Michael Schumacher: The long goodbye
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As it happened, Mercedes did build a race-winning car this year. Only it wasn't Schumacher climbing on the top step of the podium for a record-extending 92nd time; it was his teammate, Nico Rosberg, who won his — and Mercedes's — first F1 race. It was a massive reality check: the fiercely competitive Schumacher, long thought to demand preferential treatment from his teams, defeated by his own teammate! Schumacher 1.0 certainly wouldn't have stood for it.
When Schumacher retired the first time, he went out at the top, vying for the championship with Fernando Alonso. In Brazil in 2006, there was a palpable sense that it was the end of an era, that F1 would never be the same. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were yet to make their debuts, and the box office appeal of F1 was still (largely) Michael Schumacher. He was the best racing driver in the sport's oldest and most storied team, and Bernie Ecclestone must have had some concerns about how F1 would cope in his absence. Even if his farewell didn't quite keep to the script, with an engine failure at the penultimate race in Japan all but scuppering his title hopes, he could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the field and come agonisingly close to winning. Flash forward six years and his exit, though dignified, couldn't be quieter. He retires not as a contender, but as an elder statesman. The sport moved on and found a new, equally controversial, star in Hamilton.
In the years between his two careers, Schumacher fans would posit counterfactuals. What if he was still around when traction control and driver aids were eliminated in 2008? Would his skill as a driver magnify the gap between him and the field? When Ferrari floundered in his absence, with Kimi Raikkonen barely lucking into the 2007 title, there was a little schadenfreude: Schumi (as he is popularly known) was perhaps not quite ready to hang up his helmet and was rushed into retirement, and Ferrari were reaping just desserts. Then he made his comeback and the rest, as they say, is history — only not of the sort Schumi fans wanted him to write.
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