James Corrigan: Schumacher shows just how far F1 has strayed from the straight and narrow
Schumacher should never have been able to forge his 'crazy' reputation. He should have been dealt with unequivocally by the FIA in the first place
Tuesday 03 August 2010
Forget what Sunday's irresponsible driving says about the rather pathetic figure that is now Michael Schumacher and think what the irresponsible punishment handed to him says about Formula One, a sport that has itself long been in danger of becoming a pathetic shadow of its former self.
For almost steering a rival into a wall at 180mph, the German former champion has been given a 10-place penalty on the grid at the next race, in Belgium. Or to put it another way, Schumacher will have to grip his wheel even more psychotically if he is to earn a point at Spa-Francorchamps.
But then, at least it means there will be fewer cars behind the 41-year-old – for a couple of laps anyway – and for that little mercy we should all be thankful. Well, all of us, that is, who perched on our sofas two days ago and resisted yelling "wow!" when Schumacher saw Rubens Barrichello racing up behind him and squeezed his former team-mate to within a few millimetres of that Hungaroring wall.
While the boy and girl racers of this world no doubt felt adrenalin fizzle in their petrol heads, the rest of us only felt nausea bubble in our guts. If that wall had been a few metres longer, if another car had pulled out of the pits... the potential is scarcely bearable to contemplate. Except it was worth contemplating, if only by the stewards whose job it is to issue the deterrents.
As they sat there going over the videotape, they would have done so in the knowledge this was a lose-lose situation as far as they were concerned. As soon as they had reached the unavoidable conclusion Schumacher had "illegitimately impeded" the Brazilian, they knew the criticisms would arrive whatever their sanctions. The insiders in the know would announce their penalty as "tough", while those outsiders – who in the pits are routinely and arrogantly classed as ignorant – would take it as incredibly weak. And therein lies the main problem with F1. Over the decades it has formulated a set of moral values which are repugnant to onlookers whose own strange logic does not place the thrill of speed above the preciousness of life.
The latest Schumacher controversy married to the latest "team orders" controversy sums up the dichotomy quite perfectly. It was in the reaction to the outcry which greeted Felipe Massa allowing Fernando Alonso to pass, where the central failing of the F1 philosophy was unwittingly exposed. In defending the traditions of his sport and in questioning the comparatively recent banning of team orders, Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren supremo and one of the more rounded of thinkers in this most insular of worlds, said the following: "We have moved into a rule which perhaps goes against the history of F1. There are team interests... so inevitably if you ask your driver not to drive into his team-mate that could be a team order."
And there you have it. Team orders, says Whitmarsh, will always exist because the team will always want their drivers not to drive into the team's other driver. By extension that must mean that driving into drivers from other teams is an accepted part of F1; even if, like team orders to allow a team-mate to pass, it is outlawed.
But in F1 there are the laws and then there is the culture; as the majority of pundits prove when excusing whatever affront has been made to civilised society with the explain-all phrase, "Well, that's F1." They've been saying and believing as much all their lives.
After all, little boys and girls first get behind the wheel of a go-kart not because they are interested in how to negotiate their way from A to B in the fastest and most efficient way possible, but because of the swashbuckling images of the hero who puts his existence on the line to see the chequered flag and be drenched in champagne.
Last week, Top Gear featured a segment on Ayrton Senna, and mighty nostalgic it was, too. Depicted as a genius who would stop at nothing, each and every facet of his character was lauded. The eulogy even included the time he purposefully crashed into Alain Prost in the final race of the 1990 season, the reward being the world championship. As Jeremy Clarkson spoke wistfully into the camera about the legend who ended up paying the highest price for his passion, the message plainly was that a driver has to do, what a driver has to do. It was irresistible stuff which through the romance of the narrative managed to obscure the pitiful reality of a young man smashed to pieces in the wreckage. All in the name of entertainment.
Schumacher grew up in this world, so perhaps he should not be lambasted too severely. The distance between Barrichello and that cement was as fine as the distance between what is viewed as a brilliant racing move and a reckless racing move. That is why, right now, the debate rages on internet forums whether Schumacher was even in the wrong or not. "Well, that's F1," write his apologists over and over, before claiming that this is nothing more than a witch-hunt against a champion who has always polarised opinion. Now if Ayrton had done it...
And somewhere in the marble, gold-plated F1 offices the overlords will be rubbing their hands. Whatever they may claim in public, they will be delighted with the FIA for allowing Schumacher to line up in Belgium as there will be yet more intrigue revving up on that grid. There are already experts calling for Schumacher's retirement and accusing him of never being able to give up; both with his position on the track or in his status within the sport. "Don't further ruin what already is such a tainted reputation," so says the anti-Schumacher brigade. "You're becoming a liability."
They miss the point. He should never have been able to forge his "crazy" reputation in the first place. Schumacher should have been dealt with immediately and unequivocally, just as any driver who endangers others should. Yet while the cars may be safer and the rules may insist on greater safety, the organisers can't quite consign the potential for dramatic disaster to the rear-view mirror. The question has to be, do they really want to, and would they have a sport if they did, at least one that attracted so many viewers who aren't interested in the technology and mechanics?
Consider this. Last year a driver was granted immunity after admitting he followed orders – yep from the "team" – to crash into a wall. This year, a driver receives what amounts to a slap on his glove for almost making a fellow competitor crash into a wall. Two instances in which only good fortune spared life – and not one driving ban between them. Danger, skulduggery, greed, mixed with a little dash of compliance and acceptance. It's what makes the F1 wheels turn around.
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It is one he will undoubtedly be asked this week at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Akron and it will be interesting to see how – or at the very least, "if" – he answers. Corey Pavin, the US captain, understands it is not a given Woods will accept a wildcard and for that reason will approach him about the subject at next week's USPGA.
It is rather incredible Pavin has not spoken to Woods yet, but then perhaps like most he thought it inevitable he would make the team as of right. Quite simply Woods, by his own standards, has played awfully thus far in his comeback and if he doesn't perform well at Firestone, a tournament he has won seven times in its 10 stagings, or at the season's final major, he may very well decide to put away his clubs awhile.
It would involve missing the FedEx play-offs and the chance to win $10m [£6.29m]. But he may consider that worth it to spare himself the indignity of having to be in Celtic Manor in October, as a player not there on merit, in an event he has never warmed to, surrounded by wives who will never warm to him again. Maybe mediocrity will have its plus points.
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