His was a remarkable career the first time around. A record seven world championship titles, 91 Grand Prix victories and 68 pole positions.
Michael Schumacher may have had a little assistance along the way from team mates, team principals and a few unwilling adversaries, but remove the controversies and there still stands a man who justifiably has become a legend of the sport.
It’s over six years ago now since Schumacher first waved farewell to Formula 1.
He had just won the Italian Grand Prix and was heading for an eighth title showdown with Renault’s Fernando Alonso. The Monza circuit was swathed in Tifosi red but whilst their hero adorned the podium, the Maranello press office issued a simple statement; “Michael Schumacher will retire from race driving at the end of the 2006 World Championship”.
Although he was to vacate the driver’s seat, Schumacher would stay with Ferrari, working closely with Jean Todt in a combined development / advisory / executive role, to safeguard the Cavallino Rampante dynasty that they had fought so hard to re-establish.
For the next two and a half years, he fulfilled his quest, fuelling the adrenaline drought with some exhilarating adventures on his scarlet Ducati in private tests at the Nurburgring. But once a racer, always a racer and the lure of a ride in Germany’s IDM Superbike series became too great to pass-over.
Taking to a Honda Fireblade, he was fearless, demonstrating all the raw skill and passion needed for a successful transition to competitive two-wheel racing. But then a serious crash in testing at Cartagena left him concussed, with a recurring neck injury, and once again consigned to the pit wall.
His time on bikes may have been halted, but later that year when Felipe Massa suffered a skull fracture during his freak qualifying accident in Budapest, Schumacher was the natural choice to step-in and finish the season.
Ferrari adapted a F2007 for the retired champion to reacclimatise himself to the physical abuse of an f1 car, but his lingering neck injury haunted progress and he was deemed unfit for the task. The hapless Luca Badoer was drafted-in as Felipe’s substitute and we all know how (badly) that went.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a return to Formula 1 had set Schumacher thinking and a timely call from old friend Ross Brawn, looking to replace McLaren-bound Jenson Button, brought home the opportunity to not only renew the Brawn partnership but moreover, the chance to establish a new era with Mercedes – the one manufacturer whose Silver Arrows symbolised more to any reich-blooded German than Ferrari ever could.
With a series of stringent medical tests confirming that his cervical vertebrae had finally healed, Schumacher was duly presented to the world in Christmas 2009; it was to be the start of something very special, or so we were invited to believe.
Almost three years-on and his Mercedes dream has reached its conclusion. With just a single 3rd place podium to show from 58 starts, and a lowly midfield grid position of 13th during last weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix, Schumacher bows out of Formula 1 not with the fanfare that befits his status, but with the whimper of a past champion being put out to stud.
Because Formula One is no longer about him, it’s about the new order; three champions, two competing for yet another title to add to their crowns, and a third, taking the seat that Schumacher was unceremoniously encouraged to vacate.
In the years to come, those who keep motorsport’s legacy alive will debate Schumacher’s reign, its glories, those darker moments, the failure of Mercedes, the rise of Vettel, the passion of Alonso and the brilliance of Hamilton.
Some will be remember him fondly, others perhaps not so, but whatever is said about Schumacher, his record will remain as a testament to ‘his’ era in Formula 1, a time when love or hate him, he was the greatest driver in the world.