October 25, 2006

Michael Schumacher - Wheel Power Par Excellence

H Natarajan

Formula 1 is left with a crater with the exit of the colossus – Michael Schumacher, the man Tiger Woods anointed recently as “The Greatest” sportsman of our times. The German’s final track appearance in his flaming red Ferrari came at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday. Schumacher did not win the race, but it’s a tribute to his genius that he tore through the field from last place to remain in contention for an eighth world title in what was the season’s final race. Schumacher missed the podium by a whisker, finishing fourth, but he was very much the focus as he left the track for the final time with an avalanche of records that will be hard to beat: 91 Grand Prix victories, 68 pole positions, 155 podium finishes including 19 in a row, 75 fastest laps, 7 consecutive race wins, 4741 laps leading - a total of 22,155 kilometers in 131 GPs, 1369 championship points, 22 hat-tricks (pole position, race victories and fastest laps) ….the staggering numbers roll on.

It’s beyond the comprehension of the average sports fan the toll on the body of a F1 driver – especially on a man just months away from his 39th birthday. F1 is taxing on the fittest as the sustained exposure to high G forces and temperatures costs F1 drivers to lose an average of four kgs after just one racing hour.

F1 machines are technological marvels. An F1 engine revs up to 18,000 RPM, with the piston traveling up and down 300 times a second. To appreciate what that means, cars like the Maruti 800 or Indica rev only up to 6000 RPM at max - three times slower, as I learnt from an enlightening and educative email from a friend on F1 cars.

But driving it also requires enormous skills besides granite will. When an F1 driver brakes his car he experiences retardation or deceleration comparable to a regular car driving through a brick wall at 300 kms per hour – not a comforting thought for the fittest of drivers who have to squeeze themselves tight into the cockpit.

There can be little argument that Schumacher took the sport to new frontiers. Even the worst of his detractors conceded that his presence took the competition to greater heights. Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion who was involved in a controversial crash with Schumacher, said of the German: "Brilliant driver though he is, I think he has not been good for the sport…I'm looking forward to F1 without Michael and hoping that we will see some real competition again between drivers within teams as well as drivers against each other in other teams." That was as nasty as one can get at a moment when a great champion was saying farewell to his sport.

Off the track, his smiling face may have choir boy-like innocence about it, but inside the Ferrari cockpit he was like a raging bull at the sight of a red rag. Schumacher is a ruthless competitor. For him winning was not everything - it was the only thing. And he did not hesitate to resort to methods that shocked purists. An example of that came in the season-ending Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide in 1994. Schumacher, who led Damon Hill by a point going into the race, collided with the Williams driver, forcing both of them out of the race in lap 31. But the crash ensured that Schumacher, then with Benetton, retained his wafer-thin lead to win his first world title.

That incident was not a one-off moment of madness. A similar stunt four years later - in almost similar circumstances for the world title - at the European Grand Prix against Williams’ driver Jacques Villeneuve backfired on Schumacher, now with Ferrari. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile promptly pulled up Schumacher and erased his second place from the championship.

Schumacher also shoved Fernando Alonso off track three years back at the British GP at Silverstone. The two were battling for the lead at speeds exceeding 190 mph when the incident happened. Its incidents like these that have not exactly endeared him to many in the fraternity and taken the sheen out as one of the greatest in the sport. And these are not just the only acts of unfair aggression by Schumacher, who did not even spare his own brother Ralf from such tactics.

Son of bricklayer, Schumacher rose to become the greatest money spinner in sports. He became the world's first billionaire sportsperson, with a reported annual earning in excess of $80 million. There is also a huge philanthropic side to Mr Richie Rich. As a special ambassador he donated US $ 3 million to the organisation. He has financed the construction of schools in Senegal, clinics in Sarajevo and rehab centre for street children in Peru. He also won hearts the world over when he donated £5m to the Asian Tsunami Relief Fund – believed to be the biggest single donation by any individual. It later came to light that Schumacher lost his bodyguard and his two sons who were holidaying in Phuket when disaster struck.

With so much money at stake and so high the risk the factor, he has to insure himself against loss of earnings, caused by accidents or loss of limbs that could prevent him from racing again, or even loss of life itself, like the accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imolo (Italy) where Brazilian Ayrton Senna crashed his deaths – a race won by Schumacher. The German is insured for several million dollars, including $20 million in the event of his career cut short by a major accident. Thankfully, for himself, the sport, the companies he endorses and the insurers, the only major mishap in his sporting career was when he broke his leg at the British Grand Prix in 1999 and was sidelined temporarily.

Sir Jackie Stewart, racing legend and three-time former World champion, for one believes that Schumacher’s greatest achievement is not in winning the seven world titles but in turning Ferrari into the best team in F1. Schumacher, who had won two world titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, joined Ferrari in 1996. The German turned Ferrari’s fortunes and helped them win their first drivers’ championship in 21 years. Ferrari’s stocks soared as Schumacher won the drivers’ championship for five successive years from 2000. He was at the peak of his prowess in this phase and in 2004 won a record twelve of the first 13 races of the season. As Schumacher leaves the sport, Ferrari is in a class of its own with clamoring fans saying, “Give me red!”

How good is Schumacher compared to the other greats in his sport? His 91 wins, for example, towers over Alain Prost 51 in second place. The record 1,369 points he accumulated is, again, way ahead of the man following – Prost with 798.5.

The exit of that magnificent man in his flying machine has left a huge hole in F1. As Mikka Hakkinen, a two-time world champion and a one-time rival of Schumacher, said: “What he (Schumacher) has achieved is something remarkable. I don’t think there will be a driver in the future who can beat that achievement for a long time, or maybe ever.”

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