By Chetan Narula
"Yes, I won’t be coming back to race in India", said seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, in the build-up to the 2012 Indian Grand Prix. At the end of this season, four races from now, the man who epitomises Formula One for millions across the world steps into the shade for a second time.
It does mean that this race on Sunday is the last chance for petrol-heads in India to catch the demigod in full flow. And he is not looking to disappoint them.
"Obviously the car is not quick enough to be in contention for wins or podiums, but that is not how we approach any race weekend. It is the same this time too. With the machinery I have, there are certain set standards for us and if we are able to achieve those, then we can be happy about a good racing weekend. It may be a win, podium, or even a good points’ finish."
"It is quite encouraging to see that so many people in India follow F1," he continued. "The gathering last season, almost full stands, was amazing. We have been to different parts of the world in recent years and nowhere have we seen such a huge crowd for the first event itself. So that was quite pleasing that we have come to a country that is passionate about Formula One. I hope we can have the same attendance this year as well as for many more to come."
When Juan Manuel Fangio got his five championships before 1960, people never thought that any F1 driver could ever equal him. Then we had Schumacher doing just that, and going past, setting up the new marker at seven. The German ace though believes that it won’t stand for long, and fans wouldn’t have to look too far out of his homeland.
"Sebastian Vettel has had a tremendous three years for Red Bull. He already has two and is on the way to his third world championship in as many seasons. And he is very, very young to have already achieved so much. Records are always meant to be broken, so I cannot say that my seven-time record will stand forever. I am willing to accept that someone will go past me, as I did go past Fangio, and I will be very pleased if Sebastian does it."
While the Indian fans certainly will get a high seeing him on track, and for the last time, his individual high point came early in the season at Monte Carlo. He clocked the fastest time in qualifying of the Monaco GP, only to be demoted five places for an incident with Bruno Senna at Barcelona (Spanish GP) in the previous race.
When reminded that Monaco is still the biggest driver-test on the calendar, Schumacher had this to say: "I think we can now confirm that I am still good enough to compete at the highest level."
"And given the right car and conditions, anyone on the grid can go quickest on a given day, such is the competition now. Things came together very well for us at Monaco and we might have had a chance to win, if not for external factors that were not in our control. Having said that, if we look at the last three seasons in totality, it is obvious that we have not been able to achieve what we set out to do. We did not optimize the package as well as we could have and at the same time the competition also made forward steps. We have been criticised for this time and again, and rightly so."
Mercedes (as a sole manufacturer team) won their first race this season (at the 2012 Chinese GP) in a long, long time. It was in 1955 that five-time world champion Fangio had last taken the chequered flag for the Silver Arrows. Nico Rosberg took that victory home while Michael had to retire after a faulty pit-stop. There is an inherent sadness in the team that he couldn’t go further in the race to challenge his younger team-mate for the win, and indeed they could not garner a one-two finish.
What this means is that Michael Schumacher goes into his second retirement without a win or pole position to show for during his three years with Mercedes AMG. It allows critics to pounce on the legend and tear him to shreds, for allegedly competing in an environment that didn’t warrant his presence.
It was a case of an old man not knowing that his time was over, instead choosing to dampen his rich legacy established through his years at Benetton and Ferrari. As is his wont though, Schumacher stands his ground and firmly at that.
"Everyone has their own individual perspective about race results. But, globally, if you ask a lot of people about whether they have a changed opinion of my achievements, I am sure they will agree that nothing has changed. I am still racing at my highest level."
Whether or not we have another shining legend at this highest echelon of motorsport in the coming years is uncertain. But as far as team Mercedes are concerned, they have already made their move to replace him, in Lewis Hamilton, who will move from McLaren to replace Schumacher in 2013.
And the outgoing driver agreed with this sensational signing. "Lewis is a fantastic natural racer and one of the best drivers in F1 at the moment. Any team would be happy to have him race for them and I am happy that Mercedes have signed him. This could be a very successful partnership in the future and as part of the Mercedes family, I am only too happy if it so happens."
What about his own future though, for there are ample rumours in the paddock that he will take up a managerial/administrative role at Mercedes? Could he possibly live away from Formula One?
"I will take a decision about it when the time and circumstances are right. At the moment they are not and I will be very honest in saying that I haven’t thought about the future. I don’t even want to, right now. I have four more races to go!" he said in his inimitable swagger.
(Chetan Narula is the author of India’s first book on Formula One, titled History of Formula One: The Circus comes to India.)