The enigma of Michael Schumacher

We've heard the phrase "the end of an era" in abundance since Michael Schumacher announced his impending retirement but, despite the clich?, that's precisely what it is. Love him or hate him, Schumacher is the most successful driver of his generation and, indeed, in the history of Formula One. We may never see his like again -- for some people that would not be a bad thing.

Michael Schumacher celebrates his 90th win and the 190th for Ferrari with Ferrari team members.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Before we go any further, let me note that I'm not going to reminisce over Schumacher's titles and the records that he broke and neither am I going to dissect his controversial moments. When I sat down to write this article I found myself pondering exactly how I felt about Michael and to be honest I'm still not sure.

I'm one of those few that neither love nor hate Schumacher. I readily acknowledge his formidable talent but it fails to spark any excitement in me. I don't know why -- why does anyone support the drivers they do? I'm exasperated by his domination of the sport but it doesn't move me to anything more than a brief snigger when some incident befalls him.

I'm not indifferent to Schumacher's presence -- that's pretty much impossible given his history, both the successes and the controversies. I got emotional when he took Ferrari's first drivers' title for 20 years back in 2000 and I got annoyed when he used Rascasse as a car park in Monaco this year. But for some reason Schumacher fails to make a big impression on me one way or another. He's just there.

Of course, after this season he won't be there. The announcement of his retirement at Monza did not come as a surprise; the signs had been pointing to it for some time. I wasn't ready to believe it until the man himself said the words but when he actually did I felt oddly perplexed. I won't be particularly sad to see him go but at the same time it seems strange to think of him not racing.

Many people are passionate about Schumacher, in good and bad ways. Some -- not all -- fans love him to the point of blindness, where their slavish devotion means they see no bad in him and any controversy he may be involved in is automatically not his fault. On the other side, some detractors are equally blind and take any opportunity to verbally attack the German with disturbing viciousness.

Michael Schumacher.
Photo by xpb.cc.

It's fair to say that Schumacher has never stirred any passion in me, either in the way of support or denigration. When Fernando Alonso took the flag at Interlagos last year to become the youngest ever champion I cried buckets with delight. At Istanbul this year I popped open a specially bought bottle of champagne when Felipe Massa took his maiden F1 victory. Both were events that I had been waiting for with unflagging conviction.

On the downside, when Juan Pablo Montoya was dropped by McLaren I was ready to steal a Chieftain tank and trundle my way to Woking to trample all over the team's poncey Technology Centre. Likewise, when Red Bull dropped Christian Klien I was ready to fire up the tank but I contented myself with vowing never to drink Red Bull again. Not that I do anyway -- it's absolutely disgusting and looks like piss, but it's the principle of the thing.

Yet for all Schumacher's controversies I've never had the inclination to do much more than roll my eyes and perhaps utter a few choice swear words. His victories produce pretty much the same reaction. It's not that I don't care; I do but I take Formula One as a whole rather than a stage for one player. Sure, I'm upset when one of my guys gets the boot but I get over it because I love the sport.

I know that there will be folks out there thinking how can I love the sport without either waxing lyrical about Schumacher's achievements or venting my spleen about how detrimental his attitude is. Well, while I recognize both his talent and his less-than-appealing approach of victory at any cost, he is not the be all and end all of F1.

I'm not denying that Schumacher has made a major contribution to the modern F1 era but before him there were drivers of equal presence and the sport has gone on just fine without them. Those drivers may not have been as successful as Michael but success is not necessarily the dominant factor in why one driver is more popular or more significant than others.

Race winner Michael Schumacher celebrates.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Schumacher has as many detractors as he has supporters so the idea that F1 will be lacking without him is unfounded. Naturally his fans will probably feel their interest in F1 is not the same once he is not racing, but there will be just as many others who believe the sport will benefit from his absence. That's an argument for personal opinion but really I don't think Michael's retirement will change much.

There have always been heroes and villains and there always will be. While other drivers may not provoke quite the level of passionate response that Schumacher has over the years, if anyone approaches any where near the same kind of success you can bet your bottom dollar that they will become the object of equal love and hate.

Fernando Alonso was generally neither a figure of one or the other until he won the championship last year, then the amount of new fans and new detractors he gained was astonishing. His fight with Kimi Raikkonen for the title gave rise to a new villain and a new hero, depending which was favoured, for fans to trade insults about. Apart from the die-hard supporters Schumacher was not the main focus.

With Alonso at McLaren in 2007 and Raikkonen at Ferrari, we can presumably expect them to be once again fighting for the title and the battle lines will be drawn between their fans. It's the nature of any competition to have friction and passion, from those taking part and from the sidelines as well. Schumacher's presence will be missed but his absence will not cause F1 to suddenly disintegrate.

When I met Michael in person I got a very different impression between the racer and the man. As a racing driver I find him brilliant at handling a car but flawed by his obsession to win no matter what. As a man he made me laugh and was very amiable and relaxed. It was not an interview situation so perhaps that was the difference, but he was genuinely likeable.

And that, at the end of it all, is probably my conundrum with Schumacher. I appreciate his brilliance behind the wheel but dislike his cold calculation, yet without the trappings of cameras and microphones and his veil of control in the face of the media, he's not a bad bloke. There's two sides to every story and, for me, there's two sides to Michael Schumacher. I won't miss the racer but I wish the man well -- and will always ponder the enigma.