Focus - why Schumacher could yet retire 30 Oct 2003
In the closing stages of the 2003 season speculation surrounding Michael Schumacher's possible retirement grew to fever pitch. Assuming he did go on to clinch that record sixth drivers' title, what more would he have to prove? However, in public at least, the man himself was having none of it, insisting he would be seeing out his Ferrari contract which lasts another three seasons.
If Schumacher were going to spring a surprise surely it would have come in his post-race press conference at Suzuka, just minutes after he had finally eclipsed Fangio in the history books? Perhaps so, though some will point out there is plenty of time between now and the 2004 Australian Grand Prix for a change of heart. Many factors could yet decide his future in Formula One racing.
First, there is fatigue. At times this year he looked mentally exhausted, and it affected his performance inside the car. It was as if the weight of carrying the entire Ferrari team had finally broken him. There were problems with the Bridgestone tyres, but fatigue more than anything could explain his below par races at Silverstone, Magny-Cours, Hockenheim and Hungary, where he was outpaced by team mate Rubens Barrichello.
Second, there is pressure from wife Corinna to stop. She married Michael in 1995 and they now have two children, Mick and Eva-Maria. Sources close to Schumacher report that Corinna has been desperate for him to quit the sport for the past couple of years, both from the point of view of his safety and so that he can spend more time at home. Apparently, she only succumbed to his desire to continue on the understanding that he would retire if he broke Fangio's record of five titles.
Third, there is clear evidence that Schumacher is discovering interests away from Formula One and the prospect of life after racing is not as intimidating as it was just three or four years ago. Racing, after all, is all he has known since he was four years old, when he started karting, and until recently he had no idea what he would do when he stopped driving. Not any more.
He is now a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO and he has an increasing desire to travel - not on the plane-hotel-track-plane treadmill that has been a part of his life for the past 12 years - but proper exploration. Ever since the United States Grand Prix returned to Indianapolis in 2000, he has used the race as a chance to spend some time in America. Until this year he has stayed on a ranch in Utah, where he did the cowboy thing, using his ability to ride horses to lasso cattle and explore the countryside.
For 2003 he opted for something different. Prior to this year's race, he flew to Las Vegas and, after visiting various shows the weekend before the race, he rode the 2000-mile journey from Vegas to Indy on Harley Davidsons with four friends. They left on Monday morning and arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday evening, having stayed in two-star motels along the way. Schumacher was able to exist unrecognised, which is why he loves America.
What will sway Schumacher more than anything, though, is the potential of next year's Ferrari F2004, something he will not learn until he returns to Maranello in January to drive it. A dominant car might make the prospect of remaining in Formula One at least one more year more appealing, but one thing is certain: he will not hang around if he thinks he will be given regular drubbings by the likes of Montoya, Raikkonen and Alonso.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Michael Schumacher, available exclusively in the November issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)