I was never a Michael Schumacher fan. His years at Ferrari were agony for me, as he piled up titles and records at a prodigious rate.
When Fernando Alonso finally ended his run of five straight championships in 2005, I was happy. When Schumi retired after the 2006 season, I was ecstatic.
But then, in 2010, he returned to Formula One with the revived Mercedes factory team: Two German icons seeking a return to glory.
It was not to be. Schumacher's struggles, despite his obvious commitment, turned him from a flawed champion—known for his more-than-occassional, less-than-accidental clashes with his rivals—into a sympathetic, almost tragic figure.
That tragedy was compounded and magnified with the news that the now-retired German driver suffered a serious head injury on the weekend, while skiing with his son in France.
In 2006, his final season at Ferrari, Schumacher won seven races (the same number as world champion Fernando Alonso). In 58 races with Mercedes, spanning three seasons (2010 to 2012), he only found the podium once, for a third-place finish in the 2012 European Grand Prix at Valencia.*
Before each qualifying session (and most races), when the camera would zoom in on Schumacher making his final mental preparations in the cockpit, he would invariably smile, wave and maybe blow a kiss. My daughter, born in 2009, loved it; she thought he was waving at her! Meanwhile, the likes of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton scowled and sulked in the dark corners of their garages.
I began to see that, maybe, there was something more than just a relentless driving machine behind the helmet. David Coulthard, who finished second to the German in the 2001 championship, alluded to this while speaking to BBC 5Live, per The Telegraph, that, "There are two Michaels. There was Michael on the racetrack and the Michael off it. When Michael was socialising he was a very caring, kind, giving man."
When Schumacher qualified on pole for the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, but was served with a five-place grid penalty for an incident at the previous race, I actually felt sorry for him—sympathy I never would have felt earlier in his career.
In the second act of his career, especially, Schumi was clearly enjoying himself. With no chance of adding to his record seven World Drivers' Championships, he was racing purely for the love of the sport.
Even in his comeback, though, he had not completely banished the ruthless, often dangerous, streak that allowed him to become F1's most decorated driver.
Deliberately driving into Damon Hill in 1994 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 cost him some respect (although the maneuver was certainly not unprecedented—at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna drove into Alain Prost, clinching the title for the Brazilian). Likewise, Schumacher's parking of his car at the Rascasse during qualifying for the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix led to accusations that he was a cheater.
At the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix, Schumacher nearly put his former teammate, Rubens Barrichello, into a cement wall at over 300 kph. Afterwards, he was unapologetic.
Those questionable moves will forever keep me from thinking of Schumacher as the greatest driver in F1 history. Still, his three years at Mercedes helped show a different side of the German champion. Now, we are witnessing the love that people around the world have for him with the outpouring of sympathy since his accident.
We have already seen Schumacher morph from villain to champion to tragic hero. Now, we can only hope that we will get to see the next iteration of the 44-year-old German. He still has a lot to offer the motorsports world, perhaps as an ambassador, an adviser or maybe even in its governance structure.
It is a sad irony that, after surviving nearly 20 seasons in a dangerous sport with nothing worse than a broken leg, Schumacher was so badly hurt while on a fun ski outing with his son. Hopefully, with access to some of the best medical care in the world, he will recover and we will see him in the paddock again next season, smiling and blowing kisses.
*This was a somewhat-fitting location for the final podium of his career: During Schumi's dominant years, the European Grand Prix was held in his native Germany. Capitalizing on his popularity with the German fans, the country was awarded two F1 races from 1999 to 2007. The European race was held at the Nurburgring, while Hockenheim hosted the German Grand Prix.
With Schumacher's first retirement and Alonso becoming the first Spanish world champion, Valencia took over hosting duties for the European Grand Prix from 2008 to 2012.
Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert
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