December 30, 2013 1:16 pm

Schumacher’s skiing accident caps bad year for Formula One

November 2013: Mr Ecclestone tells a London court he did not tell the F1 board about alleged corrupt payments to Mr Gribkowsky because it ‘wasn’t the slightest concern’ of board members©AP

For Formula One, Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident is one of the worst and most traumatic moments in a miserable year for motorsport’s pre-eminent series.

His injury casts another grim shadow over a season that witnessed the death of Maria de Villota, who was the best prospect of becoming F1’s first female driver for 40 years but who died in a hotel room in October. The cause of her death was believed to be associated with injuries she sustained last year when she lost her right eye after crashing during testing in Cambridgeshire.

Mr Schumacher and de Villota are reminders that for all the technological wizardry behind the vehicles, the sport thrives on personalities – of which it has very few.

During his period of dominance from the mid-1990s, which brought him seven world titles and 91 Grand Prix triumphs, even Mr Schumacher was hardly considered a charismatic individual. His decade of glory was a personal achievement never seen before in F1 but it sucked dry the competitive juices on which the series depends.

But there was a messianic quality to his comeback from retirement in 2010, injecting much-needed energy to F1 at a time when personalities and competition were in short supply.

This time, it is another German, Sebastian Vettel, who is dominating F1 as surely as Mr Schumacher ruled over the sport. His triumph in this year’s world drivers’ championship was his fourth in succession.

Fearing declining television audiences, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is casting around for ideas to make races more competitive. It is the same dilemma F1 grappled with during Mr Schumacher’s unchallenged reign.

Yet measures to spice up the sport this season reduced F1 to a laughing stock. Tyres were designed to ensure they had to be changed every 20 laps, but they tended to blow out. An adjustable rear wing, meant to improve the ability to overtake, ended up making overtaking far too easy.

Meanwhile, F1 descended into familiar political infighting and worries about the costs of running teams resurfaced. As for Mr Ecclestone, he has spent as much time with lawyers as drivers, fighting numerous legal challenges that threaten his hold on F1, including an indictment served in Germany on allegations of bribery.

For the time being, F1’s warring parties are united in their response to Mr Schumacher’s life-threatening injury. Bitter though the divisions are, the sport comes together to honour those who have lived up to the challenge of confronting the dangers and risks of careering round racing tracks at top speed.

It is a challenge that has instant global appeal, one that is recognised on the big screen, as recent films on the life and death of Ayrton Senna and the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda demonstrate.

Michael Schumacher is perhaps F1’s most recognisable name. His global fame is a mark of how far and wide F1 can reach. Even in retirement, he is a personality the sport can ill afford to lose.

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