Saturday, 27 August 2011

About a Ferrari driver

This weekend's Belgian GP marks Michael Schumacher's 20th anniversary in F1.

Until his battles with Damon Hill in the mid-1990s, I didn't pay much attention. In fact all I can remember from the early days was that he wore yellow Camel overalls. Then, thanks to the fact he was the main British driver's biggest rival (and was German to boot), he became the Villain of F1, and it seemed fairly natural to dislike him.

Coming from Northern Ireland, it was pretty easy to become a Ferrari fan when Eddie Irvine paired up with Michael at the team at the beginning of 1996. But I still didn't like Schumacher. He was rude, arrogant, robotic, ice-cold, and every other German stereotype you could possibly think of. In fact I remember laughing (a lot) when he crashed on the first lap of Monaco 1996.

Eventually he began to worm his way into my affections, thanks to his talent, the fact that he and Eddie seemed to compliment one another, and okay, because I was a bit of a fan of his little brother (shut up - I was 17 and Ralf was pretty). And so a year later at Monaco, I was holding my breath when he went off at Ste. Devote. He managed to recover, and went onto win the race. In the rain. Always in the rain.

From then on, I was a huge fan. And there were many good times and bad times, many highs and lows. There was saving up for weeks to go to my first GP at Silverstone only to have Michael crash and break his leg on lap 1. But there was also being there at Spa in 2001 to see him break Alain Prost's record of all-time wins. Not to mention all the championship battles too - the heartbreak of 1998 and the joy of 2000 when he finally won a WDC for Ferrari for the first time in 21 years.

Michael has always been massively controversial, of course, and my own rose-tinted spectacles finally fell off for good somewhere around the time he squeezed Rubens Barrichello against the wall in Hungary last season - but the thing about Michael is that for every Hungary 2010, or Monaco 2006, there was always a Suzuka 2000 or a Hungary 1998 to make up for it. I think that's why those who will always defend him find it easy to forgive the more dubious things he's done in his career. He does seem to inspire devotion in people, and at the height of my fandom I certainly wouldn't have heard a bad word said about him.

Like all of his fans I was gutted when he retired at the end of 2006, but he signed off with one of his best performances in Brazil. I'd declared that I would 'never watch F1 again!' when he was gone, but that was easier said than done, and fairly soon that crafty Felipe Massa had gotten me passionate about a driver again. Damn you, emotions.

Due to aforementioned sneaky Brazilians making me forget that I shouldn't be getting attached to drivers, I wasn't thrilled when Michael was announced as Felipe's stand-in after his accident in Hungary 2009. However, given that I was going to Spa the month after, it would have been slight consolation. As it was, it wasn't meant to be, and I had to watch Luca Badoer trundle around at the back of the grid instead.

Given that I wasn't fussed about Michael coming back in a Ferrari, you can imagine that I was even less happy about him returning to F1 in a rival car. I didn't believe any of the Mercedes rumours - especially considering Eddie Jordan was adamant that Michael was going to come back - and I wrote them off as a load of silly speculation.

I did wonder when his comeback was announced whether I would secretly root for him over Felipe/Ferrari - but it hasn't turned out like that at all. I never dreamed I would be so apathetic towards what he's doing on track. Sure, I like to see him do well; Canada this year being a case in point - but if he crashes or retires, I don't throw a strop like I used to, or feel a crushing sense of disappointment. And it's quite sad, really, because he was an idol to me for a long time and now I just don't seem to notice him much during races.

I do think that he should just stop at the end of this year. He's had 20 years (if you don't count those three missing seasons after his first retirement), 7 WDCs, broke most of, if not all the records, and has nothing to prove. There are too many young drivers trying to get a seat in F1 and it seems pointless having Michael there when he perhaps lacks the fire in his belly that he once had. I don't think the sport would look at him unfavourably if he did just walk away. And even if they did, he has his titles, so who cares?

...That said, when and if the day comes that he gets a podium or even a win, I know I will be absolutely ecstatic for him. It's just that I can't see that happening any time soon.

Anyway, in honour of those 20 years, here's my favourite Michael moments. They're maybe not all from his greatest races, and there may be more obvious ones out there, but to me, they are the ones that I remember the most. Some still make me proud, some still give me goosebumps, and some still hurt. None are from Mercedes.

  • The aforementioned 1997 Monaco GP. It was peeing down with rain - Michael was 22 seconds ahead by lap 5, and he eventually won it by 53 seconds. 

  • The 1999 Malaysian GP. Michael's first race back, 3 months after breaking his leg. There had been a lot of speculation about whether he would come back 'the same driver'... well, he took pole position by almost a second, and had to let Eddie past twice so his teammate could take the win.

  • The 2006 Japanese GP. The penultimate race of the season. It was Schumacher vs Alonso for the WDC, and Michael was leading the race and certain for victory. Cue an ITV ad break. Cue a return from the ad break with footage of Michael's engine giving up. And then scenes inside his garage of him thanking and consoling all his mechanics. Still a tough one to watch, this. 

  • The 2006 Brazilian GP. His last race for Ferrari, and one of the gutsiest performances he ever put in. Apparently it is impossible to find YouTube footage of this without godawful music over the top. Pfft.

  • The 1998 Italian GP. 1998 is my absolute favourite season (or was until 2008 - now I'd have to say it's a tie) and this was my favourite race that year. A Ferrari 1-2 at Monza is always very special and the latter part of that season was just an awesome fightback against a McLaren car that had been very dominant at the start of the year.

  • Suzuka 2000. Finally he won the WDC for Ferrari on the fifth attempt. I think he's said since that this is his favourite F1 memory and the title that means the most. One of the happiest F1 memories I have too.

  • Lastly, and appropriately enough as it also took place at Spa - my all time favourite Michael Schumacher moment. And it didn't all take place on the track, but on the pitlane too. I think all F1 fans know the story now - Michael was half a minute up the road in the rain when he had to lap some Scottish cube-headed moron in his McLaren. Said cube-headed moron decided not to move his arse from the racing line. The result? A three-wheeled Ferrari, a very excited Murray Walker, and one pissed off Ferrari driver seeking a 'word' with David Coulthard. Classic.


Cheers for the memories, Michael.

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