The German is by no means the oldest driver to contest Grands Prix, but at least the likes of Fangio knew when to call it quits…
So Michael Schumacher is making a comeback to Formula 1. Some years ago – only half joking – Bernie Ecclestone told me, reflectively: “Maybe we have got it wrong. Perhaps it is too safe now. Drivers go on too long. They regularly used to get killed off, injured or frightened off, but these days they just go on and on…”
What perhaps bothered him in part was the fact that F1’s cast had become just too familiar, too stale. Certainly the public had got bored of the same old teams always running up front. Last season changed much of that, and now one of the most persistent of dominant players is bouncing back. Maybe it’s because, as Eddie Irvine maintained, Schumacher M has found no existence outside motor sport. Maybe he’s just keen – as the old bull put out to grass prematurely – to prove he can still prevail over the new kids on the Formula 1 block. Perhaps by mid-season we will either be gawping in even greater admiration of his enduring skills, or he will be in agony (Mansell style), realising that a comeback at 41 is a double-edged sword, and in his case one in which both sides are either blunt or tarnished. I really hope that doesn’t happen to him, but as a minimum it will be interesting to see if he actually completes the season.
One gets the impression that accepting any form of defeat is absolutely foreign to the seven-time World Champion. Of course, that’s precisely why the German is where he is.
Even in the inconsequential circus of the Race of Champions at Wembley in 2007, Schumacher apparently preferred to end his final losing drive in the barrier on the final corner rather than cross the timing line second. By definition it’s the semi-retarded driven psychology of any competitive superstar.
Thinking of which, when three-time World Champion driver Jack Brabham celebrated his 40th birthday at the 1966 Dutch Grand Prix, he famously donned a clip-on bushy beard, picked up a jack handle as a walking stick and tottered to his Repco Brabham BT19 (parked on pole position) before winning the race convincingly – his third GP victory in a row that year. When Graham Hill won his last Formula 1 race – the 1971 BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone – he was already 42 years old. Fangio, of course, didn’t even make his European racing debut until he was 37, he scored his first F1 race win at the age of 38 and his last – that stupendous 1957 German Grand Prix in the Maserati 250F – when he was 46.
As an Argentine national he was not one of the European cadre of racing drivers who had begun their careers pre-World War II, and had then lost at least five seasons of racing to infinitely more pressing activity. Jean-Pierre Wimille had emerged as the first post-war standard-setter, 38 years old in 1946, and was killed in his Gordini at Palermo Park, Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1949, aged 40. When Alberto Ascari took his place on top of the pyramid he was in comparison ‘nobbut a lad’, aged only 31. He of course became Grand Prix racing’s first double World Champion in 1953 (aged 35) and was killed in the Monza testing accident of 1955, aged 37. Compared to Ascari, Formula 1’s first World Champion, ‘Nino’ Farina, had been a real old warhorse when he won the inaugural title in 1950, aged 43.
For decades now F1 has been regarded as very much a young man’s game. Our intensely spoiled post-war generation tends to console itself with chatter of 40 being the new 30 and 50 being the new 40 (or perhaps 37?), and in Michael Schumacher perhaps we shall see whether the march of time really can be delayed by happy genes, physical fitness and enduring spring-steel psychological temper. There are certainly quite a few under-25s around dead set on showing the old fool the door. One is just concerned that should he find himself being rushed towards it he will revert to old habits, and a young lion will find himself being barged into oblivion… I’ll be intrigued to see how the present-day FIA stewards handle that one.
Superstardom is a tender mantle for some. At least Michael Schumacher has always worn his with calm and relative humility. Which reminds me of the Australian cricket team’s nickname for South African-raised England batting prodigy Kevin Pietersen. They nicknamed him ‘FIGJAM’ – standing (more or less) for ‘Flip I’m Good – Just Ask Me’.
Happily, I don’t think that in top-level Formula 1 we have quite seen that… yet.