Michael Schumacher’s decision to return to retirement will surely bring to an end a career that spanned 19 seasons.
Schumacher originally retired in 2006 at the end of an 11-year stretch with Ferrari. Today he called time on his comeback with Mercedes which began three years ago.
It was a return packed with intrigue when it was announced at the end of 2009. Could a seven-times world champion now in his forties become a race-winner, perhaps even a championship contender, again?
It seemed not after a disappointing season in which he was soundly beaten by team mate Nico Rosberg. Worse, his move on Rubens Barrichello in Hungary brought back memories of the most notorious moments from his first career.
But after that Schumacher made strides. In the second half of last year he was increasingly on a par with Rosberg and often out-raced him. At Spa, the scene of so many great Schumacher moments, there were flashes of the old master at work as he came from last on the grid to take fifth place.
He built on that progress this year. Of the seven races where both Mercedes finished, Schumacher was ahead of Rosberg in all but one of them.
Unfortunately a string of glitches with his car robbed him of some potentially strong results. He was holding third in Melbourne when his gearbox failed. In China he ran second before the pit stop error that ended his race.
Finally in Valencia his car and luck held, allowing him to deliver the first and so far only podium finish since his return.
So in many ways it’s a disappointment to see him leave again when his performances have improved, even if they remain short of his early-2000s zenith. But it is a sensible decision for a man who has realised, for the second time, that he lacks the motivation to continue at the top level of motor racing.
As he announced his retirement Schumacher gave a frank assessment of the comeback project: “It is without doubt that we did not achieve our goal to develop a world championship fighting car.”
But he also spoke of the personal discoveries he’d made in that time: “In the past six years I have learned a lot, also about me, and I am thankful for it: for example, that you can open yourself up without losing focus. That losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning; something I had lost out of sight sometimes in earlier years.
“That you have to appreciate to be able to do what you love. That you have to live your convictions. I have opened my horizon, and I am at ease with myself.”
Some will ask whether this second retirement is any more definitive than the first one. I expect it will be. Schumacher desires to compete and win and he no longer has the motivation or the means to do either. He admitted he is no longer a “long-term” prospect for any team.
Does his second retirement mean his first one was the right time to stop? I’m not sure. I wonder if Schumacher watched Kimi Raikkonen driving the car he had just vacated, winning to the 2007 title, and thought “that could have been me”.
Five years on, the ease with which Raikkonen has reintegrated into F1 following a two-year absence has made Schumacher look like he was making hard work of it.
There will inevitably be questions about how Schumacher’s three-year coda to his original career adjusts our view of his achievements. But diving straight into that now would be premature.
After all, he still has half-a-dozen starts left in a car which looked more competitive at the last Grand Prix than it has for quite a few races.
When he announced his first retirement in 2006 Schumacher went on to score a superb victory in China, then led in Japan until his engine failed, and bowed out in style in Brazil. Perhaps he will again go out with a bang and not a whimper.
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