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Michael Schumacher’s decision on whether to retire, and when to do it, became a media circus. Was it always this way with the great drivers? Rob Widdows followed the legend through his last racing weekend, and compares that event with some other famous…

Patrick Head watched the Japanese Grand Prix from the comfort of his armchair at home. He was struck by Michael Schumacher’s behavior after Ferrari’s V8 blew up while the German appeared to be heading for another championship.

“It was the handshakes and the hugs with the team,” said Patrick. “We’ve had many champions in our time at Williams and I can’t think of one who would have done that.”

Had Williams, I wondered, ever tried to secure the services of Schumacher? “Not that I know about, at least Frank never told me if he did. I think, when it came to talks about salary, Frank would have looked like he was sucking on a lemon.”

To Sao Paulo, then, and the man himself is less than 100 hours from completing this chapter of his life. Michael Schumacher walks briskly through the Transamerica Hotel, smiles for the staff and nods for the well-wishers lining his route. No branded clothing, save for the red baseball cap. The gait is relaxed, almost jaunty, as the man heads into the final grand prix weekend of his life. 

He is on his way to the Teatro Alfa for a press conference, the first of many in his diary, this one hosted by Shell. Schumacher waits in the wings while Felipe Massa fields a last few questions from the media. He looks ready. For anything.

On stage, in a barrage of flashlights, he barely blinks, waiting patiently for questions to be translated. A wide ball makes him stiffen, smile gone. “No, I did not go to that place,” he answers curtly in response to a whispered translation inquiring if he had visited Senna’s grave at nearby Morumbi the previous day. The subject is dropped.

But the smile returns when a plastic tortoise is passed through the audience to the stage. He removes the red cap and places it on the tortoise. This moment is the result of a question about his Brazilian team-mates, in particular Barrichello, who is perceived to have always been slower than Schumacher. The man makes no comment on his colleagues but it sets the tone; he is no longer on his guard.

“I don’t know what I will be doing in the future,” he says. “I am in the fortunate position of not having to make a decision in a hurry. I don’t have to have a vision, I’m looking forward to new opportunities. Let’s see what comes along, I’m relaxed.”

Any regrets? “There’s no point making a decision if you then change your mind.” Quite so.

The parting shot is good. “I will try to win the Constructors Championship for the team. The rest is fate. Enjoy this last race. Thank you.” And he’s gone. There are still TV interviews to be done.

There will be many more appearances and conferences before the race starts, but the message is clear. He’s relaxed, and that should send shivers through the grid. In this state of mind, we know, he can drive like a god. Michael, when not uptight, does not make mistakes.

Over the decades there have been many such farewell weekends, but so many have been without drama, without this expectancy, a world championship so finely in the balance. So often our heroes have petered out, slid into the pits or crossed that final line somewhere down in the points. 

In the beginning, at least since a world championship was invented, it was Juan Manuel Fangio’s retirement that caught the attention. Like Schumacher, he had nothing to prove any more, it was simply time to let it be. The great Argentinian said his farewells at Reims in 1958, where he came in fourth, having lost the clutch half way through the race. He had set a standard for every grand prix driver to follow. Fangio retired in mid-season, reasoning that he’d started at Reims in 1948 and it seemed right to end it there as well. “What value would another title have had for me?” he said. “It is time for me to disappear, but do not think it is easy.” He had many offers to return but never did, saying he’d devoted the best years of his life to racing. Would anyone ever manage five world titles again?

Back in Sao Paulo Schumacher prepared for his final Friday free practice session. Before coming down to the team he spent time alone on the helipad above the crowded paddock. Talking into his mobile telephone, he stared out across the circuit, a straight-backed red figure against the blue sky. For a few minutes he stood there, on top of his world. Then he came down, walked quickly to the garage, eyes straight ahead, no autographs, no pleasantries with the girls who wanted a photograph. Back in his element he talks briefly with Todt, watches the TV monitor. The session is underway but Ferrari remains unmoved. Neither Massa nor Schumacher set a time in the morning. In the afternoon Michael is sixth-fastest, fractionally shy of Button but ahead of the rest. Saturday will be the day that answers at least some of the questions that are buzzing around the media centre, the paddock and the garages. But first another press briefing, this time just 10 minutes up against the red wall behind the Ferrari pit. He says he has “no concerns, no special feelings”. He’s here to win for the team. Sure.

Retirements all have a particular resonance, none more so perhaps than the day the King of Monaco abdicated after failing to qualify for the grand prix in May 1975. Graham Hill had won this race five times, but even he could not coax the Hill-Cosworth GH1 onto the grid that afternoon. A fist in the stomach for a man who had reigned supreme in the Principality since 1963. By this time Hill was running his own team and had young Tony Brise waiting in the wings for the ’76 season. He simply gave up the driving and knuckled down to making a go of the team that bore his name. Then later that same year both he and Brise, along with team manager Ray Brimble and two mechanics, died when their plane crashed on the way home from testing at Paul Ricard.

Saturday dawns bright and warm. The Bridgestone boffins began sliding their temperature gauges into the ashphalt. Meanwhile Sabine Kehm, Schumacher’s ever-smiling personal assistant, faces another day of telling all and sundry that she did not know exactly what Michael would be doing in the future and no, she did not think he would like to do an interview today, or tomorrow or even in the immediate future. Sabine exudes capability, standing firm in the scrum that constantly presses up against the fragile privacy of the Scuderia’s hospitality area with its red chairs and tables, red flowers and smart guests with tiny enamelled prancing horses on their jackets. She smiles a lot, defends the Schumacher corner politely and explains for the 78th time that her employer will speak again in the afternoon, same place, at about the same time. I ask, again, if the man might be ready to talk during the winter. “No, really, he will not do this,” Sabine repeats. “He will take some time away from racing and from the media.” I tell her that his manager Willi Weber says the man might consider an interview. But she’s better, quicker than that old ploy.

On track, it’s time for final practice, and Ferrari is ominously fast. Massa goes quickest with Michael next up. This is looking good for the man facing, yes, His Last Ever Grand Prix. A red front row looks almost certain and a quietly confident but strangely downbeat Ross Brawn joins the drivers for today’s mayhem-with-microphones behind the pits. You can just make out the red hats behind a quivering wall of cameras and tape recorders. “The car is very good,” the man says. “The tyres are working well. I have a good relationship with Felipe, we will do our best, we will race for the Constructors title. I don’t want to win with the others (Alonso) retiring. Let’s see what happens. I feel no different this weekend.” Really?

Into qualifying then, and the team leader bangs in a stunning 1.10.313 in Q2. Only he and Massa are below the 1.11 mark. Then all hell breaks loose. Out he zaps for Q3 and comes immediately back in, parks it, set upon by red overalls. There’s no fuel pressure. He will start 10th on the grid, with Massa on pole and Alonso fourth. All scripts are ripped up, in the bin. “Probably be one of those races,” remarks the veteran writer Alan Henry. “They’ll all drop out and a Toro Rosso will win.” This wry humour from a man who’s seen it all relieves some of the tension in our little enclave of a press room where every kind of outcome is being predicted, analysed and taken apart.

How different from the retirement – the first one, that is –of Niki Lauda. Having won his first title in 1975, this most intriguing and intelligent of Austrians not only rose from the ashes of that dreadful shunt in ’76 but then won a second title a year later in 1977, again with Ferrari. So here’s a man who knows about Ferrari and about retirement. And none of us can forget the style in which he chose to walk away without a backward glance in 1979. Two years earlier he strode out of Ferrari, having announced his intentions before Monza and then, when his mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi was sacked, he just walked out with two races to go, the title in his pocket. He joined Brabham, had some good races in ’78, notably with the fan car, and then did his thing all over again. At the Canadian Grand Prix, with two races to run, he dumped his overalls and gloves in the pit, walked away and said he was off to start his own airline.

Hard to imagine this occurring in 21st century Formula 1, and even harder here in Brazil where Schumacher is playing out every last second of this highly emotional weekend, his every move scrutinised by a world which, excepting Alonso, is willing him to win this one last battle. If truth must be told, most wanted him to win the race and lose the championship. There are two camps when it comes to Schumacher, always have been. He’s aware of this, long ago sensing that the British media is not always marching to his tune.

Emotions ran high, too, when Alain Prost retired. On both occasions. The first one in 1991 came at the end of a terrible season with Ferrari that culminated in the Scuderia sacking the Frenchman after the Japanese GP on account of his criticism of the team structure. These were very different days at Maranello, and Prost failed to score a single win. He walked away from Suzuka an unhappy man. The second one came at the end of 1993, leaving as World Champion but embroiled still in open warfare with Senna, the FIA and the media. His arrival at Williams had sent Mansell packing and when, at Estoril in September, Prost discovered that Senna was to join Frank’s team for 1994 he announced his retirement. The next day he took the world title, finishing the race in second place less than a second behind… Michael Schumacher.

Sunday in Sao Paulo is hot, the sky is blue, the grandstands are swaying to the samba and all is set for the Big Man’s last hurrah. Can he win from 10th on the grid? Yes, he’s done it before, at Spa. Can he win the title? Will Alonso be taken off? Questions, questions. Schumacher arrives early on race day, sneaking in under the radar and dressed in civvies, no red gear to draw the masses. Anywhere but behind the red walls of Ferrari’s garages is a no-go zone for this, his last day on the planet he has ruled for so long. Quick trips to the loo, just 20 metres from his cave, are hazardous. Girls in very short skirts want their picture taken with him, tape recorders are waved under his nose, cameras record his every move. He looks chilled, but how can he be? He smiles at those he knows, wafts past those he doesn’t. What can be in his mind? Halfway down the grid is not in the plan, not at all. We may be about to witness one of his masterpieces, head down, revs up and give it everything. He has that look about him on Sunday that says: “I don’t know there is a God but I sure do believe in God. And I believe in me.”

Just as it was with the mighty Ayrton Senna in the 1980s and into the ’90s. Until Michael, Ross and Co came along with their Benetton. The Brazilian, who came from Sao Paulo, had this aura, this extreme confidence in his own exceptional gift. How tragic, how wasteful, that he was never to enjoy a farewell weekend from the sport he dominated with such artistry and vigour and not a little mystery. Those close to him say he had considered retirement, had begun to feel some tension about the dangers. The men he’d conquered had all retired unscathed and enriched, there was news of a rapprochement with Prost, the incredible McLaren years were closed and surely Senna had broad and thoughtful plans for his retirement. Somehow it seems poignant here at Interlagos, more so since his nephew Bruno has arrived in the paddock, carrying a more than passing resemblance to that unmistakable profile. Yet Senna will always be revered, and that’s not true of every champion. Some have clinched it, stayed too long and simply fizzled out. But Senna was, above all else, a racer. He loved the racing, just like the man about to tackle his last.

Before the start Michael accepts a trophy from Pele. Then it’s into the car, warm-up lap, lights out and go for anything that even resembles a gap. Winning today was a real possibility, and he dealt with the immediate intruders in short order, helped by the demise of both Toyotas. Next up is Fisichella. Down the main straight and into the first corner, breathtakingly late on the brakes, he chops in front of the Renault, throwing the Ferrari down the hill, hard over the kerbs, hunting down his next victim. But something is not right. The red car slows, beginning to squat down on a punctured rear tyre. He would have walked it, been on the plane home before the rest had finished. But of course he gets it back to the pits and now the masterclass really begins. From 19th place Schumacher swats them out of his path, finally bearing down on Raikkonen. The retiring man and the coming man are side by side into the first corner, the grandstands are trembling, people are screaming with excitement. Next year’s Ferrari man gives the Big Man an inch and Schumacher squeezes through into fourth. You can almost feel the aggression of the champion on his final day. It’s been a stunning drive but there are no laps left, and he will end this extraordinary era in parc fermé while Massa celebrates his win, while Alonso soaks up another championship.

Much later, in the dusk, he appears from the garages for one last duty with the patiently waiting media. He looks just a little deflated. “A great end to the season in terms of car performance; we had the pure speed to lap everybody. But, for me, it didn’t work out well.” The team didn’t seem sure whether to laugh or cry, celebrate or commiserate. Ross Brawn, so crucial an element in the Schumacher supremacy, looked underwhelmed, not exactly ecstatic, on the verge of his sabbatical. Michael’s wife Corinna, waiting patiently for all this to end, said she was pleased to be going home.

Like Fangio, he has devoted some of the best years of his life to the sport. To get the racing out of his system will be a painful process, and there will be those who try to tempt Michael Schumacher back into the cockpit. His old adversary Mika Hakkinen, who retired saying he wanted to spend more time with his family, thinks that there will be a second coming, though in what form he is not sure. The man himself does not have an answer to this question, saying only: “There are a lot of questions I don’t have answers to.” That in itself will be something of a luxury for him in the coming months.

There is a feeling that Schumacher has won the battle but lost the war. Like a footprint in the sand, his space will be quickly filled. Grand prix racing is a constantly, and rapidly, shifting landscape. For most of us Brits our sense of fair play stops us from adoring this world champion. There was just too much diving in the penalty area. But to watch him race, now that was exciting.

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