Friday, September 08, 2006


Tomorrow, the Italian Grand Prix week-end starts at Monza.

Not only do we get another round of the 2006 Alonso vs Schumacher Show, it’s also, or so the media have hyped it up to be, the time when Schumacher announces to the world whether this is his last season in Formula 1.

He really is a strange character. Without doubt, by a country mile, the best driver we’ve seen for the last 10 years, and possibly a lot longer. He is an undoubted genius at the wheel of a racing car. But on the basis that “The Lord Giveth, and The Lord Taketh away”, there has been a stream of occasions over the years, when all you see of the man are his feet of clay. At the very least, you can say that it always makes watching his continuing progress interesting, but on the other hand, it can seem that some of his antics push him off the topmost rung if you ever try to compile the “The Best Driver Ever” list.

He’s now, at 37, by quite a margin the oldest driver on the Formula 1 circuit, and yet his mental drive and physical fitness still leave all his fellow drivers fighting for second place. You can only marvel at whatever it is that makes him still so absolutely focussed on winning the Driver’s Championship yet again. It can’t be money. The idea of him needing the 307th Million pounds he will soon be putting into his Bank account simply doesn’t make sense.

I think it’s a straightforward case of personal arrogance and desire for everlasting domination in his chosen profession. You just don’t become a Grand Prix Racing driver, if you are a shrinking violet. They’ve all got egos the size of a small county, or in his case, Länder. And I think it’s the desire for domination, almost at all costs, over his fellows, which sometimes results in his less pleasant actions appearing. His seemingly deliberate collisions with Damon Hill in 1994, and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, his stopping across the track at the end of practice for Monaco this year, are all major issues which make you question his personal integrity and balance in a sport where foolhardy acts can result in injury and possibly death. It doesn’t happen very often, but the issue is whether it should ever happen at all.

In spite of this, he’s a truly great driver. Yes, he often has the best car, but equally often he doesn’t, and his racecraft, his intellectual reading of a race, his ability to bang in a series of amazingly fast laps just when they are needed, are the marks of a true genius.

Will he quit?

Good question. Even for someone as pivotal in the sport as Schumacher, there comes a time, and it’s now, when he has to “put up or shut up”. He’s centre stage of a Billion Pound industry, and the manufacturers and the sponsors need certainty in order to plan for next year. So, he needs to decide now, and the decision is actually very finely poised. If he was way back in the Championship, I could easily see him throwing in the towel. There’s no fun for him in grimbling around as a Bit-Player. If he had won the championship already, making 8 in total, I suspect he would say “OK Guys, if any of you can get to Nine, you’ll have played a blinder, so, I’m off”.

But it’s not like that. This year, the Championship is a real and genuine fight. German against Spaniard. Ferrari against Renault. New against Old. Alonso against Schumacher. And it is totally and genuinely unclear who will come out on top. So Schumacher must make his decision before he really wants to.

I think he will stay on. The risk that he will only end up with seven Championships will, I believe, be the nagging point in his mind. It’s not enough. He knows he will probably be up against Raikkonen as a team-mate in 2007. In Martin Brundle’s words – “That will keep him honest”. Raikkonen is, along with Alonso and Schumacher, one of the three best drivers today. It will be quite fascinating to see Schumacher in a team alongside a real driver like Raikkonen, rather than the guys like Massa and Barichello, who are clearly employed as Rear Gunners for the German. There is no way that Raikkonen will do the same, and the thought of Schumacher fighting one of the next best drivers, in the same team as himself, makes one really look forward to 2007. I don’t think Schumacher would disappear from the Grand Prix scene, looking as if he had chickened out on this.

If he ends up winning this year, then that would be 8, and if he could stuff the Finn next year, that would probably be 9, and that’s a real way to burn a hole in the record Books. Besides, the act of doing that would lead to him winning more that 100 Grand Prix, and that’s so far ahead of anyone else that I think, inwardly, he’s after that record as well.

So my money’s on him staying. He looks keen to be up for it. We’ll see over the week-end.

But back to the beginning – Good, no Great, though he is, he’s not the best ever. That accolade belongs to - actually that’s the subject for another day.

Watch this space!

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