Time not on Schumacher's side

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 PM ET

HOCKENHEIM, Germany — In all the cutthroat end of international sport, no one will have ridden a more unlikely wave than the one that today carries Michael Schumacher to his old hunting ground of Hockenheim.

He is seen by many as someone trapped in a calamitous mistake, a truly great sportsman of phenomenal professional pride, and ruthlessness, who at the age of 41 is walking confirmation of the old truth that nobody, not even the most imperious of champions, should ever come back.

When he did so last December, ending a three-year break from the Formula One circuit he had come to dominate so profoundly, Mercedes handed him a contract worth $14 million US a year, the invitation to reclaim his empire and perhaps even add to his record haul of seven world titles. Many said it was a life-giving move for a sport dying of scandal and cynicism. Now, such euphoria is locked down in embarrassment.

Schumacher is ninth in the drivers table, three places and 14 points behind his 25-year-old teammate, Nico Rosberg, who trails Britain’s frontrunning Lewis Hamilton by 55 points. The plundering shark is, for the moment at least, swimming with the bottom fish.

Still, and inevitably, the concept is being defied on the roads around the circuit of the German Grand Prix. T-shirt legends say: “Danke, Schumi! — 258 races, 91 victories, 68 poles, 76 fastest laps.”

It is maybe inevitable, this resilient belief that Schumacher — who in his time simply drove rivals such as Britain’s Damon Hill and Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve off the track in pursuit of his ambition — will one day come roaring home, again.

The latest to express it is Mercedes motor sport vice-president Norbert Haug, who declared: “It will come sooner rather than later. He’s certainly a very, very quick driver, a very talented driver and a very focused driver. He has done a lot for Formula One and he is doing what he loves to do. It will come. It’s up to us to improve the car and we are completely composed in the team, working together. Just give us some time.”

Never before has time been the enemy of Schumacher — and never before has been heard quite such resignation on his lips.

This week he said: “It is very clear we are not in position to win this race because, as a package, we are not yet strong enough to do so. But we will fight for the best possible results and, if we can manage a podium finish, that would be great for us and our fans.”

A podium position, something less than the sweet adrenalin of winning it all? It is not likely. It is certainly not the possibility that draws the old legions to Hockenheim for Sunday’s race — and nor is it a dwindling of ambition that the fans have ever been encouraged to believe might affect the nature of their hero.

A few years ago, in a great room of the Monaco Casino, where Schumacher was being interrogated about his future plans, we had something of a definitive statement by the great champion. He declared: “I will know better than anyone when it is time to walk away. I will know when driving is not the thing I most want to do — and when I believe I cannot do it as well as it is necessary. Then I can retire satisfied with what has been achieved. I can be content that I have done everything I ever considered possible. And then I can go, not a minute too soon, or too late.”

Such simplicity of ambition, such certainty of motive, will seem somewhat distant from the 11th slot on the starting grid on Sunday. However, given all that he has achieved, all that he represents, it is maybe not too much to believe that it may yet again be within his reach.

He once won a Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya in rain that compromised the nerve of every driver but his. Afterwards, it was said that he looked like a man inhabiting another planet. Who knows, he may still have those residency papers.

- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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