When Michael Schumacher retired in 2006 he left Formula One with a record 91 wins, a record 154 podium finishes, a record 68 pole positions, and a record 76 fastest laps.
He will leave the sport after a further three years with those statistics intact, albeit only enhanced by a single podium finish and another fastest lap.
The veteran has a handful of races left, and then he will now bow out of a sport that he loves, this time for good.
During his last three years his genius of old only ever flickered briefly.
But it does not matter. He cannot unwin seven titles. The driving around in the middle of the pack for Mercedes will not eradicate the way he destroyed opponents in his Benetton Renault and Ferrari in years gone by. History strips out the parts of a career that don’t matter. Remember the years where Schumacher had to play second fiddle to Williams and McLaren as Ferrari got their act together? History doesn’t.
Schumacher has been the butt of some jokes since his return, but the barbs are unfounded.
He did not fluff his chance with a title-winning car – he took his time to get to grips with a middling one. Formula One evolved dramatically in his absence, and he was no longer at the peak of his powers to cope with it.
His first season was something of a disappointment – but by his second year he was only marginally (89 points to 76) behind his team-mate Nico Rosberg. This season those margins have grown once more, but Schumacher has also had bad luck. In the race Rosberg won, in China, Schumacher was running second when mechanical troubles ended his race. He also put the car on pole on Monaco, but was forced to start in sixth because of a grid penalty.
The return was a romantic one – how would Schumacher fare against the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel? In the end, the answer was not very well. By the same token, those three might have been a distant second had they taken on Schumacher in the cars of a decade ago. The truth is that the eras do not easily bear comparison, and that Schumacher’s return proved little more than that he belonged to another era. It is a sign of the times that when Mercedes target the next step forward, they turn in Hamilton to a man 16 years Schumacher’s junior.
But Schumacher was no embarrassment in Formula One on his second coming – he held his own against some much-feted drivers. There have been days when his reactions or decisions have been questioned – consider the blocking move on Rubens Barrichello in Hungary 2010, so dangerous and uncompromising that Schumacher had to issue a rare apology. In the last race, he went into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne and the stewards judged it worthy of a 10-place grid penalty.
Perhaps – perhaps – it would have been more fitting had Schumacher been able to go out on his own terms. That, however, is the nature of the sport. Not all the titles in the world, nor the long-standing ties with the likes of Norbert Haug and Ross Brawn, key players at Mercedes, could keep him in a job when there was a quicker man available.
And Schumacher, a man who loves the sport, will understand. He offered no quarter in 1994 when he took Damon Hill off the road in the championship decider, winning when both went out – he did much the same against Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix in 1997. He had the last laugh more often than not.
His career, which began in the bright green of Jordan, moved to the United Colours of Benetton, and carried on to the scarlet red of Ferrari, was never short of colour. That, rather than his monochrome second coming at Mercedes, is what we will remember.
- Michael Schumacher