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Michael Schumacher hangs up his helmet on Sunday after taking part in 250 grands prix meetings and building the most successful career in the sport’s history. This much is obvious.
What is less clear is Schumacher’s legacy. Is it that he led race driving to a new level of professionalism, fitness and commitment, beating the best of the young challengers deep into his 30s?
Or is it that he took Formula One to a new level of cynicism, where a driver has the right of veto over his team-mate, and influence over circuit design and rule making, – and if all else fails, he parks his car in the middle of the track or drives his rival off the road to achieve his goals?
There have always been two sides to the phenomenon that is Schumacher and he has always expended maximum effort on both sides. But both have the same end – winning, crushing the opposition wherever possible. The result reads like a balance sheet: 91 victories, 154 podium places, 68 fastest laps, 1,364 championship points, seven world driver’s titles.
Whatever your view, he is an iconic sportsman who has survived at the top for 16 years. He enjoyed great sporting battles, notably against 1998 and 1999 world champion Mika Hakkinen, battles which both men describe as “pure racing”.
This year, he has faced up to 25-year-old Fernando Alonso, the driver most like Schumacher the racer. He first spotted the Spaniard when he was a test driver at Renault in 2002. While many at the time were predicting that Juan Pablo Montoya would be the man to take his crown, Schumacher himself spoke privately of Alonso as the danger man.
Schooled by the same team manager and engineers as Schumacher in his early days, Alonso has many similar qualities. He is disciplined, hard-working and hugely committed behind the wheel. He is highly intelligent, so has plenty of spare mental capacity to think about his next move. And above all, he is highly adaptable, able to take problems in his stride without dropping his pace.
Alonso became world champion in 2005 and, after an intense, season-long battle with Schumacher this year, he goes into tomorrow’s Brazilian Grand Prix needing a single point to clinch his second consecutive title.
It has been a vintage season. We have regularly seen brilliance from both men, and the competitive advantage has swung between their Ferrari and Renault cars, largely because of the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin.
We have seen some outrageous reversals of fortune. At one point, in June, Alonso enjoyed a 25-point lead over the German but Schumacher staged a comeback in the second half of the season. At the same time, vital equipment on Alonso’s car was suddenly outlawed, harming his competitiveness. Then, at Monza in September, he was unfairly penalised for blocking Felipe Massa, Schumacher’s team-mate and also suffered an engine failure in the race.
The two drivers went into the penultimate race in Japan two weeks ago tied on points. Schumacher led Alonso with less than 20 laps to go when an engine failure, the first he had suffered in a race for six years, handed the win and 10 points to the Spaniard, skewing the balance very much in Alonso’s favour. To claim the title, Schumacher needs to win Sunday’s race with Alonso finishing out of the points.
There is still the constructors’ championship to drive for. Renault lead Ferrari by nine points, a fourth and a fifth place tomorrow would bring the French team both championships. Mindful of the dramas that have brought the race to this point, they are playing it safe, taking a conservative engine set-up to Brazil.
Alonso has shown on many occasions that he has the nerve for the big occasion. Last year he needed a third place in Brazil to clinch his first title and he duly delivered.
This season has marked a turning point in many ways for the sport. The long running dispute between the manufacturers on one side and the axis of F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, the governing body, on the other, has largely been resolved. The sport has a secure future and, thus reassured, new sponsors are beginning to pour in even more money.
Rather than watch Schumacher depart with the cherished number one plate, it is perhaps appropriate that Alonso should win the title since he is the right man to lead F1 into its new era. As a double world champion, he would give the sport a suitable new benchmark, possessing the gravitas and the calibre to ensure that F1 continues to be regarded as a competition of the highest level.
As for Schumacher, his overwhelming achievements and the pleasure he has given to millions vastly outweigh the negatives. Cynicism is the default setting in modern professional sport and F1, as the most monied of all, is perhaps most vulnerable to the charge.
Schumacher did things his way and it is unlikely that we will ever see anyone like him in the sport again, in every sense.
James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead commentator on F1