Thursday, 13 December 2012

Schumacher: A Response to Bernie

Ok, so it's been a while since I've blogged, but today I finally caught up with the F1 news to read an interesting article with the views of Bernie Ecclestone on Michael Schumacher. In the article, Ecclestone states that Schumacher should never have come out of his 2006 retirement to return to F1 in 2010. It's easy to understand why he thinks this - Schumacher didn't have an easy return to F1, and when you compare his returning form to that of Kimi Raikkonen's the case against his return seems clear-cut. I've always been a steadfast supporter of Schumacher (maybe I have a soft spot for the German drivers?), and the post I wrote about Schumacher's return during his second year is by far and away my most popular article (possibly due to the fact that my Twitter handle was read out on 5 Live F1 by David Croft after I sparked a debate). If you've not read that post, then I suggest you do so, otherwise I'll be repeating myself here.

Since Michael's return, he's been confronted with criticism at every turn. In his first year back, he was consistently worse than team-mate Nico Rosberg, and ended up 9th in the championship with 72 points to Rosberg's 142. A lot of people were prepared to give on Schumacher, and simply say that he'd lost all ability to drive in F1 - largely as a result of his age. However, in his second year, Michael was much closer to Rosberg, finishing 8th in the championship with 76 points to Rosberg's 89.

I think the step up in performance is largely due to Schumacher having another season in F1. Since he retired, there had been a lot of changed in F1 in terms of the car setup. Every change requires adaptation and learning (here comes the psychologist/neuroscientist in me), and sometimes this can take time. While I tend to downplay Schumacher's age, there is evidence that our capacity of learning is changed somewhat by the ageing process. If you think that Schumacher is in his forties and competing with a grid made up of mostly 20-somethings, then I don't think that he's done so badly.

I know that at this point a lot of you will be willing to jump on me for not writing about Schumi's 2012 season, but I feel this requires a lot of explaining. 2012 was an exceptional year in F1. The first seven races brought us seven different winners - something we've never seen before. The championship was wide open until the closing stages of the season, and was eventually won by Vettel - someone whom many consider to be Schumacher's F1 heir. Among the first seven race winners was Nico Rosberg, however in 2012 Schumacher only managed to score one podium. Before you all start going off on one and crying this as conclusive proof that Schumi's lost it, let's consider the fact that this year Schumacher was beset by bad luck. Reliability issues and race incidents meant that Schumacher netted a total of seven retirements - obviously meaning that he was down on the points.

While the season was progressing poorly for Schumacher, the media were once again asking whether he was still able to drive in F1. Now, however much drivers deny that the media has any influence on them, I doubt very much that this is true. Everything that we hear can influence how we think, feel and behave (here's the psychologist again), and so whether the drivers consciously know this or not, the barrage of questions posed by journalists about their performance and driving style will undoubtedly have some influence during the races.Thus, we may have ended up with a vicious cycle of bad luck causing bad performances, which are attributed not to the luck, but to Schumacher's ability, decreasing his performance. A self-fulfilling prophecy if you will.

As we approached the end of the F1 year, we entered 'Silly Season': a time of the year when driver changes are occurring left, right and centre. This brought the somewhat unexpected news that McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton would be moving to Mercedes, thus taking Schumacher's 2013 drive. Rather than try to find a seat in another mid-field team, Schumacher opted to announce his (second) retirement.

So, we return to Bernie Ecclestone's comments that Schumacher should never have come out of retirement in the first place. According to Bernie, Schumacher's performances in the past three years mean that people will now no longer see him as a hero of F1, and instead as a poor driver who was uncompetitive. Alright, I admit that it wasn't great for Schumacher to have such poor performances, and I agree that our perception of him has changed. However, I think that this perception has changed for the better, not the worse.

Let me explain. During Schumacher's dominance in which he acquired seven world championship titles, people began to draw away from F1. Claims of always knowing who was going to win turned people off the sport, and Michael wasn't revered so much as demonised for taking the uncertainty out of the sport. People grew to dislike Schumacher intensely for his success - and I think this is something that we're seeing with Vettel. I'm sure if Senna was in F1 for a while longer and started dominating the sport, people would feel the same way. The fact that Senna was tragically killed before his success became too wearisome instead means he's revered as one of the greats of F1 - quite rightly too.

The fact is, people have a chip on their shoulder if one driver starts performing much better than everyone else. Achievements are at first respected, but gather too many and people start to dislike you. This isn't just in F1 - it can be seen in many aspects of life (including in my experience of education, hence perhaps why I relate to Schumacher and Vettel so much). When Schumacher returned to F1 and started experiencing bad results and underperformance, our perception of him did change - we began to see that he was human and could make mistakes like 'normal' people. Although he was criticised for this (damned if you do, damned if you don't it seems), people began to warm to him. We like to cheer on an underdog rather than someone who seemingly has no problems in doing well (although of course, it has to be a realistic underdog - I'm not sure Narain Karthikeyan has a massive supporting). Thus, I view Schumacher's return to F1 as a good thing - we still have the legendary seven titles, however a lot more of us respect and have warmed to him now compared to back then, and this can only be good.