Formula 1

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Matters of moment

Formula 1
As Michael Schumacher reluctantly calls time on F1, finding God might make life in the slow lane a bit easier. Well, it worked for Sir Jackie Stewart…

When Michael Schumacher gave his retirement address in the Monza pressroom he revealed that he’d only finally reached a decision after the US Grand Prix. It got me wondering how difficult it would have been for him to have given his best up until that point, with thoughts of retirement hovering but not resolved. At Monza Michael wasn’t up for discussing his retirement in any further detail. He felt uncomfortable enough about announcing it when he did, with three more races still to go, rather than at the end of the season. He was rather pressured into the timing of it by the Ferrari management, and was only thinly disguising his feelings about that: “The thing is, people were saying that it would end all the questions. But it doesn’t,” he said at Shanghai, “because it just leads to lots of new questions.”

Questions such as: how difficult was it giving your best early in the season before you’d made up your mind? But at Shanghai on Friday morning I had breakfast with probably the next best person to ask after Michael: Jackie Stewart. Among many, many other things, Jackie is remembered for the clinical way he closed down his own glorious F1 career: the oft-repeated story of how he told only three key people at the start of 1973, then went on to win the championship, only announcing his decision to the world two weeks after the final race. It paints a picture of decisive, clear-thinking calculation with no room for the ambiguity of tortured decision; a picture with a smooth, professional varnish very in keeping with his approach and driving style.

But it wasn’t quite like that, he revealed. And here’s where the story really gets fascinating. “I can quite understand Michael’s uncertainty,” he said. “Retirement was floating around in my mind from ’71. Even as I started the ’73 season I still hadn’t made up my mind. I actually came to the decision in early April and it was only then that I told [team boss] Ken Tyrrell, [godfather of the DFV engine] Walter Hayes and the Ford PR guy.

“Once I’d made my decision and told the key people, it was like a breath of fresh air, but soon afterwards I began to question how I could do without it. I got awfully down. I felt the need to talk it through with someone. There was an Anglican priest, Father Eastman, who was a big racing fan of the time — he was a good friend of Dan Gurney’s — and I saw him at Indy. He asked me if I’d been confirmed. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t attend church. He explained what it was, how you asked to be accepted by God and affirmed your belief in God. He had me down on my knees in room 109 of the Speedway Motel at Indy and confirmed me. It was like a revelation. I knew without reservation that I was doing the right thing in retiring, that I could still perform at my peak; that I was going to survive the season even though it was at a time when everyone was getting killed. Did I drive better after that? I don’t know. Certainly it put me in a better state of mind.”

Schumacher doesn’t have a spiritual guru — or if he has, he’s kept quiet about it. For him, there were two decisive points once the question started floating around his mind last year. The first was Ferrari’s strategy in protecting itself. From the moment he told them he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue, they immediately went out and secured the services of the best driver on the market — just in case. For although Räikkonen’s deal wasn’t confirmed until Monza, it was actually signed almost 18 months before. Räikkonen could be either Schumacher’s replacement or his team-mate. That then left Michael in the position of continuing beyond 2006 if he wanted to, but on very different terms to those he’d been used to. Kimi had been signed as equal number one: his management had ensured that.

So did Schumacher want to be partnered with the man some believe to be the fastest in F1? Michael addressed this point obliquely: “I knew that I had all the energy and motivation needed to be competitive at the moment,” he said. “But I can’t see I’m going to have that for further years. Getting older does not make that easier. To keep that for a whole year? I could not see I had this. I had no need to worry about [any other competitor], I guess, and I thought it would be nicer to stop at this point than when you are at the other end.”

The secondary point was that team-mate Felipe Massa’s future hinged on Michael’s decision. If Michael was continuing, Massa needed to know while there might still be some alternative seats for him. It was this that finally got Schumacher off the fence.

Tyrrell was never quite the same team again after Jackie retired. But Ferrari’s too big, too strong in depth, to fall into the same spiral of mediocrity following Schuey’s departure. Surely? That’s not quite how JYS sees it. “I think the most outstanding thing about Michael’s career hasn’t been his driving — I think he leaves the track too often for that — but how he has corralled Ferrari into the team it is. I don’t believe that’s been the work of Luca di Montezemelo or Jean Todt. I believe that’s down to Michael. It needs a certain tough arrogance to do that — and Ferrari has always been like that. The guys who’ve succeeded there have invariably been tough guys — Fangio, Lauda, Scheckter. Off the track they were just as tough as they were on it.”

So will Räikkonen — hard as nails out on the track — be part of this tough guy lineage at Ferrari? “He needs to be a seriously good communicator if he is to succeed there in the way that Michael has,” says Jackie. “I don’t know if he has that.”

Mark Hughes writes in Autosport magazine every week

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