Time to Move On

By Barry Kalb, Hong Kong
Atlas F1 Contributing Writer

It was early 1958. The great Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio was fresh from his fifth World Championship. He owned records that would stand for years. He had earned his place alongside the greatest racing drivers up to that time, the likes of Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola, Bernd Rosemeyer and Achille Varzi.

Asked if he planned to continue racing, he replied: "I don't want to outstay my welcome. People are weary of always seeing the same star. I'll think about it."

He drove several races early that season, winning one and challenging in others, showing he still had the right stuff. In July, one month past his 47th birthday, he retired.

Watching Michael Schumacher pilot a Formula One car around a racetrack today brings to mind the artistry and dominance that Fangio exhibited half a century ago. The young German always seems capable of reaching inside and coming up with an extra bit of mastery, an extra few hundredths of a second. Although he has been dogged by controversy more than any Champion before him, even his critics agree, if grudgingly, that he is one of the greatest drivers ever to step into a racing machine. His achievements have largely surpassed those of Fangio, and almost every other driver before and since.

Hence, It's time for Michael to start thinking of retiring soon.

With his fourth World Championship won and his 51st victory behind him, the 32-year-old German is already in first or second place in almost every category of Formula One achievement worth mentioning and is poised to take over undisputed first place in many cases (see statistical tables). Barring an accident (like the first-lap crash in 1999 that left him with a broken leg and put him out of seven races) or some dramatic deterioration in the competitiveness of his Ferrari, this is what the situation will likely look like by the end of the 2002 season:

Schumacher will hold the record in races won, points scored, fastest laps, probably podium finishes, and in such lesser categories as races led and laps led. He is tied with Alain Prost for second most Championships won, and nobody would be surprised to see him win a fifth title next year to draw even with Fangio.

In accomplishments in a single season, he'll at least be tied, if not in sole first place, in most wins and most points, first or second in most podiums, second in most fastest laps. He is at or near the top in most categories of consecutive achievements.

Moreover, Schumacher's per-race averages are in the top five in every category - ahead of Prost and Senna in almost every case. The only driver who tops Schumacher in every category of achievement per race is Fangio.

The one major record that will remain beyond Schumacher's grasp at the end of 2002 is Ayrton Senna's total of 65 poles. The German currently has 41 poles to his credit, putting him firmly in second place and far ahead of the rest.

Never has Schumacher's dominance been more evident than during these past two seasons. To find the equal, one has to look to Nigel Mansell and Prost in 1992 and 1993, or much further back, to Jim Clark in 1963, Fangio and Alberto Ascari in the mid-1950s.

Putting these past two seasons into some perspective: Schumacher has 16 wins and 18 poles in the 30 races since the 2000 season began. Only 11 other drivers have scored as many Championship wins as that in their entire careers, only 11 others as many poles. Only 25 drivers other than Schumacher have scored more than 200 points: he has scored 202 in just those 30 races (his career points total is now 772). Since last year's Belgian Grand Prix, he has started 19 races and finished 17, all in first or second place. Only Prost can boast of a comparable streak in the 52 years of the modern championship.

*   *   *

Controversy and criticism have followed Schumacher almost since he broke into Formula One mid-way through the 1991 season, exactly 10 years ago this week.

He started at Jordan, but jumped to Benetton after one race, to Eddie Jordan's great displeasure. In 1994, there were disqualifications and suspensions en route to his first Championship. He won the title that year by driving Damon Hill off the track in the final race, as Hill was about to pass to take the lead and the Championship.

The collision with Hill might have been accidental; there is no question that in 1997, in virtually identical circumstances, Schumacher deliberately turned into Jacques Villeneuve's car hoping to take the Canadian out. In the event, he eliminated only himself, while Villeneuve went on to take third place and clinch the title. The press and the racing public were outraged at the blatant act. The FIA voided his second World Championship position in punishment.

He has never fully apologized for that incident, but he did seem to learn a lesson, and has avoided any overtly egregious acts since. Last year, he finally won his third Drivers' Championship, Ferrari's first in 21 years. There were still detractors: some muttered that Ferrari was using illegal traction control; some criticized his practice of swerving in front of other cars at the start of the race. Yet by and large, the racing world agreed that he won in 2000 by being the best driver in the best car. Nobody has seriously suggested that his title this season was anything other than a demonstration of superiority.

To the contrary, he has received a steady stream of praise from the such authoritative commentators as Niki Lauda and Frank Williams, not only for his skill in a racing car, but also for his single-minded focus on the fine details that go into winning a race. "Michael Schumacher is a bloody terrorist," Williams told Atlas F1 recently. "It's all about winning for him, he never stops, he is one hell of an opponent."

If he has not put the 1997 incident completely behind him, he has at least relegated it to a footnote in the story of a decade-spanning Formula One career. He seems at long last to have won the battle for respect.

One can quibble about who might have won a given race or even a given season, but there's no denying Schumacher's overall achievements. His is the rare type of record that marks an athlete as one of the all-time best in any sport.

It also means there are very few mountains left for Michael Schumacher to climb. His existing contract with Ferrari originally ran through the end of next season, but he recently extended it through 2004. He really ought to reconsider that extension.

What more could Schumacher hope to achieve by racing beyond 2002?

He could conceivably surpass both Fangio's five Championships and Senna's 65 poles. That would make him even more dominant, if not necessarily more popular.

He said he wanted to establish an era of dominance for Ferrari, which had never known the kind of sustained superiority that Williams and McLaren have enjoyed. One could argue that he has already succeeded: three Constructors' Championships in a row, two Drivers' Championships in a row. At any rate, the ascendancy of the Williams may make it impossible for him to extend the streak.

He certainly doesn't need money, if the reports of his earning some $50 million a year over the past several years are accurate. He would, though, be giving up the thrill of speed and competition, which drivers do find difficult to leave behind. As John Barnard, the erstwhile Ferrari designer, told the author Christopher Hilton: "People forget that deep down they are racing drivers, they love racing, they love beating their competitors, they love making the car work. All those things are their real passion." Fangio, after making a perfectly logical and dispassionate argument for his decision to retire, added: "But do not think that it was easy."

A very real question is, how hard will Schumacher be trying in 2003-2004? Does he have three more years in him of the never-say-die style of driving that has been his hallmark - especially if he adds that fifth Championship next year? Champions do fade. Some, like Damon Hill during his last two years, just give up. Some, like Prost during his final few seasons, back off, settling for the points that come easily.

Schumacher has shown that he can still wring the last gram of performance from his car, as he did in the back-and-forth fight for pole at the British Grand Prix. He has shown that he will still fight wheel-to-wheel for a place, as he did in his almost-successful pass of Juan Pablo Montoya in Austria. On the other hand, he failed to challenge brother Ralf for the lead in Canada this year after Ralf had passed him during the pit stops, saying he thought the safe route was to protect the six Championship points he had in hand. That might be a sign of maturity and intelligent strategy, but it was not the fire-breathing Michael of years past.

It is not good for the sport if the best driver is not giving his all. Nor is it good if one man is too dominant for too long. The public doesn't want to read statistics, it wants to see exciting racing.

Fangio considered just these factors when he decided to pack it in after eight and a half seasons. It wasn't fear that led him to retire, or despair at the deaths of so many of his fellow drivers, he wrote in his autobiography, My Twenty Years of Racing. It wasn't that he could no longer compete. "I did not feel that I had become too old, or past my prime," he explained. "Nor was I afraid to race against the young newcomers to whom, I think, I could still have shown a few tricks of the game."

In the end, the controlling factors were consideration for the sport - "I don't want to outstay my welcome; people are weary of always seeing the same star" - and the realization that he had achieved all he could hope for:

"I had pursued and realized the great ambition of my life. At first, a world title had been the limit of my hopes and my boldest dreams. Then I had to win a second one, after which it seemed only logical to try for a third. Then a fourth was added to the other three and the fifth confirmed that the others had not, perhaps, been due entirely to luck...Where was the incentive to continue, and what value would yet another world title, if I could win it, have for me?

"I had loved racing," Fangio concluded, "and I had devoted the best years of my life to it. Now I had reached the top and it was time for me to disappear from the scene."

Schumacher has given the fans a lot to talk and write about over the past decade. He has shown us, like Senna and Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark and a handful of others before him, what the art of driving is all about. He has reached the top.

Next year will mark eleven and a half seasons in Formula One for Schumacher, most of them at the pinnacle of the sport. It's time to disappear from the scene, and let the new generation of drivers take over.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 34
August 22nd 2001

Atlas F1 Special

1 to 51: Comparative Victories
by Atlas F1 Writers

Simply Supreme
by Richard Barnes

Time to Move On
by Barry Kalb

Hungarian GP Review

The Hungarian GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

It's Magic!
by Karl Ludvigsen


Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes - the GP Cartoon
by Bruce Thomson

Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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