"We are competitive." With those three words, Michael Schumacher gave voice to all of his hopes for a season that may yet decide whether he hangs up his helmet or signs on for another two years as Ferrari's team leader.
Apart from the first season when he went to the Scuderia in 1996, the 37-year-old German has ever since been a contender for the world championship. A clash with brother Ralf spoilt his campaign in 1997; Mika Hakkinen held him off in 1998; and in 1999 he broke a leg at Silverstone and stymied his own chances. But from 2000 to 2004, Schumacher was the man by whom everybody else judged themselves. Just as Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were in their time, Schumacher was the yardstick. More often than not his hold on the championship assumed the form of a vice-like grip, until it took a controversial ruling on tyres in 2003 by the FIA, the sport's ruling body, prompted by Bridgestone, to help him up off the canvas as Michelin-shod Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya looked like duking it out for his crown. In 2004 he was back, as bold as ever. A seventh title surrendered to him with a whimper. And then came 2005.
What to make of that season? How was it that a car that was in a class of its own in the San Marino Grand Prix (where upstart Fernando Alonso kept him at bay until the flag), could fail thereafter so lamentably that, at times, Schumacher was granted only a walk-on role by the sport's screenplay writers?
What happened to Ferrari's fabled dominance? To Schumacher, the unbeatable yardstick? It's perfectly simple. Renault built a better car, and so did McLaren. And Michelin built a better tyre. The days when a driver counted for more than around 20 per cent of the overall package, when sheer artistic skill in the cockpit could overcome technical shortcomings, belong back in the era before racing cars wore wings. The very fact that the great Schumacher was made, at times, to seem ordinary, shows just how critical it is for any driver to have the right equipment.
Many others his age would be considering winding down, but in all the hype surrounding the question of whether he should retire and take up something gentler for a living - perhaps even running his own Formula One team - there is one point that is all too frequently overlooked. Michael Schumacher adores driving racing cars. And as long as he is behind the wheel, he will be driving them as fast as they will go.
"Michael is always around the place," technical director Ross Brawn says, referring to the Ferrari factory at Maranello in Italy. "And if he isn't here, suggesting something to make the cars go quicker, he's probably off racing karts somewhere. One time he got beaten at the local track, and he kept working at it until he beat the guy who beat him. That's how competitive he is."
Forget the seven world championships for a moment, and the 84 grand prix triumphs, records though they represent. The most impressive thing about Schumacher is his determination and commitment after 14 complete seasons in Formula One. For all but four of them he has been at the front, and last year he was still a threat at times. When you consider that Fangio raced in Formula One for only eight full seasons, Clark for seven and Senna for 10, that puts Schumacher's longevity into further perspective.
Inevitably, he cannot carry on for ever, and earlier this season there were rumours that 2006 might be his last hurrah. He even hinted at that himself. But after driving Ferrari's new V8-powered contender he began to perk up. "It's not looking too bad," he said. "There are many things pointing in a good direction. I see the same fighting spirit at Ferrari that I feel; we want a major role in the title fight." That is the key. To be competitive, even if the car cannot always win.
"There were times in 2005 when Michael's body language said he had given up," suggests Peter Collins, the driver manager who helped, among others, champions Nigel Mansell, Hakkinen and Raikkonen on to the world stage. "For the first time, you felt there were one or two races where he did not quite give of his best." But in the right car few doubt that the old Schumacher magic will be rekindled.
"Michael isn't just the present at Ferrari, but the future," team president Luca Di Montezemolo says. "For the will, the determination and the results he has achieved, he remains the best. If he quits I'll be sorry, but I know that if he decides to do so, it'll be because he doesn't feel like being No 1 any more. Then it will be better that way. But I see he still has the will."
Bernie Ecclestone agrees: "Schumacher is always a winner and he will be the favourite in the next championship. I don't see him being tired enough to think about retiring. He races because he enjoys it and he has gone beyond the money barrier."
That enjoyment is an intensely personal thing, something by which Schumacher quite possibly defines himself. The sheer thrill of driving a racing car on the limit remains the wire in his blood. Something far more important than money, far more important than mere figures in the record books. Those who miss those points fail to understand the Schumacher psyche at all. The figure 37 means that he is the oldest driver on the grid, and that's another one that doesn't matter a damn. "Unlike football players, F1 drivers don't have an age at which they have to retire," he says. "With the passing of the years your reflexes slow, but that is compensated for by experience. I don't really need to feel anything different just because I am another year older. There's one thing that is in your passport and another thing you feel in your body and your brain."
Referring to those younger rivals - Alonso, Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Montoya - he is far from dismissive but adds: "I've seen those guys around for quite a while now - we play football and do things together - and I don't have a feeling that I am an old man hopelessly lost against these young guys."
"We are competitive." We come back to those three words. So long as Michael Schumacher believes that his package - his Ferrari, his Bridgestone tyres, and himself - is capable of fighting for the sort of results he has become accustomed to, he will carry on. It may be no coincidence that key players at Ferrari such as Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne have signed new deals.
In the mood he is in right now, as he heads for the season-opener in Bahrain this weekend, Schumacher may already be relishing the possibility of arch his rival Raikkonen racing alongside him if he decides to stay at Ferrari next year.Reuse content