SUZUKA, JAPAN // It was not what the countless Japanese fans dressed in Mercedes-GP team shirts would have wanted. Michael Schumacher, having confirmed his imminent retirement on Thursday, yesterday provided the enthusiastic spectators a wave and a smile, but then proceeded to slam his car into a safety barrier.
Schumacher's error towards the close of second practice was characteristic of the recent incarnation of the seven-time world champion, who came out of retirement in 2010. It will also compound the critics who proclaim the German's reputation has been tarnished since he returned to the sport he once dominated.
As he approached Spoon Curve, his right wheels found grass and his car spun before sliding at pace into the wall.
"I had to go to the Medical Centre which was a precaution from the FIA, but I am 100 per cent okay," Schumacher said. "I think I was already concentrating too much on the corner ahead of me and therefore had a wheel on the dirt and went off."
The shunt was almost a carbon copy of a similar incident involving Force India's Paul di Resta earlier in the afternoon session. The Scot, who was yesterday linked with Felipe Massa's seat at Ferrari by Italian newspaper La Stampa, hit the grass at 100mph and careered into the barriers, ending his session.
"Unfortunately, I made a mistake quite early on and was probably a bit too ambitious," Di Resta said. "I found myself with my two right side wheels on the grass and lost grip on the loose dirt. It's a shame it had to happen so early in the session and it creates extra work for the guys."
Di Resta would have been looking to impress as vacant race seats disappear.
Ferrari remains an outside chance and Sauber's vacant seat would arguably be seen as sidestep, but will have been the closing door at Mercedes that will have hurt the most.
Having been nurtured by the German manufacturers since 2007, he was hopeful an offer might come for 2013, but the ambitious marque announced last week McLaren-Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton will drive for them next year.
McLaren showed no signs that the recent upheaval has caused issues in the team garage as Jenson Button led Hamilton in the morning session.
And the stage is set for a repeat of last month's Singapore Grand Prix as Red Bull improved in the afternoon with Mark Webber finishing top of the timesheets, followed by Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull's reigning world champion.
Webber conceded his team still "has some work to do" before today's qualifying session, while Hamilton urged caution.
"It's going to be very close in qualifying tomorrow," Hamilton said. "But you need to be careful. At Spoon we saw a few people making mistakes. If you put a wheel on the dirt, it's very easy to lose the car."