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|by Yamini Ayyagari|
The man and the champion
The final race said it all. He knew the odds were completely against him, yet that didn't deter him from giving his best, illustrated in the resoluteness he displayed throughout the race. Having started tenth at the grid due to technical problems in the qualifier, he very soon raced to the sixth spot and to the 4th position before he started to slide. A left-rear puncture saw him limp back to the pits and when he rejoined, it was in the 19th position. Those watching the race live - in person and on television - would have given up right there and then. But not this seven-times champion. He immediately picked up speed, flying by the slow-movers and was back at the sixth position in no time. His progress may have been slightly impaired by Fisichella and Raikkonen but for one last time the man showed why he was still a force to reckon with. Result - fourth position in a race that was to be his last hurrah.
Flashback to two weeks before - yet another warm, Sunday afternoon. The Suzuka track was abuzz with racing cars and he was leading the race way ahead of the others. The Drivers' Championship at this point of time was tied in points with the German leading by virtue of having won more races. Finishing the Japanese Grand Prix at the top of the podium would mean that he had more chances of saying goodbye as a champion. Everybody knew what this race meant - not only to Schumacher and his Ferrari team. I am sure even his critics wanted this for him. Fate deemed otherwise - 15 laps to go his car crashed, and as Schumacher emerged from the debris, every F1 fan around the world would have sighed in sympathy. This was not how it was meant to be - even Schumi knew it. As he slowly walked back to join his Ferrari team, one real long walk surely, it must have weighed down on him. But as he emerged, there was no sign of despair on his face. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders - as though this was all part of the game and meant nothing - and went about hugging every one in his team, comforting them, probably telling them that they had not really let him down.
At Sao Paulo last Sunday afternoon, Michael Schumacher showed the packed Brazilian crowd what it takes to be a true champion. The Brazilian Grand Prix was indeed a true testimonial to the champion's skill, grit, determination and will-power - traits that made him the best that there can ever be. Two weeks prior to this, the Japanese Grand Prix was a testimonial to the humane side of Michael Schumacher - a side a lot didn't believe existed, even as his Ferrari team always claimed that the brutal, never-say-die, raging to victory racer was not who the man actually was.
These two, to me, sum up the essence of Schumacher - the man and the champion.
It is truly ironic that I should be speaking about Formula One and a "brutal" champion called Michael Schumacher. As I was growing up, tennis was the only sport I ever evinced any interest in. The first time I heard about Formula One was because of a tragedy - the day Ayrton Senna died on the San Marino track. The sports pages of every newspaper were awash with the news and my interest was kindled. Who was this man, and what was this sport, I remember asking myself. Ironically, it was the same year that a brash, ambitious 25-year-old German went on to finish the season as the World Champion. He did it again the next season, ruthlessly quelling opponents one after the other.
My interest in Formula One is indelibly linked to the rise of Michael Schumacher, which ironically, was linked to the "final fall" of Senna, something that was often held against the eventual seven-time champion. Schumi continued on his journey to greatness through hard work, great talent and consummate skill, even as his critics maintained that his ascent meant little especially in the absence of credible challenge - an unreasonable argument, if you ask me. Schumacher shrugged the criticism and focussed on doing what he was best at - winning races on the track. In his very first season Schumacher won six of the first seven races, garnering 66 points (out of the possible 70). This was just indicative of the future course of things.
With the new millennium, my interest reached a new peak - I knew more about the cars and the drivers in the circuit than did my husband, a compulsive sports freak. I started to follow every race and also keep track of how each driver was doing. The same year, a new era also dawned on the Formula One circuit. In 2000, the German began his unbroken five-year stint at the top. In fact, the fate of the 2004 season was decided in the first half of the year itself - with Schumacher winning 12 of the first 13 races. His fame grew to mythical proportions as did the criticism levelled against him. His ruthlessness and rage for victory was held against him - they said he was less of a human. But what I saw on the tracks was this - a professional racer whose sole desire, when on the race course, was to finish at the top of the podium. "Victory is a great emotion. I drive for this reason. This is my goal.", Schumacher once said. Seriously, why would you actually compete if you didn't want to succeed?
In 2005, the champion had a particularly abyssmal year. He managed to win just one race in the season - the US Grand Prix that had degenerated into a farce after most teams pulled out of the race. He was even criticised for agreeing to race at Indianapolis and his win was derided. To me, that criticism smacks of contempt. Everything that Schumacher did, or didn't do, had to be catcalled or mocked. The way I see it - the other teams had chosen not to race and that was not exactly Schumacher's fault, is it? The fans treated 2005 as an aberration, while his critics called it the end of the road for the champion. The start of this season too was not truly idyllic for the German - his first win was only in the fourth race of the season. He followed up the San Marino victory with the European Grand Prix win. But then things began to slide. Alonso won the next four races, but at the US Grand Prix Schumacher showed why he cannot be written off as yet - he won the next three races on the trot, and by finishing at the top of the podium in Italy and China, he ensured that the Championship will not be decided till the last race. Schumacher may be on his way out, but he surely was not going to bow out silently.
Schumacher was undoubtedly one of the most talented drivers the circuit has ever seen. No other driver knew the cars they drove as well as he did; no one on the circuit could actually get the maximum out of the engine and steer it to the chequered flag again and again as he did; no one could manoeuvre the car on wet tracks on a rainy day as he did; no other driver could actually rally the entire team behind them as he did. I admired Schumacher for the brutality he got to the track and his compelling aspiration to win; and I also respected him for the person he was - one who believed he had a job to do and did it to the best of his ability; and off the track was the private person no one seemed to have access to. To me he was a true professional. Nothing illustrated this better than that Imola race in 2003 - just a few hours after he lost his mother, the man was out there on the tracks; he drove and he won. His grief was his own; his fans and the world deserved a race. And he deserved to win.
Most championship titles(7), Most consecutive championship titles((5), Most race wins(91), Most consecutive race wins(7), Most podium finishes (154) - Will Formula One be the same without Schumacher? I don't think so. Yes, there will be other champions and other drivers, but the German leaves behind a void. Schumacher seemed to naturally step into Senna's shoes, but I don't see any currently on the circuit who will fit into his shoes. Will my interest in Forumla One continue in the same manner? Again, I don't think so. Unreasonable though it may seem, my following of the sport was in some manner linked to this champion's career. He may leave the sport with magnificent achievements but with a reputation that divided the paddock. But to me, he was not only a great driver and a great race winner, but also a great entertainer and the greatest competitor in the sport's history.
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