September 8, 2006 6:27 pm

Schumacher times his exit

Michael Schumacher’s career has been so long and successful, as well as full of controversy, that there is no Formula One Grand Prix venue that has not witnessed a significant Schumacher moment.

Yet Monza, scene of Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, is the theatre in which the seven-times world champion has most consistently created moments of drama and tomorrow will provide another as Schumacher is expected to announce his retirement after the race.

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It was here in 1991 as a veteran of just one Grand Prix, that he stunned the F1 world by appearing as a Benetton driver, having been winkled out of his contract with the tiny Jordan team that had discovered him. In 1996, he moved to a Ferrari team that had languished in the doldrums since the early 1980s and conjured up an unlikely victory at Monza, which inspired tens of thousands of passionate fans to storm the track and unfurl a giant Ferrari flag beneath the podium.

In September 2001, deeply shaken by the terrorist attacks in New York, he tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a deal on the grid before the race with his fellow drivers whereby they would not overtake each other on the opening lap. A year later he was back, winning the race in forceful style and then weeping uncontrollably when told he had surpassed Ayrton Senna’s total of 31 Grand Prix victories.

This year he appears at Monza for the 14th time, the 10th in Ferrari colours. Such has been the calibre of his career, that he has been locked in a battle for the championship in all but four of those appearances here. Currently he trails Renault’s Fernando Alonso by 12 points with four rounds remaining.

Schumacher has been synonymous with Ferrari for so long, winning 70 Grands Prix and five world titles, that it is hard to imagine the team without him. It has been by far the most successful period in Ferrari’s 80-year history but this is an unsentimental business.

Four months away from his 38th birthday, he is faced with the reality that the team needs to look beyond him to ensure its future. McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen will be announced as a Ferrari driver on Sunday night. Ferrari had to act because although Schumacher could certainly offer them one more year, Raikkonen is available now. If they had missed him the team would have been faced with the prospect of having no proven world-beater for the long term.

Raikkonen’s arrival spells the end of Schumacher’s status as undisputed number one. Rather like Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair contemplating a joint premiership with Gordon Brown, Schumacher has been battling with the idea of sharing his team with a driver on his own level. The feeling in Italy is that after 10 years as undisputed top dog, he has found Ferrari’s proposal of a power share unacceptable and will announce his retirement on Sunday.

If he does so, it will be because he believes it would be a battle too far at the end of his career. It would be a first – Schumacher has never walked away from a challenge before.

If he defies predictions and decides to take Raikkonen on, then it will underline the essential quality that has made Schumacher unique as a driver – his thirst for ever greater challenges.

Few others in his position in 1995 as double world champion would have taken on the task of rebuilding Ferrari. Great drivers generally move to the best teams and a move to Williams-Renault, the team to beat at that time, would have been the more likely choice.

Schumacher took the less easy option and the sport has reason to be thankful as a resurgent Ferrari brand has been good for business. Although his total domination from 2002-2004 threatened to turn audiences off, on balance the advantages of a strong Ferrari have outweighed the disadvantages.

Schumacher has this week given little clue as to his intentions. Many close to him believe that even at this late stage he has still to make up his mind. Racing has been his life for almost 30 years and he has no other obvious outlet for his competitive instincts.

“I understand that the announcement arouses some interest,” said Schumacher on Thursday. “We have already made known it that the declaration will be made after the race as we want to focus on what is an important race.”

It is especially important for Schumacher because his ideal scenario would be to quit at the end of this season as world champion. A win this weekend, highly likely given Ferrari’s straight line speed advantage at Monza, would bring him closer to Alonso, especially if his in-form teammate, Felipe Massa, can finish second, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what the final three races might hold.

From the outside it might appear as though Schumacher is being bounced into making an announcement before he is ready. Perhaps the truth is more subtle. The search for clues as to Schumacher’s thinking begins and ends with analysis of those around him. Rumours have circulated all season that Schumacher’s closest ally, Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn, is to take a break from the sport. At the recent Turkish Grand Prix, Brawn made a Freudian slip, telling the press that the “new management structure will be announced at the end of the season”. So it will be a new structure, he was asked. “Not necessarily,” said Brawn hastily. Brawn has said in the past that having worked with Schumacher, to work with another driver would be an anti-climax.

Massa won his first Grand Prix in Istanbul and has been confidently telling friends that he will still occupy a race seat next season. Then there is Willi Weber, Schumacher’s manager, who said recently that Schumacher had enjoyed a great season and that it would be the perfect moment to retire.

Schumacher is by no means the whole of the Ferrari story, in fact merely a chapter. A fresh episode in the saga begins tomorrow with Kimi Raikkonen in the starring role.

James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead Formula One commentator

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