Who doesn’t know Michael Schumacher? Everyone does. Even those who do not know know Formula1 or follow it regularly also know of him. He has almost all the records in F1 against his name with the exception of a few such as the highest number of pole positions. He is somebody who arouses extreme emotions among people. Some love him, adore him and swear that he is without doubt the greatest ever driver to grace the Formula1 grid. At the other end of the spectrum you find another set of people who hate him, swear at him and brand him a cheat who has used the most unfair of means to reach where he has reached. The first set cite his 91 victories in F1 and his seven world championships while the second set of people point out to his attempted taking out of Jacque Villeneuve from a race to try and win the world championship and his parking his Ferrari at an awkward place in Monte Carlo to baulk Fernando Alonso from taking pole position. They also point out that Schumacher never let his team mates have the same level of equipment as himself and that he always wanted to be number1 in his team. Losers like Rubens Barrichello who played second fiddle to him by their own volition then, now speak about what a horrible situation it is to be in, when a team designates someone as number2.
The amazing thing is that none of these stories or perceptions are apocryphal. Schumacher was all the things that are pointed out by his fans and his detractors. Despite the shortcomings of character that Schumacher suffered from, one can say without the fear of contradiction that Michael Schumacher was a very gifted driver who had nerves of steel and the determination of a predator when it came to motor racing and winning. In terms of ability Michael Schumacher was way ahead of the Damon Hills, the Jacque Villeneuves, the David Coulthards and even the Mika Hakkinens of Formula1 racing. All four named above won in cars designed by a genius called Adrian Newey, the first two at Williams and the latter two at McLaren. Michael Schumacher won his first world championship in an unfancied Benetton car that was running a Ford V8 engine while the all conquering Williams cars were running Renault’s exemplary V10 units. His second world championship had the Renault unit behind him but the definitely inferior Benetton chassis under him. Yet he won again. So the world said Formula1 was a Newey vs Schuey contest, where the genius of a car designer was pitted against the genius of a car driver. The driver triumphed.
But Michael Schumacher was no ordinary mortal. He wanted challenges and he wanted to prove that he was the greatest greatest. So when Ferrari that hadn’t won a race in a decade leave alone a world championship, asked him to drive for them, Michael picked up the gauntlet. While at Benetton he won a race at Jerez when his car was stuck in fifth gear, with pit stop and all. He repeated an almost equally incredible feat in his first season at Ferrari by winning in a Ferrari which was firing on anything between 7 and 9 cylinders out of the ten, in the rain at Barcelona and won himself the tag of Rainmeister. He also broke the Ferrari jinx of not having victories.
Schumacher’s talent and determination saw many of the team members at Benetton following him to Ferrari. The most important of them all was Ross Brawn. The British engineer was recognised as the most astute when it came to pit strategies and his presence on the Ferrari pit wall helped matters immensely. Rory Byrne, the South African born designer also went to Ferrari replacing the legendary John Barnard and in one year the prancing horse began prancing at the behest of Michael Schumacher instead of lying down contentedly. Ferrari transformed from being an also ran to the winningest team ever. Prior to Schumacher, F1 greats such as Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet had driven for Ferrari but none of them could transform Ferrari into the outfit that Schumacher made out of it. Schumacher’s cleanest world championships came at Ferrari and he had five of them there. Schumacher it was said could wring a car by its steering and make it do what he wanted it to while team mates such as Barichello and Massa were struggling with the same car. So when Schumacher announced retirement at the end of 2006, it was believed that the curtain had finally fallen on a great albeit controversial era in Formula1. Schumacher went out of F1 and into retirement with his head held high and his reputation sky high. A good story should have closed here. But that was not to be.
In the year 2010 Michael Schumacher flummoxed the world by doing the unthinkable. He came out of retirement and instead of going to his beloved Ferrari team he stepped into an all German Mercedes GP team. In 2009 the same team had run as Brawn GP after Honda gave away the team to Ross Brawn after they decided to quit F1 in 2009. Prior to that this team was BAR and funnily enough it was set up by Craig Pollock the manager of Schumacher’s arch enemy Jacque Villeneuve for Villeneuve after buying out Ken Tyrell’s eponymous team. The present Mercedes GP team has its antecedents in the Tyrell team of the past. The performances that Michael Schumacher dished out in the Mercedes car in 2010 and so far this season will make a rookie blush. In 2010 it was embarrassing to see Michael Schumacher losing track position to rookies such as Kamui Kobayashi, and his team mate Nico Rosberg seemed to be in a different league in a car which was not performing properly.
So the cascade of questions began. Why did Michael Schumacher return from retirement? Why did he chose to do so with Mercedes GP? What happened to his all conquering ability that could transform very ordinary cars into race winners? So did Michael Schumacher only win when things could be stage managed in his favour? The amazing thing about this world is that every question has an answer and sadly more than one answer and even more sadly none of the answers have any objectivity. His unfriendly rivals said “see we told you so” while his other detractors said “in three years F1 changed so much that Schumacher lost his ability to influence the FIA into doing things his way” and his fans said “Mercedes designed a stupid car” and the pundits said “the tyres in F1 changed too much for Schumacher” while other pundits said “Schumacher is too old and slow to race the young guns such as Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel”. None of these answers are in any sense real answers to the questions raised. And now we shall set off to tread where angels fear to tread and come out with objective answers to those questions.
So let us begin. Why did Schumacher come out of retirement? and Why did he chose to do so with Mercedes GP? Michael Schumacher was coaxed out of retirement by his old crony Ross Brawn. You may ask why? Here is the reason. Ross Brawn inherited a troubled Honda team as Principal and was later saddled with it as team owner who needed to quickly get rid of it in order to keep it viable. Enter Mercedes Benz. Mercedes Benz always wanted to take over McLaren and make it their own team. They had the biggest share holding in it. But the wily Ron Dennis did not want to hand over what he had built to Mercedes Benz. So he does everything in his control to keep the baying Mercedes at bay. He even irks them by launching a car development programme by keeping them out. For Mercedes the Brawn GP team looked like manna from heaven. It had just won its World Championship both as constructor and also for driver Jenson Button. So here was a winning team that was willing to be sold and Mercedes pounced on it. Then starts the dilemma.
What about the drivers? There was Rubens Barichello, a whiner and one who had rubbed Brawn on the wrong side by talking about how badly he was treated at Ferrari. As far as Brawn was concerned there was no place for Barichello in the team. He tolerated him for two years because in the first year Barichello was contracted to Honda and in the second when the whole existence of the team itself was in doubt Brawn was not in a position to pick and choose his drivers. But under new ownership things were different and so Barichello was gently led to the door, slowly pushed out and the door firmly shut on his face. And then what of Jenson Button? It took Button 113 Grands Prix to claim his first victory and that too at the Hungaroring in the rain where the attrition rate was very high. His first six wins in as many races in 2009 faded into oblivion as towards the second half of the season Button was barely just finishing races and finishing on the podium rarely in a car that was solid and reliable. He claimed the championship after a lot of huffing and puffing and was decorated with the sobriquet “weakest ever F1 World Champion”. So confidence in Button was not too high but his demands for salary were. So Button too is shown the door and he finds himself a drive at McLaren, ostensibly as number 2 to Lewis Hamilton, though all concerned made great attempts to say otherwise.
So team Mercedes GP needs drivers and good ones at that. Nico Rosberg was always considered to be as talented as Lewis Hamilton, maybe more but was stuck in the non-performing Williams team. So when his contract made him free to look at other opportunities he did so immediately and Mercedes found the first of its two drivers. But there was still a problem. While Rosberg was undoubtedly talented he had not yet won a race and Mercedes needed a winning driver to take the team forward. Scan the drivers and the picture presents itself. Fernando Alonso was contracted to Ferrari who bought out a lack lustre and greedy Kimi Raikonnen from his contract. Hamilton was a McLaren baby and there was no question of weaning him away from there. Sebastian Vettel was promising yet unproven and firmly contracted to Red Bull Racing. Literally there was no race winning driver available to Mercedes. So Ross Brawn pulls out his phone and calls old buddy Schumacher. “You actually retired too early you know. There is yet a lot of racing left in you. So what if you are pushing forty one, look how fit you are. There is a good paycheck also involved in this and you will love it all”. Those are obviously not the words that Brawn spoke but he must have said something along similar lines. Michael Schumacher ever the fierce competitor sees an opportunity to teach young turks such as Hamilton a lesson or two and put them in their place. He agrees. Mercedes agrees. A German team, with a German legend at the helm. Even the sponsors love it. Lo and behold, Schumacher is back and appearing and doing the opposite of Harry Houdini who usually disappeared.
But how is the comeback coming along? Every body including Michael Schumacher realize the fallacy of their thinking. Schumacher or the Mercedes car were in no shape to win. F1 had moved on in terms of its rules and while Schumacher was still fit and fast, the extra years and the three years away from the F1 grid meant that others such as Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and even Mark Webber were that couple of tenths per lap faster than Michael Schumacher. A couple of tenths per lap is the difference between day and night and Schumacher found himself dicing in the mid field which he never did before. Excuses were made and it was said that in 2011 Schumacher will find a car and rules to his liking and therefore he will comeback a winner. In the meanwhile Schumacher himself stopped talking about his eighth world championship and started talking about race wins. Now even that seems improbable. So what went wrong? The answer is nothing really. Everyone concerned overestimated what Schumacher could do by underestimating how much three years away from a sport can mean to an ageing driver. Schumacher drives fast but only fast enough for a place between seventh and tenth on a good day. Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years and found that the world had changed. It took only three years for Michael Schumacher to realize the same.
It could be said that what Michael Schumacher has been to Formula1, Valentino Rossi has been to MotoGP. The parallels are far too many to ignore. If Schumacher transformed Ferrari from a has been to the most coveted and successful team, Rossi did so with Yamaha. Michael Schumacher won a record number of seven world titles in F1 and Valentino Rossi won the same number in the premier class apart from two more in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Michael Schumacher rose to great heights and decimated legends on the way, so too did Rossi. Schumacher made F1 fans forget the greats that preceded him as did Valentino Rossi in MotoGP. Michael Schumacher wanted his team mates to have a less than equal status, something that Valentino Rossi also always wanted. Michael Schumacher has a mentor called Ross Brawn and Valentino Rossi has one called Jerry Burgess. Michael Schumacher took his team of people when he switched from one manufacturer to another and ditto with Valentino Rossi. Schumacher instilled fear in the FIA and race stewards and that is the case with Rossi and the FIM and race stewards. Schumacher was hated by his team mates and rivals as was Rossi. Schumacher seems to have destroyed his formidable reputation by coming out of retirement and Rossi seems to be doing the same by not retiring when he should have. Now that we have finished drawing an exhaustive list of parallels between the two legends let us get down to the business of understanding Rossi, just like we did with Schumacher. And yet again we tread where angels fear to tread and claim that we will throw up a story that is based in objectivity.
Valentino Rossi started young and with typical Italian style and flair. He took one year to learn the ropes of the 125cc class and the next year won the World Championship in that class. He then moved on to the 250cc class, took one year to acclimatize and won the world title in that class in the subsequent year. He did this on an Italian machine called Aprilia and was sponsored by an Italian beer company called Nostro Azzuro. He always raced with the number 46 even when he was world champion because he is superstitious and believes in that number because his father raced with it. Also it totals to one anyway, numerologically speaking. Each of his victories was followed by celebrations that were as spectacular as the victories themselves. The fans loved him, TV commentators loved him and even the next door girls’ parents loved him. It was always “Everybody Loves Rossi” (please excuse us Ray Romano for punning like this on your show). Well there was this one person who did not like all that much. He found Rossi very cocky and irreverent especially since he was Aprilia’s original favourite son who won multiple 250cc championships with the manufacturer. This man goes by the name of Massimiliano Biaggi or the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor found that his reign and his reputation very totally disrupted by this gangly lad called Rossi.
Just after he won his title with Aprilia in the 250cc category, Rossi found himself staring at an opportunity. The great Mick Doohan who was five times 500cc world champion had decided he had had enough. Mich Doohan was the man around whom the Honda legend was built just as Yamaha’s was built first around Kenny Roberts Sr. and later in a more pronounced way around Wayne Rainey. Rainey had made the Yamaha look invincible and was leading a world championship and a race at Misano when he crashed and became paralysed chest downwards. After that the Yamaha seat was never filled properly by anyone and Max Biaggi was riding for the works Yamaha team along with Rossi’s hero Norifumi Abe who later lost his life in a road accident. Biaggi could not and did not make any difference to Yamaha in a positive way. Neither could Loris Capirossi who tried the Yamaha for one season. Mick Doohan’s decision meant that Honda had to find a very capable rider, one who would continue the reign started by Doohan instead of going the Yamaha way. Rossi and Honda were made for each other at that point. Honda needed a rider who could keep them in the front and Rossi needed a ride that could keep him in the front. The first year of their togetherness was very akin to Rossi’s history in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Rossi learnt the ropes under the watchful eye of Jerry Burgess who was Mick Doohan’s crew chief and who had trained under the legendary Erv Kanemoto. The second year in the 500cc class and on the Honda, Rossi did what was now a part of a pattern. He won the world championship.
In another story in the Power Stroke column itself we have talked about the clout that Honda enjoys in GP racing and how it successfully changes everything including rules. Honda felt that the 500cc two strokes were meaningless in a world which was moving in the direction of environmental correctness and therefore was looking at reduced emissions. In the real world four strokes were the way forward and Honda felt that should be so in racing as well. What Honda wants, Honda gets and so the MotoGP category came into being. Five hundred cc two strokes paved the way for 990cc four strokes. Electronics also came into play. Rossi became number one and there was no challenge to him till such time that Daijiro Kato looked like a threat. Honda wanted to promote Daijiro, because he was Japanese and very rarely did any Japanese rider look like a world championship prospect. But unfortunately Kato died in a crash and Honda decided that it was time to slow down the bikes and shifted to an 800cc format. But before that happened Honda found that Valentino Rossi was becoming very demanding and Honda always puts itself first and so Rossi in order to keep his ego intact, went to Yamaha. Yamaha who were starved of victories did everything that the Rossi-Burgess combo ordered and in the process went on to become the most successful manufacturer in the 800cc era and more importantly Honda went rapidly backwards and did not yet win a title in the 800cc era as yet.. The only other manufacturer to win a title was Ducati. Yamaha realized that it cannot only depend upon Rossi and also that his team mate Colin Edwards was growing rather long in the tooth and was only producing less than ordinary results and so decided that it needed to invest in a younger rider for the future.
They found Jorge Lorenzo who was brash, tempestuous, arrogant and imminently dislikable, but pretty talented. In the very first year on the Yamaha Lorenzo went like stink. He crashed in practices, walked on crutches but ended up on the podium after races just like Lewis Hamilton did in his first year in F1. Rossi was not comfortable with the growing reputation of Lorenzo and the complaints started. First it was all about how he develops bikes and how Lorenzo benefits from that. As Lorenzo grew in stature and became a bigger threat, Rossi issued an ultimatum. Me or Lorenzo, choose. Yamaha was caught between the devil and the deep sea. On the one hand was Rossi the man who transformed Yamaha from a lost in the wilderness team to a consistently world championship winning one, but the man is now in his thirties and beginning to crack under pressure occasionally. On the other hand is Lorenzo growing in strength, younger but his development skills were yet unknown. Yamaha made a call and decided on Lorenzo and to invest in the future since Ben Spies who had won spectacularly in the rookie season of the World Superbike Championship was also contracted to them.
Rossi had successfully burnt bridges with Honda and now with Yamaha. Suzuki, the other manufacturer in the fray, it seemed had forgotten how to build motorcycles. Kawasaki came, saw and got conquered and had already run away, tail firmly between its hind legs. That left only Ducati. Ducati had always been an iffy machine, its only success truly coming in the hands of Casey Stoner who seemed like he could ride anything, anywhere, anytime. The Stoner and Ducati relationship too had developed problems and his mentor at Ducati, Livio Suppo had gone to Honda already, and made a case for Stoner. Honda bought that because Stoner seemed to be the only realistic possibility of fetching them an 800cc world title before it is wound up at the end of this year. Ducati’s other riders such as Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, Nicky Hayden and handful of others found the Ducati to be more than a handful. They had all failed spectacularly. Ducati’s only hope now was Rossi. So the brilliant Italian marriage happened in MotoGP, just like the German marriage in F1. Rossi is now finding out that the Ducati is not just more than a handful, it is more than his shoulderful as well. And Rossi is now hovering dangerously on the precipice that can destroy is formidable reputation. So far this season he has been saved and made to look respectable by other people’s misfortunes. Otherwise Rossi is comfortably behind the Hondas by a second and a half and some times even two seconds. Now the rules are changing again next year. Ducati is not a manufacturer with a lot of experience in GP racing. If they falter again, Rossi’s reputation will be in tatters.
So is this all Rossi’s fault? We say yes. Rossi should have understood that he was in no position to issue ultimatums to Yamaha. He should have reconciled to riding around on a Yamaha with Jorge Lorenzo having equal status. If that was too difficult to digest, he should have just retired from GP racing gracefully and gone into rallying, apparently a sport he enjoys. That would have looked like an ace motorcycle racer trying something new. But Rossi chose Ducati and this could end in tears, like Michael Schumacher’s return to F1 is threatening to. Schumacher was doing quite fine racing a Honda CBR in the occasional race in German Superbikes. But he chose to come back to F1. Now we have two legends who have the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging on their heads. They are most likely to come out looking second best from the decisions that they have made. But ultimately who knows. We shall wait and see.