I probably shouldn’t be writing this but I’ve tried to push this news out of my mind for a whole day and haven’t succeeded. You see, one of my idols is fighting for his life and I don’t know how else to process it. Reading what others have to say about him isn’t helping much. One is treated to puzzling lapses of logic and sensitivity like this headline. He lies dying, so now’s the time to wonder – was (or is?) he the greatest?
Greatness is perhaps too abstract a goal for Michael Schumacher. A fastidious, focused, hardworking person like him would perhaps prefer being called the best. Because as far as I could tell over fourteen years of watching every race with him in it, that’s the only thing he strove and drove for.
I watched my first Formula One race in 1999. Initiated into the sport through its technical aspects thanks to a classmate, I was quickly sucked into the pace, glamor and perfection of the sport. I enjoyed watching the races but I especially enjoyed the spectacle of the two scarlet cars making their way across the track. And then there was Michael. I remember watching the last three races of the ’99 season and hearing about his reputation as a belligerent, ruthless adversary who’d stick at nothing to win. Apparently, he’d also just returned to racing after breaking his leg that same season. Clearly, I’d missed all the good times. Nonetheless, the season ended well for Ferrari with their first Constructor’s championship in over sixteen years.
Fascinated, I read up as much as I could. I didn’t have the internet, so I devoured stories about Schumi by purchasing second-hand F1 magazines, an expensive proposition for a student in those days. The theme was the same – friends, drivers, rivals had pretty much the same thing to say about him; amazing talent, ruthless, focused, winning is everything. I also read about his arrival at Ferrari and the three years he’d spent rescuing a floundering marque. Rebuilding the team around him, creating and enforcing hierarchy, diverting the best resources for himself, collaborating with the wily Ross Brawn and Jean Todt to exploit every loophole in the rulebook to gain an edge for Ferrari.
Over the next five years I watched this man stamp his domination on the sport through skill, guile and skullduggery. I’d almost memorized the German and Italian national anthems, so frequently did they play during every podium presentation. And there stood Schumacher, usually on the top step, maintaining a semblance of dignity for the anthems but unable to hide his joy and swagger. My brother and I became rabid fans, sucking dad along in the undertow. We’d religiously spend race weekends glued to the TV, yelling despondently at his poor performances or rivals who impeded him. It got to a point where my mother would plan the rest of Sunday based on the results of that morning’s race.
After the 2000 season, when Schumacher became Ferrari’s first championship winning driver in twenty-one years, his poster went up on my wall. Alongside Shane Warne, Steve Waugh and The X-Files. It was a picture of him leaping in delight on the podium at the 2000 Suzuka Grand Prix in Japan as a newly crowned champion and of course, the winner of the race.
I’d get to see that little leap of joy many times over the next few years, with one notable exception. On April 20, 2003, a few hours after his mother’s death, Schumacher powered his Ferrari to a victory at Imola. As he stood on the podium fighting back tears, I was stunned by the man’s sheer will to win. There was no jump, no celebration, no fist-pumps or handshakes. But he was there with victory for a companion. As he looked up to the skies to whisper a prayer for his mother, I was reminded of Sachin Tendulkar’s innings against Kenya in the 1999 World Cup, returning to play after his father’s death. Perhaps the greatest transcendence and peace is achieved in the pursuit of what you love and both Sachin and Michael showed how much their respective sports meant to them.
Selfish is a word often bandied about when referring to Schumacher. I saw him resurrect an empty shell of a team, limping along on its heritage. I saw him mold winners and carry Ferrari along with him to the pinnacle of their greatness. I don’t think selfishness inspires such faith and fervent worship. They don’t ring the church bells in Maranello for the selfish. Even today, Scuderia Ferrari owe their standing, reputation and the fierce loyalty of fans like me to Michael Schumacher.
No, I don’t think he’d ever call himself the greatest. On May 1 1994, Schumacher chased Ayrton Senna down the opening straight at Imola. He watched true greatness die in front of him as Senna’s car veered off the track and smashed into the wall at Tamburello. Anyone in Schumacher’s position would’ve quietly removed that word from his or her vocabulary out of respect.
But there’s no denying his spirit. I was appalled and amazed at the sheer hubris of the man as he attempted a photo-finish with Barrichello at the disastrous 2006 Indianapolis Grand Prix, a race that would get Formula One banished from the United States for six years. I watched with horror as he chose to return to the sport with Mercedes in 2010 and trundle along in mediocrity for three years before calling it quits for good. All for that elusive and addictive whiff of victory.
That spirit has kept me going for over a decade. I’ve always found the strength to pull myself out of hopeless situations by reminding myself of his resolve. I’ve used his meticulous preparation, practice and self-belief as inspiration.
He is the best I’ve ever seen, and I hope he comes back. Because there’s always someone like me who wants to be better everyday. Because the race is never over.