No Mercy for Schumacher
(Oct. 27, 1997) -- One of the most interesting Formula One seasons Sparky can remember came to an end Sunday. What a year. The action on the track was tremendous, and the off-track antics of several drivers were even more interesting. We figure all the Canadian fans of Jacques Villeneuve are really feeling smug now that their hero has won the World Driving Championship. Yes, we admit it -- we doubted that Jacques could get his act together and win the title, but we were wrong.
Ironically, it was the guy Sparky thought had it all squared away, Michael Schumacher, who came out the loser of the championship fight in Jerez. We were surprised when Schuey and Jacques collided in a battle for the lead, and Schuey went spinning off course, into a gravel pit and out of the fight. But our amazement to that was nothing compared to our reaction to the intense criticism of Schumacher in the European press.
Villeneuve, who finished third and clinched the title, did not hesitate to rub it in, blaming Schumacher's aggressive driving for causing the incident and saying Schumacher "lost at his own game." Villeneuve drew a comparison to 1994, when Schumacher and Damon Hill collided while battling for the driving title. As was the case this year, Schumacher had a narrow lead over the challenger. Unlike 1997, it was the challenger, Hill, who lost the encounter, and Schumacher won a controversial championship. "It shouldn't happen...what it proves is what he did in '94 against Damon," Villeneuve said, according to the Reuter news agency.
Newspapers in Schumacher's native Germany and in the home country of his team, Ferrari, went on a feeding frenzy.
Reuter quoted one German paper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of an accusation that Schumacher used "Wild West manners." La Stampa newspaper, a corporate cousin of Ferrari, said Schumacher's "image as a champion was shattered, like a glass hit by a stone."
Wow. Don't hold back like that, guys. Tell us what you really think.
Not only that, but now Schuey has been called on the carpet by the FIA. He has been ordered "to appear before an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sports Council," according to the FIA statement.
Monday, Schumacher reacted to the accusations, and said he doesn't really understand all the criticism.
"Jacques cut in and didn't try to brake at all," Schumacher said. "Certainly, I closed the door. It was clearly about winning it all or nothing and there was nothing more to lose."
Furthermore, Schumacher said, contact between the two cars saved Villeneuve from crashing.
"Without me, Jacques would have more or less driven into the gravel pit," Schumacher said. "That's why I don't quite understand the situation now."
Everybody is entitled to his own opinion (and we're hoping you guys will share some of yours with us!), but we think the reaction is a little overblown and Schumacher is being unfairly criticized. C'mon, people -- admit it. Aggressive driving is exciting to watch. Perhaps some of you would prefer it if we painted lane divider stripes on the tracks, and required drivers to use turn signals when moving from one to another.
We don't think Schumacher precipitated the crash with Villeneuve, nor the one with Damon Hill in 1994, for one reason: He's not that dumb. Think about it, folks. It was vividly proven Sunday that either party in car-to-car contact can come out on the short end of the stick. So, if you're the leader in the points battle, how in the heck is it smart to attempt to deliberately crash the guy who's trying to overtake you? Chances are just as good that you'll be the one who crashes.
Funny; usually, a driver gets the most heat when he makes an aggressive move and there is a victim who suffers the consequences -- like when Bobby Hamilton got into the wall at Rockingham after getting a bump from Dale Earnhardt last year. Critics villified Earnhardt for winning by knocking his opponent out of the race. Schumacher may be the first guy we've ever seen who came out the loser of a shunt, and then got blasted for his "Wild West" driving tactics.
We don't begrudge Villeneuve the title. We think he was lucky in that he was not the one who wrecked on Sunday, but that's the way the cookie crumbles, and we accept that. We think his "he lost at his own game" remark was a little odd; the way we saw it, both drivers were playing the same game -- chicken. Neither blinked. Villeneuve won.
Say what you want about Schumacher, but we don't think he deserves the reputation as a reckless driver. Aggressive, yes. Exciting to watch. But not reckless -- despite the comments of Jacques and the Italian and German media.
Oh, and by the way -- we like Alex Zanardi's style, too. We know that a lot of folks think he's a "Wild West" driver, too. But we sure like to watch him race.
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