Monza win sums up Schumacher's career

Updated: September 12, 2006, 10:04 PM ET
By Michael Kelley | Special to ESPN.com

It was somehow fitting that Michael Schumacher should announce his retirement from Formula One in a moment of victory colored by controversy.

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Doing so summed up the essence of a checkered career that is as well-documented for its unprecedented accomplishments as for its seemingly endless altercations with regulations and competitors.

The exact circumstances of Schumacher's departure seem clouded in politics and theatre, integral parts of his 16 years in F1 and his 11 seasons with current employer Ferrari. The appearance of a power struggle within the team and the injustice of a suspect stewards' decision all but overshadowed his victory at Sunday's Italian Grand Prix and again called into question Schumacher's place in the sport's history and the singular -- some might say favored -- status Ferrari enjoys within its hierarchy.

Love him or hate him -- and there is very little middle ground -- it must still be said: Schumacher was and is unquestionably the most talented, determined and accomplished driver Formula One has ever produced.

The likes of him will not be seen again. He turned the sport's record book into his personal encyclopedia and established standards for victories, driving titles, points, pole positions and laps led that are extremely unlikely to be surpassed.

His was an ability and a presence so superior that he didn't need outside assistance to win. That didn't mean he didn't get any. His place in F1 history will always be that of the flawed genius, and his legacy will always bear the asterisk of accomplishments achieved through shadowy machinations and the appearance of preferential treatment both on and off the track.

Schumacher's career was both spectacular and controversial right from his F1 debut, for Jordan at the 1991 Belgian GP. Qualifying in the top 10 on a track he'd never driven before, he drew the attention of the Benetton team and ended up driving for them at the next race in Italy even though Eddie Jordan claimed he already had Schumacher under contract. Jordan protested mightily against what he saw as piracy but to no avail, perhaps setting a precedent for future controversies.

In fact, infamous incidents have been so plentiful in Schumacher's career that they spring to mind as readily as, or more readily than, his greatest performances.

Which is more easily recalled, his exceptional car control in winning a soaking wet 1998 British GP or his accident with Damon Hill at the 1994 Australian GP that brought Schumacher his first overall season title?

Which is clearer in the memory, his brilliant second-place drive at the 1995 Portuguese GP with only fifth gear available or his exclusion from the 1997 championship for intentionally colliding with title rival Jacques Villeneuve? His standing on the podium in every race in 2001, or the odious 2002 Austrian GP, when Schumacher was handed an undeserved victory when second seat Rubens Barrichello was ordered to back off within sight of the finish line?

It seems in retrospect that his best-known maneuver besides his victory leap on the rostrum was a hard chop across the nose of his nearest rival on the starting grid.

As incident-filled as his races occasionally were, it also seemed Schumacher had as much contretemps off the track and that he got the better of most decisions regarding them. For example, he could easily have been thrown out of the 1995 championship for running what was deemed illegal launch-control software. Instead, he was let off the hook and won the title even though the FIA, F1's governing body, said it received no plausible explanation for that rules breach during the investigation that uncovered it.

It could be that Schumacher's competitive carte blanche stemmed from what his rivals perceived as a strong pro-Ferrari bias among the sport's powers that be, and that theory has been shown over time to have at least some merit.

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone has repeatedly expressed a desire to see Ferrari victories in interviews, as has FIA president Max Mosley; a proviso of the Formula One Concorde Agreement reportedly stipulates that every team pay Ferrari a stipend of $3 million per year to ensure the Scuderia's continued participation.

When on track, Schumacher enjoyed what appeared to be favorite-son status with race stewards as his career went on. A recent example came when he went unpenalized for passing a competitor by straightlining a chicane at this year's Hungarian GP, a clear rules violation that caused an outraged outcry among his fellow drivers.

Indeed, it seemed to take an egregious deed to draw a penalty, as at the Monaco GP in May, where he was remanded to the rear of the grid for parking his car on the track during qualifying, thereby obstructing Fernando Alonso's last run at pole position.

This weekend's gathering at the famed Monza autodrome near Milan served up more of the same, with a ridiculous penalty that smacked of politics doled out to driving leader Alonso by the stewards for allegedly blocking Ferrari's Felipe Massa during Massa's last qualifying lap. (The stewards somehow ignored the fact that Alonso was busting his tail trying to get his Renault back to the start/finish line to earn another qualifying lap before the session ended and that he was 100 yards ahead of Massa the whole way around.) Schumacher, who qualified second, benefited by not having to race with Alonso, who was stripped of his three (yes, three) fastest qualifying laps, demoting him to 10th on the starting grid from fifth.

All this came after the FIA ruled last month that Renault's mass damper system, which had been in use for more than a year, was illegal, doubly damaging its car's performance as it used the dampers both front and rear. The conclusion could easily be drawn that the system was ruled out precisely because it was so important to Renault's title aspirations; in the context of F1 history, the possibility of such a decision being made would not seem to be entirely out of the question.

Renault team principal Flavio Briatore intimated as much when he charged that this year's championships had already been decided around a table instead of on the track, while an annoyed Alonso said he was abandoning all pretense that F1 was a legitimate sport.

Shenanigans were also often the case where Schumacher was employed, with his teammates expected to defer to his status as No. 1 driver by following team orders at their own expense; still, he was not always gracious in return when it came to helping a teammate in need.

Eddie Irvine, perhaps the most talented driver to race alongside Schumacher, might have been the 1999 champion instead of Mika Hakkinen had Schumacher returned from an injury more quickly and supported Irvine's title efforts more wholeheartedly. Instead, there were reports of his unwillingness to aid Irvine's bid because he allegedly wanted the glory of being Ferrari's first driving champion in two decades instead of seeing the title go to Irvine.

Perhaps that sort of me-first-and-only behavior eventually led to a showdown between Schumacher and Fiat SpA Chairman Luca de Montezemolo over who was the real power at Ferrari, which leads to the question of whether Schumacher jumped off the team's bandwagon or was pushed.

De Montezemolo, not a man to be trifled with when his interests are threatened, was rumored to be behind a boardroom move to oust Schumacher, broadcaster Speed TV reported Sunday, while team principal Jean Todt supported Schumacher's return for 2007.

If that was the case, it would therefore hardly seem coincidental that Todt accepted the constructor's trophy on the podium after Sunday's win, while Schumacher apparently avoided de Montezemolo in the preceding parc ferme celebrations. The Fiat executive seemed to be trying, vainly, to make nice in approaching and embracing Schumacher, but his efforts looked fairly hollow after the driver's retirement announcement at the postrace press conference.

For his part, Todt, usually a happy man after any Ferrari win, looked positively ill at ease as the checkered flag flew, perhaps sick at heart at seeing possibly the end of an era. His own contract expires at the end of this year, and his return is by no means guaranteed if he went against de Montezemolo in supporting Schumacher.

Todt's departure would have repercussions throughout the team if Schumacher's exit hasn't caused them already. Vital personnel such as technical director Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne, who have worked with Todt as a unit since Schumacher drove for Benetton, would likely leave, as well.

That would leave Ferrari's freshly confirmed 2007 drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, in a virtual institutional-memory vacuum among what would likely be de Montezemolo's handpicked management replacements.

Meantime, Schumacher's career will draw to a close over the next three races as he pursues what appears to be another tainted title. When he's gone, some will miss his drive, his absolute commitment, mental toughness and the sheer joy he brought to the victory platform. Some won't miss him at all and will rejoice that the sport Schumacher helped bring to global prominence is finally rid of his overbearing presence.

Some will be torn between the two extremes.

Maybe there's some gray area after all.

Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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