is the loss of those phenomenal races that Schumacher won from the back. Even in his final blast at Interlagos, Schumacher suffered a puncture, pitted, came out in almost last place, and then fought his way back up to fourth. Had the race been any longer Massa may not have won. Sometimes it was breath-taking to watch Michael in action, with the bit between his teeth, and this is something I will miss.
I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Schumacher, and he is going to continue helping Ferrari in any way he can. We may even see Schumacher race again, as the Grand Prix Masters series would love to get Michael on board, for sure. Probably not for a few years though…
So, despite not answering the question myself, I will ask it again: Is Michael Schumacher’s retirement good for Formula One? Have your say…