Schumi supremacy

Michael Schumacher was inarguably the greatest driver of his generation by a mile and, equally inarguably, one of the finest to get behind the wheels of a Formula One car.-AP

For all our unabashedly gleeful attempts to readily stereotype him as a flesh-and-blood marvel of German engineering, there is more to the most successful driver in Formula One history than even his biographers might be aware of, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Now that he has decided to leave, you'd think that most of us would be able to look back at the road travelled by Michael Schumacher and make a dispassionate assessment of the record-shattering German Formula One driver's legacy — think, too, that the diametrically competing impulses that often stopped us short of fair judgement would now have resolved themselves, magically, overnight.

Even as we picture in our minds the 37-year-old seven-time champion — eight if he manages to pip Fernando Alonso at the post later this year — disappearing into a golden sunset, we might assume that the long-warring factions in our own grey matter might have finally declared truce to let us come to a level-headed conclusion about Schumacher's place in the pantheon.

But, believe me, this is easier imagined, easier said than actually accomplished. For, Schumacher is that kind of man. For all our unabashedly gleeful attempts to readily stereotype him as a flesh-and-blood marvel of German engineering, there is more to the most successful driver in Formula One history than even his biographers might be aware of.

Merely because the great champion chose to lead a quasi-monastic life on the fast lane, keeping his private life — and the many facets of his intelligent persona — hermetically sealed off from the prying eyes of the media and the public, we have always viewed him as a ruthless, cold-blooded alpha male with an insatiable appetite for victory and a primordial penchant for humiliating less gifted rivals.

It is only when Schumacher decides to dismantle the walls he has built around himself to allow us all a peek at his human, all-too-human soul will we, at last, be able to put the era he has dominated into perspective. For, however much we constantly choose to delude ourselves, when it comes to judging champions — especially the all-time greats — while they are still active, our species is singularly handicapped.

Perhaps 10 or 20 years down the line, when we are freed of heat-of-the-moment loyalties and when we liberate the great champion himself from the archaic stereotype we so readily slotted him in, we would be able to say with greater authority and conviction that Schumacher belongs here, or there, in the Formula One pantheon. But, right now, all we can say is that the man whose records would be as tough to surpass as Don Bradman's Test batting average (99.94) will leave a hole in the sport big enough to hide Mount Everest when he departs.

Domination is a rather messy business; in sport as much as in life. Sport might be trivial pursuit — largely irrelevant against the backdrop of wars, famine, natural calamities, terrorism and racism — yet even in this fantasy land, domination comes with all its psychological baggage.

This apart, domination in sport also comes in various denominations; some are more readily accepted than others. Some are celebrated, yet others grudgingly acknowledged. The Schumacher Supremacy predictably belongs to the second category.

In the Schumacher era itself, there have been a handful of supreme athletes, mostly in command in their own sport. Around the time Schumacher began to assert himself in Formula One, in the early 1990s, Pete Sampras embarked on a glorious trail of ascendancy in tennis. A few years later, Tiger Woods arrived to take control of the fairways and the greens at the majors. More recently, Roger Federer's charming invincibility has riveted attention on men's tennis.

Yet, all these three men are different from Schumacher; all three have not only been more readily acceptable as dominators but also their supremacy has been celebrated universally, ungrudgingly.

Why, then, has Schumacher been the odd man out?

It has to do with the style of domination. It has to do with body language. And it has to do, too, with the German's personality.

Head bowed during change-overs, his tongue out, mind seemingly a million miles away, Sampras hardly looked a winner even as he annihilated opponent after opponent on the grass courts of Wimbledon and elsewhere. Looking at his body language, a sports psychologist from Mars might have sworn that the 14-time Grand Slam champion was a born loser.

As for Federer, he first dominates our senses on an exalted, aesthetic platform before leading the men across the net from him to the guillotine almost unnoticed. When heads are severed, we continue to stay entranced, oblivious to the bloody ending.

Tiger Woods is more Sampras than Federer. But he, too, inspires awe rather than the brand of resignation we have been so familiar with in Formula One over the last decade — Oh, no, not Schumacher again! Isn't there anybody else in this sport who can win?

It is one thing to reduce opposition to hand-wringing helplessness; quite another to do so while making it appear to all and sundry that that is exactly what you have set out to do — which, of course, is exactly what Schumacher did!

But, what the hell, the man could drive, couldn't he? And how!

I never saw Juan Manuel Fangio — the Argentine who won five world championships — drive. But, over the last quarter of a century and a little more, in terms of pure driving ability and speed, only one man was a shade better than Schumacher — the Brazilian Ayrton Senna who lost his life on the Imola track in 1994.

Senna, who won three world titles, never had a team quite as dedicated and inventive as Schumacher's Ferrari. What is more, he had to ward off challenges from greater rivals (Alain Prost for one) than the German has had to during his days at the top, although this is hardly Schumacher's fault.

Senna versus Schumacher would have been a rivalry for the ages but that was as unlikely to materialise as Sampras versus Federer.

Comparisons apart, Schumacher was inarguably the greatest driver of his generation by a mile and, equally inarguably, one of the finest to get behind the wheels of a Formula One car.

I have my own favourite Schumi moments. But two stand out. The first was the climactic race of the 1998 season. If you were looking for a definition of genius, you would have found it watching Schumacher in that race on the Suzuka circuit in Japan.

Genius, of course, doesn't have to ascend the winners' podium to be recognised for what it was. And, to be sure, Schumacher did not even finish on that day, a tyre blowout stopping him short of finishing what must rank as — even by his special standards — one of the greatest races of his career.

Making up the rear after being penalised when his car stalled on the grid, Schumacher came up with one of the most sublime driving performances as he sneaked his way up to third position. It was the sort of brave, aggressive, genius-propelled drive worthy of a Senna.

My other favourite Schumacher moment came in 2003. A few hours after his mother Elizabeth lost her battle against cancer, with the family busy making funeral arrangements, the great man drove and won at Imola. His grief was his own; his fans and the world deserved a race.

To me, these two instances just about sum up the man and the champion.

Of course, Schumi has had his dark moments too. He has punted rivals, he has quite often carried gamesmanship — verbal and physical — to the extreme and has shown a willingness to sacrifice sportsmanship in the cause of victory.

But sporting legends with bigger character flaws have lived and lasted — and become part of folklore.

And so will Michael Schumacher — a legend in his lifetime...and beyond.