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Thursday, 4 October 2012

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER – HIS FINAL GOODBYE: RECOLLECTIONS OF JAPAN 200


The engines are making the noise already and the Japanese have woken up to it and so are the fans who follow Formula One religiously. Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka has given me some fond memories in my lifetime – a circuit where I have had my Formula One’s best moment (Michael Schumacher winning his first driver’s championship for Ferrari in 2000) and the worst moment (Schumacher retiring with engine failure in 2006). My first Japanese GP was in the season of 2000 and prior to that I had just known the results of the race following Sportstar or the snippets that came on Star Sports.

It has to be said the season of 2000 was the first time I religiously started watching, following, and analysing this sport. I also spent quite a lot of money (I didn’t have internet at home that time) to browse on more information regarding the F1 drivers and more so about Michael Schumacher.
2000 season started off well for Schumey as he won the first three races of the calendar. Things settled in the leader board when the McLaren duo of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard reduced the deficit and with four races to go, Hakkinen had a lead of six points over Schumacher. Who could have forgotten the daring pass (one of the best in F1) Hakkinen made on Schumacher in the Belgium Grand Prix; that pass made a lot of statements –a) Hakkinen overtook Schumacher to lead the World Championships b) Was that the end of Ferrari and Schumacher as McLaren looked unbeatable?
Two weeks later after the disappointment of Belgium GP, I was hoping Ferrari and Schumey would turn it around. Pole position and a victory at Monza (Italian GP) gave me a certain sense of joy; I vividly remember that Sunday when a safety marshal died on the track, Schumacher was in tears for he had just overtaken Aryton Senna for total GP victories and the two incidents could not have been very different. To put it short, it was an emotional victory which made everyone remember the late great Aryton Senna as he was the last to die on an F1 track (prior to Italian GP) during the race.

Next up was the US GP at Indianapolis and Michael was sharp enough to win that race and with it the championship titled his way as Hakkinen retired in that race. With two races to go, teams moved to Suzuka. Ferrari had never won the driver’s championship since 1979 (Jody Scheckter) and 21 years hence they had a chance in Michael to make history. After coming agonisingly close in 1997 and 1998, Schumacher had a chance to win in 2000 unless fate has to write it otherwise.

Hakkinen was looking for his third straight World Championships and if qualifying was any indicator, it showed both the title contenders weren’t that keen to start second in the grid for the race. In the end, Schumacher nudged past Hakkinen by a margin of 0.009s. Yes, it was that small a margin that separated these champions. I remember that Saturday because of another match – India vs. Australia (2000 Champions Trophy, Nairobi) in which Yuvraj Singh smashed Australia and took a wonderful catch while fielding. It was also on that day when we had just bought a new TV; till date I have never forgotten that day. Next day was to be even better.

As a sixteen year old I was very nervous before the race – funnily this pattern was there till the end of 2006 F1 season. Those heartbeats just before the five red lights went, the crossed fingers, occupying my favourite superstitious spot (after a lot of trails) and what not, just to ensure Michael won.
The race started and it a poor start by Michael gave Mika Hakkinen the lead right away and for the next 22 laps Michael spent behind Mika’s McLaren. Hakkinen pitted on the lap 22 and Schumacher on lap 23. Both started their fight all over again at the end of first round of pit stops. A combination of traffic and changing weather gave Michael a chance to claw back within seconds of Mika Hakkinen, but couldn’t get close enough and get past him. And when Mika pitted for the second and last time on lap 37, it was the moment Schumacher was waiting for. Unlike the first time, he didn’t pit immediately on the next lap; he went on for three more laps. Three laps for the glory by risking the traffic ahead of him, but then destinies are not made by itself, somewhere it has to be created. Ferrari took the risk and Michael responded with three scorching laps before coming to pit. I was never that nervous in my life as I was anxiously waiting to know the fate of the race at the end of his pit-stop.

Schumacher’s Ferrari came to a halt, the lollipop man seriously holding the lollipop was waiting for the signal to release him; in the meantime four tyres were changed and fuel was added to the tank and then the most crucial moment of the race came - Lollipop man signalled Michael to go and the timing at the right hand side of the graphics stopped at 6.0s. I was delighted and couldn’t contain my emotions. The car was still ambling at the pit-lane speed and the next moment a split video screen shows Mika Hakkinen stuck behind the traffic and yet to cross the finish line. What was happening? It meant Schumacher and the pit crew have just turned it around. Yes they did it. It was Schumacher in P1.

Later on after the race I remember reading a race report in which a conversation was highlighted; it was between Michael and Ross Brawn (Yes, he has been there with Michael since god knows when). In his response to a curious Schumacher as he was coming to the pit lane exit, Ross Brawn said - "It's looking good, it's looking good". Then he said: "It's looking bloody good." – Those words were definitely the most amazing moment of Michael’s racing career. Looking back to that day, I still get goose bumps and it was and is one of my amazing moments in Formula One. The job was yet to be finished, but Schumey wouldn’t let go of this opportunity and at the end of 53 laps, one could see him banging the steering wheel, shouting with joy on the radio and for Ferrari history was made. For Michael, the move from a strong Benetton team to a meagre Ferrari in 1996 paid off. 

Racing in Formula One is all about winning and the 2000 win was much more than that to me, Schumacher and all the Ferrari fans worldwide. With third championship under his belt, Michael and Ferrari went from strength to strength. After winning in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 they looked good for more.

Then it was the hurricane of 2005 season which whipped the entire dream of Ferrari. With rule changes, McLaren and Renault looked more powerful. It was just not the rules; even the Bridgestone tyres had given up on Ferrari as the Michelin rubber cars powered to victory at the all the races they took part. The sole Michael’s victory was courtesy the ill-fated three Bridgestone team race at the Indianapolis circuit. Season of 2005 was a fall for Ferrari straight from the top of Mount Everest to the ground and to further depths. It wasn’t easy watching them struggle this way.

For the 2006 season, all I wanted was vengeance. Rubens Barrichello was not in Ferrari, he was replaced by a fellow Brazilian in Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso and Renault looked strong early on, but Ferrari wasn’t that behind. Though not dominating, it was way better than 2005 car. The first punch was from Michael was the skillful blocking of Alonso at the San Marino Grand Prix for a good 20 laps or so. It was a case of role reversal as the previous season in the same circuit; Michael was blocked by Alonso when the former looked much stronger. 

By the time the season moved to Europe, I was done with my Engineering and had a good two month break before it was time to put on those formals and start working. To my friends who know me, I have been very vocal about Michael’s races being one of my inspirations in my life. Just when the season looked heavily in the favour of Alonso, Schumey bounced back in such a fashion that he reduced 30 something point deficit to nil with two races to go. At this time, I felt irrespective of what happened I would be proud of the way Schumey has raced in 2006. In hindsight, I feel I should have retained my hunger and zeal of 2000. It had reduced a touch low.

Two races prior to the 2006 finale while Michael was still chasing Alonso, he had made an announcement to retire at the end of 2006 season. He made this announcement at Ferrari’s home circuit, Monza – a sort of mixed emotions. In the next race on the wet Chinese circuit, he drove a race that involved few of the best overtaking manoeuvres; he was in prime form, well at ease while others struggled to stay on track. That victory at the Shanghai International circuit was his 91st victory in Formula One, forty more than the second placed Alain Prost. Life was different, new place at work, unlike college, new people and I was contemplating it would be a different thing watching Formula One without Schumey from 2007 season. But with points being equal and two races to go, I hoped for a good farewell for Schumacher.

One of the most regretful decisions of my life was the choice I made to be in a workshop on that Sunday when at the same time cars were racing in full throttle at Suzuka. I didn’t want to check updates in between, but by accident, Michael’s retirement in the race was brought up by someone in the crowd. He was quick to announce this and I just couldn’t believe what had just happened. I cursed myself for having done this and for abandoning the race for a workshop. What was I thinking?
Alonso won that race in Suzuka and had taken a 10 point lead in the driver’s championships. It was an engine failure that led to Michael’s retirement, Engine failure? The last time Schumacher had retired owing to an engine failure was way back in 2000 and I remember that race held at Magney Cours (French Grand Prix). After six years, the car gave up on him. Maybe that is how it had to end and as Schumacher said it aptly – “You win as a team and lose as a team”. Next day, I watched the re-telecast of the race; I came to terms as to what had happened a day prior. I was sad, but maybe I had grown up in age to take it better. I couldn’t have imagined how it would have been if something similar had happened in 2000? But it might have to all those McLaren and Mika Hakkinen fans that day in 2000. That’s how I had grown in life that I sort to philosophical and certain pragmatic explanations to come to terms to what had just happened.

Last race was in Brazil; unless Michael was destined to win, there was no way Alonso could have lost the title, his second in a row. Nothing of that happened Michael suffered a puncture; at one time he was well behind in the race only to come back strongly. His overtaking at the first corner to take up a spot towards the end of the race was something of a delight. Kimi Raikkonen who was to take his seat just couldn’t block him out. That was sheer racing. Alonso won the championships, became the youngest driver to win double world championships (Vettel currently holds that record now) beating Michael’s record.  

And for Michael, he bid goodbye with his head held high. He had seven World Championships, 91 victories, 68 pole positions and a lot more when he last drove for Ferrari. A legend had just moved on. The quest for the new champion was on. Only Sebastian Vettel has come close to the level of Michael Schumacher till date since 2006.

Three years later, Michael made a surprise return and this time it was not for Ferrari. It was for Mercedes, a team he raced for as a child offered him and he was once again seen partnering with Ross Brawn to re-create some of the magic they had in the past seven victories of his.  While I am an ardent fan of Ferrari, I secretly hoped Michael to pull off a victory now and then in the last three years, but it never happened. In the three seasons of him being at Mercedes, it was a learning curve for the team. Now, prior to the Japanese Grand Prix he announced his retirement and this time I feel it should be for good. Lewis Hamilton will take his seat, but I doubt whether he will take his place in the annals of F1 history.

I never saw Michael live in a race and when I did catch up an F1 event live, he wasn’t there (2008). Now when he will be racing his last few races, all I did as soon as I heard about his retirement was to book a ticket for the Indian Grand Prix. I always had a dream to watch him race; due to unavoidable circumstances, I was not able to attend any of the previous GPs. Not this time. I was contemplating to attend this year’s Indian Grand Prix, but his retirement was the trigger and I just didn’t want to wait any further.


Japanese Grand Prix is on this Sunday, and it was suffice that I recalled one of the most memorable moments I experienced as a F1 fan. Among the 91 victories, the victory of Schumacher at Suzuka on 8th Oct 2000 remains the sweetest one. To Michael Schumacher, second greatest driver of all-time (impact wise behind Ayrton Senna) and by far the most complete driver F1 has ever seen – it has been a pleasure watching you drive, following your race career and for being an inspiration at a crucial phase of my life.