Heartbreak is a pain in the neck. Michael Schumacher called off a much anticipated return to Formula One on Tuesday after an assessment revealed his neck cannot bear the strain. The German, the winningest driver in the sport whose 11-year ...
Heartbreak is a pain in the neck.
Michael Schumacher called off a much anticipated return to Formula One on Tuesday after an assessment revealed his neck cannot bear the strain.
The German, the winningest driver in the sport whose 11-year presence between 1996 and 2006 returned Ferrari to F1 glory, had stepped up to fill in for the Scuderia's injured driver Felipe Massa. Massa, last year's world championship runner-up, suffered skull fractures while qualifying for the Grand Prix of Hungary just over a fortnight ago. The Brazilian, who after 10 days in a Budapest hospital cleared hospital testing in Sao Paulo last week and is recovering at home, is not expected to race again this season. Seven races remain. In the wake of Schumacher's announcement, Ferrari named veteran reserve driver Luca Badoer to replace Massa.
Schumacher, 40, who remains on Ferrari's payroll as consultant, has raced motorcycles since he stopped driving for Ferrari with five consecutive driving titles tucked safely under an arm, injured his neck in bike testing in February. When rumors began that Schumacher would deputize for Massa, caution about his physical ability emerged. While in F1, Schumacher earned a reputation for fitness. He routinely took the top step of podiums looking fresh after races in grueling conditions. The neck injury, however, could not be overcome.
"Yesterday evening, I had to inform Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and team principal Stefano Domenicali that, unfortunately, I'm not able to step in for Felipe," Schumacher wrote according to his Web site. "I really tried everything to make the temporary comeback possible, however, much to my regret, it didn't work out. Unfortunately, we did not manage to get a grip on the pain in the neck which occurred after the private F1 day in Mugello, even if medically or therapeutically we tried everything possible."
An in-season testing ban -- and an unwillingness by teams to grant a necessary unanimous exemption -- prevented Schumacher from driving a current model Ferrari F1 car, Schumacher last week tested a 2007 version at the team's private track in Mugello, near Florence, Italy.
"The consequences of the injuries caused by the bike accident in February, fractures in the area of head and neck, unfortunately, have turned out to be still too severe," per Schumacher's website. "That is why my neck cannot stand the extreme stresses caused by Formula One yet. These are the clear results of the examinations we did in the course of the past two weeks and the final examination yesterday afternoon. As there were no improvements after the day in Mugello, I decided at short notice on Sunday to do that thorough examination already yesterday.
"I am disappointed to the core. I am awfully sorry for the guys of Ferrari and for all the fans who crossed fingers for me. I can only repeat that I tried everything that was within my power. All I can do now is to keep my fingers crossed for the whole team for the coming races."
Formula One drivers are subjected to as many as five times the force of gravity during cornering. The neck in particular takes enormous stress.
Schumacher's former Ferrari teammate Eddie Irvine told Sky Sports News that he had seen Schumacher a few weeks ago and even then the injury was evident. The seven-times world driving champion turned his shoulders in order to move his head, Irvine said.
"You've got the wheel of your head, you've got the helmet, and it's totally unsupported," Irvine said of a driver's neck. "Under braking, you're pulling 5 G and going around the corners you're 4 G, so it was going to be a very tough thing for him to pull off."
Driver-turned-analyst David Coulthard confirmed the importance of a driver's neck. He told BBC Radio 5 Live. "With a niggling ache there, you just can't focus."
Ferrari boss Di Montezemolo commented on the team's Web site:
"I am very unhappy that a problem means that Michael cannot return to racing," di Montezemolo said. "In the past few days, I could appreciate his great efforts and extraordinary motivation, which had spread through the team and fans around the world. No doubt his return would have been good for Formula One, and I am sure it would have seen him fighting for wins again. In the name of Ferrari and all the fans, I wish to thank him for the strong attachment he displayed for the team in these circumstances. In agreement with Stefano Domenicali, we have therefore decided to give Luca Badoer the chance to race for the Scuderia after he has put in so many years of hard work as a test driver."
The small word "yet" in Schumacher's message could let hope linger among the driver's multitudes of fans that he might again drive an F1 car in anger. At the moment, he steps back after having caused a global sensation at the prospect of return.
The next race on the calendar, the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia, Spain, faces the threat of running without the sport's only working multiple champion, Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who beat Schumacher to world championships in 2005 and again in 2006. Alonso's Renault team was suspended for the next race after a wheel came off the Spaniard's car during the Grand Prix of Hungary. An appeal of the decision is scheduled to be heard next week in Paris.
The appeal is expected to be upheld, but in the meantime, race promoters were greatly concerned that the suspension would hurt ticket sales. Schumacher's return announcement set ticket sales soaring.
Schumacher, world champion in 1994 and 1995 with Benetton and again from 2000 to 2004 with Ferrari, rewrote the sport's statistics during just over 15 seasons in Formula One. Between 1994 and 2003, he broke Juan Manuel Fangio's mark of five world driving championships, a record that stood for 47 years, and while at Ferrari, he improved the Fangio mark of four consecutive titles to five. Schumacher improved four-time world champion Alain Prost's most-victories mark from 51 to 91. Schumacher improved three-time world champion Ayrton Senna's pole record from 65 to 68. Schumacher raced 250 times and scored 1,369 points.
Schumacher was the galvanizing figure around whom Ferrari rallied to win six consecutive constructors' titles between 1999 and 2004. His consulting role in the past years had included an occasional test drive.
Badoer, 38, will become the oldest driver in the field. He has started 48 F1 races without scoring a point. He has driven for Scuderia Italia, Minardi and Forti Corse. He most recently competed in the 1999 Grand Prix of Japan.
Carlos Gracia, president of the Royal Spanish Automobile Federation (RFEA), criticized Ferrari's decision to call on Badoer to replace Massa. Newspaper Marca quoted Gracia as saying Spaniard Marc Gene, also on the Ferrari payroll as a test driver, would be a better choice. Gene, 35, recently became the first Spaniard to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race. Gene has raced in Formula One more recently than Badoer, in 2004 after replacing Ralf Schumacher, who crashed heavily during the Grand Prix of the United States. Gene has scored five F1 points, in 36 races with Minardi and Williams F1.
"It is one of the most absurd things that the people in charge of Ferrari have ever decided," Gracia said.