Michael Schumacher will race his last race this weekend at the Brazilian Grand Prix before returning to a retirement that he should never have left.
When Schumacher returned to Formula One in 2010 after a three-year layoff, there was much interest in seeing whether the champ still had it and whether he would add to an already staggering array of F1 records.
He didn’t and he wouldn’t.
While Mercedes GP are saying the right things about Schumacher’s departure, the reality is very different. Team principal Ross Brawn told ESPN F1:
The results that we all hoped for over that period have not come to fruition, however the progress that our team has made has been significant, and I am confident that we will see the rewards in seasons to come.
Ross Brawn must have a different definition of "progress" than the rest of us.
Schumacher—along with Nico Rosberg—inherited the car that carried Jenson Button to his 2009 world championship.
Admittedly, rule changes to ban double diffusers took the advantage from the Brawn car as it morphed into the Mercedes, but it was immediately clear that the miraculous second coming of Schumacher wasn’t going to happen.
What’s worse for Brawn and Mercedes is that the team seems to be going backwards rather than making the progress that Brawn spoke of.
The 2010 season saw Mercedes finish fourth in the Constructors' Championship behind the big three of Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. The team amassed a reasonably impressive 214 points, and for a team that had undergone massive change—including change of ownership and two new drivers—the future looked very promising indeed.
At the end of 2011, however, the team had only scored 165 points, but still managed to retain fourth place in the championship.
This year, however, the team has slipped to fifth place with 136 points and is being challenged for that position by Sauber.
While the blame for Mercedes' woes cannot entirely be sheeted home to Schumacher, it’s clear that Mercedes management had decided that they had had enough.
Schumacher suffered the ultimate ignominy of being sacked and replaced by Lewis Hamilton.
Schumacher’s only achievement of note during his three-year resurrection was a single podium place in Valencia this year. There have been flashes of the old brilliance—and even some of the aggression, like against Rubens Barrichello in Hungary in 2010—but for the most part, it has been a litany of disappointment.
It’s difficult to know what motivated Schumacher to return to the track. Certainly a big bag of cash helped, but there must have been more to it than just filthy lucre. He must have had some belief that he could still mix it with the young guys.
Sadly, however, the sport had moved on while Schumacher had not.
It was abundantly clear that he was a driver of a different era. He was out of his depth in the current cars, and his fans were punished week after week with the performance of an ageing champion who didn’t know when to quit.
Being in an uncompetitive car didn't help; in the past, Schumacher was able to develop and improve cars, but here, he had no answers.
It would be interesting to know what Schumacher thinks of his second attempt at the big time. The mind of a Formula One driver has no room for self-doubt, but he surely must have questioned what the hell he was doing.
Why he persisted with the second and third years of his contract will remain a mystery.
On his farewell, Schumacher told ESPN F1 that he wants to “savour” his final race:
I have had fantastic years in Formula One and a lot of support from fans around the world, and I wish to particularly thank them for that. Of course, I would be happiest if I could say goodbye with a strong race, and I am sure we will be doing everything we can to make it happen.
A nice sentiment, but even he won’t expect his record of 91 race victories to have changed at the end of the race.