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Friday, September 15, 2006

Michael Schumacher - A Champion who divides opinion

The best ever in Formula One?
Michael Schumacher will retire as a multiple drivers' world champion, a man of achievements and unequalled statistical records, but dogged by controversy fuelled by his most unforgiving critics.

At 37, he has raced in 247 Formula One Grand Prix, 178 of them for Ferrari, won 90 races, 71 for Ferrari, taken 68 pole positions, 58 for Ferrari, and set 75 fastest laps on his way to seven drivers' world titles, including five for the Scuderia.

By the end of the season, he will have taken part, all being well, in 250 races, six short of the record set by Italy's Riccardo Patrese.

It is the only significant record in the sport that he will not hold when he departs. But many critics believe, as the 1997 Champion Jacques Jacques Villeneuve said in vehement fashion recently, that he is a flawed champion, a man whose records do not just a reputation that claims he is the greatest of all time.

Too many controversial incidents have punctuated his time at the top, too many accidents, incidents and allegations of wrong-doing, including rumours that in 1994 and 1995 when he won his first titles with Benetton, that the team had an unfair advantage.

All of this has thrown shadows, but none of it should go anywhere near reducing the brilliant light created by his talent and his ability to win Formula One races in a style that he has stamped on the imagination of a wide sporting public.

No wonder thousands of the Ferrari team's red-bedecked tifosi stood on the asphalt of the Autodromo Nazionale to cheer him to the end after his 90th victory and his fifth at Monza.

It will be his last victory on European soil as he embarks on the scrap for an eighth title in the final three races of the year in China, Japan and Brazil.

But as the Italians celebrated his victory and his career, others scoffed. It has been this way since the early days due to his reputation for defending with aggression, sometimes forcing other drivers off the circuit and leaving no room for error.

His critics talk of his questionable racing ethics, but his admirers talk only of his virtuoso racing. As a result, he is a question of magnificent achievements but with a reputation that has divided the paddock.

Purists argue that he should not be included in the pantheon of greatest racing drivers alongside Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark or Stirling Moss, widely described as the greatest driver never to win the championship.

But the records speak for themselves and Schumacher will be remembered for his competitive instincts, his professionalism, his fitness and his relentless run of successes in the era that followed the 1994 death of Ayrton Senna who was, arguably, the man who introduced bruising and aggressive tactics to the tracks of Formula One.

Schumacher's catalogue of alleged misdemeanours included a collision in Adelaide at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix where Briton Hill was forced to retire and so Schumacher lifted his first title, another in 1997 when he collided deliberately with Jacques Villeneuve, but lost out and not only failed to win the title, but was punished for it too by the sport's ruling body.

He was also accused of cheating earlier this year when he left his car on the fast line ahead of Fernando Alonso's Renault in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix.

In short, Schumacher, though gifted with speed and other sporting attributes, is a bad loser who has mellowed as he has grown older.

And the reason he has chosen to retire at the end of the current season is as much because he is in danger of being beaten for sheer speed by younger rivals as it is any other.

Notably, this son of a bricklayer from Kerpen, near Cologne, has become the first German winner and champion in the history of Formula One. A family man, he has had little to do with the so-called glamour of the sport apart from being one of the drivers' leading spokesmen on safety and playing for their football team.

He has little idea of what he will do when he retires - but it is certain that he will play some role as an ambassador for Ferrari. It was with a sense of theatre and perfect timing that he announced his retirement at Monza for it was here in 1991 that he was revealed as a Benetton driver after a secret overnight 'transfer' from Jordan on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix.

An eighth title to add to the previous seven now beckons. It would be a sixth for Ferrari. But not even that will overshadow the fact that in Michael Schumacher, Formula One had not only a great driver and a great race winner, but also the most complete competitor in the sport's history.


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