After 246 races, 90 victories, 66 pole positions, 75 fastest laps and seven world championships, what will we finally make of Michael Schumacher? How will his sport remember a man who was at the same time one of its most gifted practitioners and yet also one of its most controversial? Perhaps Bernie Ecclestone summarised it best when he suggested that every time anyone mentions Schumacher, they think of Formula One. The two became synonymous, and his retirement at the end of this season, which he announced after winning the Italian Grand Prix here yesterday, will inevitably leave a huge void until the next big character emerges.
He has been one of motor racing's greatest stars. A man of his time who fought in a manner that has come to be acceptable to the majority if not always to the purists who remember that the other giants of the game - Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve and Alain Prost - had no need to make contact with their rivals, nor made as many mistakes as he appeared to.
Schumacher was most like the late Ayrton Senna, who, for all his fabulous talents, is also remembered as the man who made the professional foul kosher, at least as far the sport's management were concerned. And that in itself was deeply ironic, for it was Schumacher, back in Brazil in 1993, who had ranted plaintively in the post-race press conference as he accused Senna of adopting tactics to keep him behind that were "unacceptable." He was a fast learner.
Like Senna, Schumacher had many faces. To those he worked with, he was a genius obsessed with every aspect of his vehicle's technology, a man of unquenchable competitive fire who hated to lose and loved racing for racing's sake. "He once got beaten in a kart race," Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn recalled. "We would see him at the factory quite a lot during the winter, but he was spending more and more time in the kart, until he got his revenge and beat the guy who had beaten him. That was what made him the kind of driver that he was."
He was the man whose fantastic ability and intense focus helped Ferrari back from their wilderness years, and who, in 2000, finally became their first world champion since South African Jody Scheckter back in 1979. Had he not broken his leg at Silverstone in 1999, he would probably already have been champion eight times. He is the man for whom everyone at Maranello would have journeyed to hell and back.
Ferrari's domination in recent years owes so much to Schumacher's other-worldly blend of driving brilliance, the design and technical management skills of Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn, and the ability of the sporting director Jean Todt to meld this into a cohesive structure devoid of the polemics which were so rife. Todt, unsurprisingly, has always been unstinting in his praise for his driver, for he has been the man best placed to appreciate his true contribution.
"Michael has been the author of a unique chapter in the history of Formula One and of Ferrari in particular," he said. "It has yet to reach its conclusion and what he has achieved extends over and above the results obtained. He is an exceptional man and will become a legend as a driver.
"Humanly, he is a great guy. He's very mature, he loved driving, so for us it was fantastic to have him. He is very curious; he wants to know. He wants to understand everything."
To his rivals - particularly men such as the 1996 champion Damon Hill - Schumacher was a different man, one who would intimidate without second thought, and who wanted to win at any cost. Hill discovered that when Schumacher turfed him off the road in Adelaide in 1994, to steal his first crown. In 1997, his default setting when overtaken by Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez was to turn into the French-Canadian's Williams, but on that occasion the ploy backfired as Villeneuve went on to win the title.
Since then, Schumacher had redeemed himself in the eyes of the purists, as he stacked victory upon victory, many of them wins that owed everything to his fearsome commitment and consistency. Nobody in history has remained so competitive for so long.
Then came Monaco this year, and the embarrassment of his stupid effort to frustrate rival Fernando Alonso by wilfully parking his Ferrari at Rascasse.
It was such manoeuvres that generated the controversy that surrounded Schumacher throughout his career. But the very fact that as many people loathed him as loved him made him both hero and villain, and brought a massive intangible benefit to the sport via his global superstardom.
Like Senna before him, Schumacher was flawed, but he will be remembered as a genius nevertheless.
Different gear: A life in pole position
* WORLD TITLES: Champion in 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. The only driver to win seven championships in Formula One history. He owns most of the sport's meaningful records.
* STARTING GRID: First grand prix outing in 1991, with Jordan-Ford in Belgium. First podium finish in 1992. First win later that year in Belgium - yet he had to wait until Monaco in 1994 for his first pole position.
* PEACE OF MIND: Lives in Switzerland, where motor racing is banned. Born in 1969 in Hürth-Hermuelheim, Germany. Married, to Corinna, with two children.
* CONTROVERSY: In Belgium in 1995, he won from 16th place on the starting grid in changing conditions, staying out on slick tyres in the wet. But the victory was tainted by protests, with the German receiving a suspended one-race ban for weaving on the straights to prevent Damon Hill from overtaking.Reuse content