Michael Schumacher’s unexpectedly graceful, charming and even fragile reaction on his return to a Grand Prix podium on Sunday had us all feeling warm and fuzzy. It was, as they say, emotional. And still is now, and it’s Wednesday. Is it a slightly patronising sense of sympathy? Or are we all enjoying some kind of complex, vicarious projected vindication? Or is it guilt?
Whatever it is, it is real and, considering everything else that happened in Valencia, powerful too.
Let’s not forget we saw an all-time great drive, from an all-time great driver at the top of his powers. Congratulations Mr Alonso. And we also got a chilling sense of just how hard Red Bull might be to catch for the rest of this season. And there was also Lewis Hamilton back in the news for getting himself involved in someone else’s accident, once again. Some race.
But taking the temperature of the blogs and sites and tweets and status updates and so on, it was the sight of a 43-year-old German reacquainting himself with a magnum of champagne that’s really grabbed the attention.
So why do we all love Michael now? Because, and there is no easy way to say this: he was never that popular first time round, was he? Schumacher’s utter domination of the sport in the golden Ferrari era tainted the way we thought about Formula One forever. Repeated success bred contempt. Had it not, we would all have relished Sebastian Vettel’s astonishing form over the last two seasons and not so quickly tired of it. It was the nagging sense that we were at the start of another long run of back-to-back titles that tainted our satisfaction at seeing a talent flourish so young.
And it’s not like Michael started at Ferrari with a clean slate. He cynically, clinically took Damon Hill out of the 1994 Australian Grand Prix to win his first title in 1994. To the extent that when he pulled the same move (rather less successfully) on Jacques Villenueve in the 1997 Jerz Grand Prix, he saw his entire campaign that year wiped from the history books by way of a well-overdue penalty.
There are more examples of Michael Schumacher playing fast and loose with ‘the sporting code’. You might want to tell us your favourite. One story that springs to mind from Schumacher’s first career was handed down in journalist Richard Williams’ slim, elegant volume ‘The Death of Ayrton Senna’.
Senna, according to Williams, may well have had doubts about Michael Schumacher’s Benetton B194 during the 1994 season. Later it was indeed found to have a banned traction ‘launch control’ system buried inside its software, although Flavio Briatore’s team have always insisted it was not active. Last year one of Schumacher’s team-mates in the team, Dutch racer and gravel tester Jos Verstappen, reignited the controversy with allegations that it was indeed used.
When Michael retired/was retired from/by Ferrari in 2006 after winning five driver’s titles, it was seen as time. But then something changed. Far from spending more time with his accountants, Michael went motorcycle racing, went karting, learned how to smile again and even triumphantly appeared on our very own Top Gear.
And then he came back to F1 and… well, it’s not been easy has it? As a driver, Nico Rosberg has never got anybody terribly excited and yet for most of the time he’s been paired with Michael he’s blown the old fella’s doors off.
There have times when it’s been almost embarrassing for Michael, but the overwhelming emotion has not been schadenfreunde, but sympathy. And especially this year, now Mercedes, in their own and Michael’s third year back, have finally started to get their act together. All those breakdowns, the odd ‘senior moment’ and that pit-stop-cock-up in China have somehow exaggerated that sympathy so when Michael put it on ‘pole’ in Monaco you could hear bells ring out around the world.
Michael’s new-found sense of ease with the world has helped: all those winks and waves always go down well. And it’s clearly a good way to run a career, let alone one as successful as Michael’s; you don’t win 91 races and an awful lot of money without a degree of ruthlessness and according opprobrium. So get that all out of the way, take a break, then come back and just get on with enjoying it. As Michael clearly is.
But it’s more than that isn’t it. It’s just a great story, one we see every time we go to the cinema. Success, hubris, adversity, alienation, vindication and thus redemption. Classic stuff. And just what F1 needs. Now let’s get a win Michael and you can retire for good, knowing you will undoubtedly be well-remembered.