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Archive for August, 2009

Schumi oldComebacks. Who needs them? Not Michael Schumacher. Thankfully.

Yes, the return of the seven-time world champion would have put extra traseros on seats in Valencia at this weekend’s European Grand Prix. In fact ticket sales rose by 10,000 when news broke of his impeding substitution for Ferrari regular Felipe Massa.

And yes, it would have been fleetingly interesting to see him mixing it with the Hamiltons, Alonsos, Vettels and the rejuvenated Buttons and Webbers.

But what of KERS, slicks, 2009 aerodynamic packages? Not to mention a prancing horse which is a lot more temperamental than the one he saddled in 2006.

What did he really have to gain? Was there anything left to prove? To us, to himself?

When the comeback was first mooted, Schumacher’s manager Willi Webber said it best. “When Michael was racing he would get as close to perfection as possible,” he observed. “In this case [the comeback], it would not be perfection – it would be a gamble – and that’s not Michael’s style.” Indeed it’s not.

Schumacher’s preparation was meticulous. So conditioning himself physically, mentally and technically for a return to the 2009 grid in the space of a few weeks, was way out of his comfort level.

And while his willingness to help out an old friend was noble, there wasn’t a realistic chance of him being competitive. And that’s not Michael’s style either.

In announcing his final decision, Schumacher said: “I am disappointed to the core. I really tried everything to make that temporary comeback possible, however, much to my regret, it did not work out.”

There are some of us who are relieved to the core that a stiff neck, the legacy of a motorbike accident earlier in the year, forced an about-turn.

What’s better? A champion bowing out in his pomp or a pale shadow poodling around with the tail-end charlies? It might be acceptable in touring cars, rally raids or celebrity karting but not in modern F1.

Boxers, particularly heavyweights, climb back through the ropes in the name of mounting debt dressed up as sporting desire. Most of those contests end in pity and despair.

And there are those who came back once too often having long since succumbed to the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. Just ask Muhammad Ali – if you still can.

Having quit after regaining his world title from Leon Spinks in 1978, Ali re-laced his gloves three years later at the age of 39 and was badly beaten by Larry Holmes.

He once floated like a butterfly. His care workers are now left propping up a trembling wreck of a human being. The sting has long gone.

And what of Joe Louis? Considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight of all time, he held the crown from 1937 to 1949. Massive tax debt led him into battle long after his shelf life.

In 1950, a year after his retirement and two years since his last fight, he lost to Ezzard Charles. A large purse was offered to fight champion Rocky Marciano the following year.

It was a contest Marciano didn’t want. Conscious of Louis’ financial plight, he accepted. Louis ate canvas in the eighth round and retired for good.

George Foreman re-entered the ring in 1994 at the age of 45. He knocked out Michael Moorer to reclaim his world title after a 20-year gap. He finally called it a day when he lost to Shannon Briggs in 1997. But, even then, he threatened comebacks in 1999 and, at the age of 55.

Schumi jumpsSugar Ray Leonard was another man with a heavy addiction to comebacks. He made four between 1976 and 1997. His dubious reward today is the ability to count his brain cells on one hand.

Elsewhere, sport is littered with failed second comings. Sportsmen who returned as spent replicas.

Men like Bjorn Borg. The Swede retired aged 26 with 11 grand slam titles in his locker. He founded a fashion company, flirted with hard drugs and soft-in-in-the-head relationships, before attempting a toe-curling comeback in 1991. He arrived armed with his wooden Donnay racket. Wood v graphite? Go figure.  

He never won another match in 10 tournaments.

Then there’s Mark Spitz. The American made history with seven Olympic gold medals in the pool at the Munich in 1972, a record only eclipsed by Michael Phelps in Beijing last year. Spitz tried out for the US national team in 1991, aged 41. He was two seconds outside the qualifying time for Barcelona 92.

Even Pele, after taking Brazil to three World Cups, was coaxed out of retirement to play saar-kur for the New York Cosmos.

East German figure skater Katarina Witt collected two Olympic golds, four world titles and six European crowns. She quit in 1988 at 23 but returned six years later for the 1994 Games at Lillehammer. She finished seventh.

Martina Hingis took an early bath at 23. In 2006, the former world No1 was back and played two seasons winning three tournaments and the Australian Open mixed crown. Her homecoming was brought to a premature by a positive test for cocaine during Wimbledon in 2007.

Of course there will always be exceptions. Some glorious.

In Schumacher’s world there is Niki Lauda. The Austrian survived a fiery, near-fatal shunt at the 1976 German Grand Prix to win the world title the following year. The Austrian then retired, flew planes, got bored, oversaw the destruction of his business empire, and returned to land a third title in1984.

Michael Jordan, came back to basketball after two seasons of playing baseball badly to inspire the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA titles. Lester Piggott cajoled a string of winners after a five-year break at Her Majesty’s behest on tax charges.

And of course there is Lance Armstrong. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, he won the Tour de France three years later and added six more before retiring in 2005. This year, aged 37, he came back again, and finished third.

In Schumacher’s case, I prefer to remember him as he was in 2006, signing off at the Brazilian Grand Prix with one last flourish of his awesome talent at the controls of a Formula One car.

His qualifying was compromised by a fuel-pressure failure, and, in the race, a puncture after nine laps dropped him drop to 19th. His response was to drive the sidepods off his Ferrari to finish fourth.

It was a fitting finale. An encapsulation of the determination that had defined his career.

“You know the song ‘My Way’? I’d say that fits the way I feel,” he said afterwards.

His way was not always to take the moral high road. He mixed utter brilliance with outbreaks of questionable sportsmanship. The archetypal flawed genius, his entries in the record books will always carry an asterisk of controversy.

Variations on the “Schumacher Returns to F1” story will continue to be written. For there is something of the obsessive about sports men and women.

The same ferocious drive that got them to the top in the first place, lures them back when they are clearly past their best. As does the succor of adulation.

Sporting greats contemplating a career reboot will do well to heed the advice of The Beatles, who disbanded in 1970 and never reformed.

Let it be.

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154John Surtees buried his son Henry last week, cruelly taken from him and his family at the age of 18. Henry was chasing his dream just like his father had done.

Henry was the victim of a freak accident in a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch when a stray tyre from another car struck his crash helmet at over 140mph. He was airlifted to a London hospital. He passed away later that evening.

John, as Henry’s racing mentor, was trackside. Prior to the race, John stood on the starting grid and reached down into the cockpit to shake Henry’s hand. “We bid each other farewell, as it turned out,” he would say afterwards.

When news of the severity of Henry’s injuries began to emerge, via event commentary and from the trembling lips of team mechanics, John feared the worst. “After I had seen his helmet I started to feel very unwell,” he recalls. “They rushed him to hospital straight away. The doctor told us the impact would have killed him instantly.”

Less than 24 hours earlier, Henry had underlined his burgeoning reputation by claiming his first podium finish at the same circuit.

In the hours following his death, during the funeral service at Worth Abbey, Sussex, and the days since, the dignity with which Surtees Snr dealt with the tragedy should be an example to us all.

No press conference, no public outpourings of grief. Just a very private, moving, eloquent statement from the family figurehead and a plea for lessons to be heeded from the events leading to the loss.  At the service, Henry’s devoted sisters spoke with equal solemnity.

In trying to comprehend the manner of his son’s passing, Surtees said: “It was just the most terrible piece of bad luck. It was a chance in God knows how many millions that the tyre collided with Henry when it did. You can’t prepare for anything like that.”

Henry had recently completed A-levels in economics, ICT and biology at Worth School, run by Benedictine monks from the Turners Hill Abbey.

“The tragedy was that he only just found himself,” his father noted. “He had spent the last two years frantically trying to balance his studies and racing.

“But in recent months he changed, without the worry of his A levels hanging over him. He was so confident in himself and started to map out what he wanted to do in the future.

“Contrary to what many people think, I never asked him to go into racing. He had never actually seen me racing because of the age gap between us.”

John, 75, is the only man to be crowned world champion on two and four wheels.

He won seven world championships in the 350 and 500cc class between 1952 and 1960. Four years later he took the Formula One world championship at the wheel of a Ferrari. He was awarded an OBE last year for his services to motor sport and charity.

John survived a period during which rivals lost their lives almost on a weekly basis. Hard to accept then that motor racing took a son destined to follow in his tyre tracks. And in an era of vastly improved safety.

“The world beckoned,” John said. “He had shown himself to be one with the possibilities of reaching the very top. Despite his young age he had shown maturity, technical understanding and speed. Most importantly he was a nice person and a loving son.

“I feel absolutely empty. I still expect him to bounce through the door. For now we are concentrating on celebrating the eighteen-and-a-half years we were lucky to have had him in our lives.”

BBC commentator Martin Brundle, another proud father at Brands Hatch that day, wrote … “My 18-year-old son, Alex, was in the same race just a few places ahead of Henry. If he had been in the accident I would have been thinking we’d lost him.

“When we got home we went onto the internet and followed the stories until Henry’s death was announced. I knew those stories could just as likely have been about my son, or anyone else’s.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what John and Jane Surtees and their family and friends are going through. To outlive your child is any parent’s worst nightmare.”

Like Henry and many others, I never saw Surtees race for real but I was privileged to catch a glimpse of him rolling back the years at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari during the San Marino Grand Prix weekend of 1998.

Surtees, 64 at the time, was on the Mercedes-Benz Museum’s elite driver roster. His job was to demonstrate the German marque’s priceless collection of pre and post-war racing machines.

henryStanding beside his chosen steed on that day – a W154 circa 1939 – was this ghostly figure clad in a blue cotton race suit diffidently treated with fire retardant.

A solitary Dunlop logo was on his left breast – a far cry from Nomex/Kevlar race suits adourning the human billboards of modern Formula One. Open face helmet and split-lens goggles completed his sober attire.

He waited patiently by a back entrance to the circuit. There was not a race fan in sight. That appeared to be the way Surtees preferred it.

Nostalgia and methanol filled the humid air as the two-stage supercharged V12 was roused. Ears were split when the rev dial went anti-clockwise. Surtees had 7,800 rpm under his right foot.

He inched his frame into the cockpit, eased the beast onto the track and over four laps coaxed every ounce there was from the 480-odd horses. His valour and car craft was every bit as captivating as that of Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve in qualifying the same day. Not a wheel out of place, every apex hit, balls-out power slides aplenty.

Gnarled race mechanics downed spanners and clambered on to the pit wall to drool. Not once did Surtees pause for adulation until his day was done.

TV feeds in the opulent race team catering facilities and the vast VIP hospitality areas showed him hack sawing at the polished wooden steering wheel. Big screens dotted around the circuit took the pictures to the grandstands.

The cacophony of appreciation from the tifosi was earth moving. All the more remarkable given that the colour of Surtees’ car was silver not red. This was Ferrari territory.

Here was a man at the top of his game long after his extraordinary heyday had been consigned to sepia. On his return to the Paddock, he climbed out and departed as quietly as he had arrived. A virtuoso if ever there was one. And not a hint of pretence.

Contrast that with another occasion a few years later. The scene is the Jaguar Racing team official hospitality suite in the Sepang paddock. It is Friday morning practice for the 2000 Malaysian Grand Prix.

A replay of Surtees’ exploits in the W154 as part of a highlights package from an earlier grand prix was running on the TV as it usually did prior to the first practice session of the weekend.

Seated for breakfast are three world champions. Jackie Stewart (1969, 1971, 1973), Niki Lauda (1975, 1977, 1984) and Jody Scheckter (1979).

On Jackie’s plate is the full English. A waitress emerges to take orders.

Waitress: “What are you having Niki?”

Lauda: “I’ll have what Jackie’s having.”

Stewart: “It’s the world champions’ breakfast.”

Lauda: “OK, I better have that then.”

Scheckter: “And the same for me.”

In walks Jacques Laffite, the dapper Frenchman who recorded six race wins between 1974 and 1986. And no world titles.

Waitress: “Can I get you something to eat?”

Lauda (winking to his colleagues): “Jacques, are you having the world champions’ breakfast?”

Cue raucous urine extraction from the trio of world champions.

Somehow you can’t imagine Gentleman John being party to the mocking at Laffite’s expense.

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