Nigel Roebuck

Legends: Retiring champions

It was with some surprise that we learned, last June, that Michael Schumacher had agreed to extend his Ferrari contract by another couple of years, taking him to the end of 2006, by which time he will be closing in on his 38th birthday.

Why the surprise? Because, should he see it through to full term, by then Schumacher will have completed 15 full seasons as a grand prix driver, two more even than Main Prost, whose career was considered unusually long.

Already Michael has set records for both wins and championships that will probably stand forever, and has enough money for several hundred years. One might have expected that the 2004 season would be his final one.

Schumacher says he still loves competition, and so long as that abides so also will his career. But in 2003, while world champion for the sixth time, and still the best driver on earth, he had to face the fact that the young Turks — Montoya, Raikkonen, Alonso — were closing in. Many doubt that he will in fact go on for another three seasons.

“One of the big secrets of this business,” Mario Andretti once said, “is knowing the right time to stop.” He was just past 50 at the time, and there were many who reckoned that already he should have called it a day, that he wasn’t quite what he had been. And he had been racing for 30 years, and his friends wanted to see him survive.

Andretti was aware of all that. “I know I’m not as fast as I was,” he said, “but I believe I can still do it. If I didn’t, I’d be gone. But it’s not easy to give it up, because I don’t know anything else.

‘The thing is,” he added, “it is tempting to go on, because to be a race driver is a wonderful life. On the other hand, I think some guys get out too early. They’ve made some money, quit early, then realised it wasn’t out of their system. Some they come back, and that I’d never do. When I retire, I retire.”

Some, like Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, indeed packed it all in at 30-something, at the height of their powers. In their case, it worked. Stewart claims he has never missed the driving, and Scheckter, like Jackie a world champion, left without a backward glance a year after winning the title.

“To me,” said Andretti, “guys like Stewart and Scheckter don’t really love this sport They got what they wanted out of it, and then quit. If they’d had a pure love of the sport, they wouldn’t have been able to give it up that easily. But it’s their decision, and at least they stuck to it. You know, when Mark Donohue quit, I said at the time it was too early for him, that he’d miss it. And, of course, he did, he came back — and he killed himself.”

Donohue is something of a forgotten figure now. He excelled in Can-Am sportscar racing, and was also — like Andretti — an Indianapolis 500 winner.

At the end of 1973 he retired, but by ’75 was back, this time as an Fl rookie. At the Osterreichring, during the race morning warm-up, he had a tyre failure and went over the barriers.

If only rarely has a driver’s comeback ended in death, then not often has it been a complete success. Alan Jones, for example, was world champion in 1980, and retired at the end of ’81 in dream style, after winning for Williams his ‘final’ Grand Prix, in Las Vegas.

‘Retirement’ can be a relative term in motor racing. What Jones wanted, he said, was to go home to Australia, relax, maybe race touring cars. And that was what he did.

Unfortunately, though, he didn’t leave F1 completely alone. At the start of 1983 he drove a few races, not for a Williams or a Ferrari, but for the no hope Arrows team. It was not a success. Apart from anything else, he would now no longer be remembered as that rare man who had left racing from the top step of the podium.

The great exception to the comeback rule was Niki Lauda. At the end of a practice session at Montreal in 1979 he drove into the Brabham pit and announced to team owner Bernie Ecclestone that he was retiring.

Lauda being Lauda, that meant not at the end of the season, but now. “I’ve come to realise,” he said, “that there’s more to life than driving round in circles.” By mid-afternoon he was on a flight to California, and Ricardo Zunino was in the car, in Lauda’s overalls.

For the next couple of years Niki gave all his time to his fledgling airline. But, as Andretti said, he had stopped too soon, his passion for driving not yet quenched, and by the winter of 1981 he was receptive to an approach from Ron Dennis to return.

Through 1979, the year of his withdrawal, Niki was routinely outpaced by his apprentice team-mate, Nelson Piquet Thus there was a widespread suspicion that his return would not prove a good idea. The doubters were soon disproved. At the Long Beach GP, only the third race of his comeback, Lauda’s McLaren won, and decisively.

The 1982 season was among the most cataclysmic the sport has known, with two drivers losing their lives. But it was a highly competitive one on the track. If no driver, remarkably, won more than two grands prix, Lauda also dominated at Brands Hatch, and eventually was fifth in the points.

The following season was not a success, however. McLaren didn’t have a turbocharged engine, and Lauda scored only 12 points from the 16 races. But he was confident that better things lay ahead, and he was right. What McLaren had coming was a turbo V6

from Porsche, an engine purpose-built to fit John Bamard’s new MP42 design.

If Niki had a worry for ’84, it was that new team-mate Main Prost was intimidatingly quick. But Niki, while unable to match him on sheer speed, was always second in races Prost won, and first when he had problems — which he did more often than Lauda.

Thus, although Prost won more races, it was the toothy Austrian who went to the deciding race with a points lead, knowing that another second place to his team-mate would make him world champion — by precisely half a point. And that was the way it turned out. At Estoril, Lauda took the title for the third time.

As a success story, Lauda’s comeback is unique in the sport’s history. True, Prost himself returned to win the 1993 world championship after a year away, but on that occasion it had simply been a sabbatical, a bit of breathing space after a dozen years on the road.

So how will Schumacher play it? One important difference between days gone by and now is that racing used to be incomparably more perilous, and there was a much greater sense of ‘get out while you can’. True, we had that dreadful weekend at Imola in 1994, when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives, but by then a dozen years had gone by since the last fatality at a grand prix, and there has been none since.

“Okay,” said Martin Brundle, “in the back of a current Fl driver’s mind is the acceptance that he might get hurt, but 20 or 30 years ago it must have been right at the front of your mind. It isn’t for the current drivers: these days it’s possible to have an almighty accident and step out of the car. And that registers. There isn’t this idea of retiring while you’re still in one piece..

Still, there is a right time to stop. Ideally, as Andretti suggests, it is while you are still enjoying it, still doing justice to your name and reputation. It was a painful thing, at Monaco in 1975, to watch Graham Hill fail to qualify for a race he had won five times.

In the early ’90s, I talked with Brundle about Senna, and how long it would be before Ayrton was no longer quite the force he had been.

“You and I will never see it,” Martin replied, “because he’ll know it before anyone else — and as soon he does, he’ll quit immediately.” One suspects it will be just that way with Schumacher. 171