He won his first Formula 1 race 20 years ago. He has secured an amazing 91 victories, 154 podium finishes from a whopping 284 starts. One of world’s richest sportspersons, he had acquired cult status in the sport in far off lands as he passed many milestones and claimed seven world championship crowns.
And yet, in the past two years since German F1 legend Michael Schumacher decided to come back to the sport that he dominated, he has had to face questions about lingering on as a driver in Formula 1. Indian cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and even Rahul Dravid will empathise with his predicament.
Is Schumacher a champion who has outlived his sell-by date and damaging his own reputation after having worked his way into millions of hearts as a proud competitor? Is he, with time as one his biggest enemies, just being mule-headed by staying on that quest for victory? Whatever the answer, it cannot be argued that they do not make champions like him anymore.
Several generations of Schumacher fans in India – having grown up watching him race in the comfort of their homes or the neighbourhood pub – will want to see him perform as well as he can at the BIC. Some secretly wish that he delivers an unexpected win by reading up that Juan Manuel Fangio was 46 when he won his fifth world championship title.
On Thursday, within hours of landing in India for the Grand Prix of India at the Buddh International Circuit, 42-year-old Schumacher answered that question quite candidly. “To be honest, I returned to race for Mercedes last year, with expectations of being on the podium, of winning races,” he says, intensity and hunger sparkling in his eyes.
Of course, he hopes that when he finally quits the sport, he will be judged by what he has done in all his years rather than just his recent showing. It is also hard to forget that he joined the Mercedes team after it had won both the drivers’ championship (Jenson Button) and the constructors’ championship in 2009.
He is still very competitive, finishing just outside the podium at the Canadian Grand Prix in July last and has claimed two fifth-place finishes in Belgian and Italian Grands Prix this year, “Motivation is not a question mark. It is procedure of building ourselves up in order to get back to the top. There is only one target and that is to come back to the winning road,” he says.
There is the added motivation to be among the points in BIC’s inaugural race this Sunday since he had to retire from two of the last three races after being involved in incidents. “The outcome of the last race in Korea was unlucky for us, therefore I am extra-motivated to score some points next weekend and reward the good work of the team,” he says, stressing that his motivation is far from low.
Of course, he acknowledges being nervous in the run up to the start of every race – an emotion that all quality sportspersons would be familiar with. “The start of the race is the without doubt one of the most intense moments over the weekend, when you are looking to get ahead of the traffic around you without making contact,” he says.
“We have had the taste of winning races and championships. We are building up to the future of Mercedes and sometimes the fruits don’t come immediately,” he says “Our ambition is to push the cars to the limit. And that is what you will find this weekend, too.” Indeed, the fire in Schumacher rages bright.