The legendary Formula One driver bids a final adieu, writes Gary Meenaghan from Sao Paulo.
Michael Schumacher to step back into the shadows
When Michael Schumacher, fresh from a three-year hiatus, returned to Formula One at the 2010 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, such was his enthusiasm to get back behind the wheel he appeared at the pre-race Thursday press conference dressed in his race overalls.
It is this enthusiasm that has waned, he said on announcing his retirement seven weeks ago in Japan. No longer does he have the motivation and energy to fight on a fortnightly basis. The result is, tomorrow, when the flag falls marking the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix and the 2012 season, it will also mark the end of a remarkable 21-year career. And this time, he will not be returning.
The seven-time world champion, now 43, announced his decision on the same weekend Lewis Hamilton was revealed to replace him. It was not coincidence, but rather a consequence; the decision had been taken for him by Mercedes-GP and it was only a matter of making it public. Since then, everyone who is anyone - both in and out of the paddock - has been given the opportunity to voice their opinion on Schumacher's departure.
Franz Beckenbauer, the German World Cup-winning footballer and coach, said the record-breaking driver was "the reason I watched Formula One", adding: "It is a pity he is quitting".
Yet following more than a month of questions and comments, Schumacher's second retirement has developed a sense of symmetry with his second career: at times painful, always inevitable and ultimately slow.
Such is his own fatigue of the subject, on Thursday, at what was almost certainly his final news conference at an F1 grand prix, he spoke – in whispers – more to the drivers around him than he did to those gathered to hear his thoughts.
Even when it comes to retiring, Schumacher has more worldly knowledge than the rest of the field. When asked directly for his feelings about walking away once again, he replied: "I have some experience and that's why, probably, I'm rather relaxed about the happenings."
And yet he did not seem totally at ease. He wore a face that showed a determination not to let the moment take hold: slim smiles, frontal focus and delayed responses. When Sebastian Vettel, sitting to his right, and Fernando Alonso, to his left, were asked for their thoughts on his departure, as they spoke he looked straight ahead, unsmiling and detached.
"We will always remember the privilege to race and compete with someone like Michael," said Alonso, who won the 2006 world championship in Brazil ahead of Schumacher. "We've been there, we've been in the grid close to him; [had] some good fights and great respect on the circuit."
When Vettel spoke, Red Bull Racing's 25-year-old world champion joked that the man sitting next to him should cover his ears at risk of blushing: "It's a little bit different for Fernando than it is for me because I had the privilege to meet Michael when I was a kid. He was my childhood hero; a true inspiration for me and for many other kids."
It could be construed as symbolic that, on the day F1's most decorated driver finally hangs up his helmet and walks away, it is a pair of younger, more charismatic men who will prove altogether more newsworthy as they fight for this year's championship.
Vettel and Alonso are two of the new breed, the generation that Schumacher was, on his return, confident of being able to fight on a regular basis. As the two men approach Sunday's race knowing one of them will finish the afternoon a three-time world champion, the veteran has been forced to watch on ruefully. Whether he would have been capable of winning races regularly had Mercedes provided him a more competitive car will never be known.
What is known is that the past three years will be remembered ultimately as unremarkable.
Tomorrow's grand prix will be Schumacher's 58th since returning with Mercedes. In that time he has managed only one podium finish, in May's Monaco Grand Prix, and one fastest lap, at his home race at Hockenheim in July. He has been involved in numerous accidents, several of which were caused by his own errors. Yet while Schumacher's reputation may have lost a little of its sheen, the majority of his records remain untouched.
Most world championships (7), most race wins (91), most pole positions (68), most podium finishes (155), more points than any other driver, more fastest laps than any of his peers - they all remain intact.
"These three years are very different to the years he had before that, but it doesn't make him a worse driver," Vettel said.
"The past three years he was hoping to have a better car than he probably had. When the car was there, I think he was able to use the potential, so we've seen that he's still very quick.
"Obviously, it's been very different to the years with Ferrari when they were dominating a lot, but it also shows that you need to have the right car beneath you, and the right team in order to fight for wins and championships."
Perhaps it is for this reason that Schumacher insists he is glad to be finally leaving a life that has treated him so well. He was never a driver to race half-heartedly; he has no interest in completing laps and finishing in the middle of the field. When asked whether he was sad now his last weekend has arrived, he failed to pause for breath: "Probably not, no."
Having completed his final press conference, he has one final goodbye to say. His helmet during tomorrow's race will carry a message to the fans that continue to idolise him: "Life is about passions," it reads. "Thank you for sharing mine."
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