PA Images

Schumacher, Rosberg, and the Question of Legacy in Formula 1

Nico Rosberg's abrupt retirement leaves him with a pristine Formula 1 legacy. Contrast this with his former teammate Michael Schumacher, whose failed comeback did little for the German legend's towering reputation.

|
09 December 2016, 3:50pm

PA Images

Nico Rosberg's announcement that he will retire from Formula 1 with immediate effect came as a huge shock to the sport. While Nico is certainly not the first reigning world champion to walk away, there was simply no warning that this decision was on the cards, not even a hint that he could step out of the fastest car on the grid and into a life of quiet domesticity. At 31 he is at the peak of his abilities behind the wheel, still a good few years from paddock whispers that he might be too long in the tooth to drive grand prix cars. In contrast, the last man to retire as champion was Alain Prost in 1993; the Frenchman was 38 at the time, so his exit was hardly a shock.

When discussing Rosberg's departure this week, Bernie Ecclestone was asked if the German could be compared to the sport's 21st century greats: Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Bernie was not in a generous mood: "The other names that you mentioned have obviously won more than a few times and have achieved more," Ecclestone responded. "So I would just call Nico a world champion and nothing else."

In truth, that much is obvious. While not undeserving of his title, no one could make a case that the German driver belongs among the sport's all-time elite; Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all do.

Nevertheless, by walking away five days after securing his maiden world championship, Rosberg has ensured a far better legacy than many thought likely – to the point that someone actually asked Bernie if Nico was among the sport's elite.

Assuming the 31-year-old was genuine in his claim that there will be no F1 comeback, Rosberg will forever be remembered as a racer in his prime. There will be no drop in form, no slide back into the midfield, no unforced errors trying to make up for the inevitable limitations of age. The last memory fans will have of Rosberg in a grand prix car will be amid a cloud of tyre smoke as he celebrated his world championship. He may have finished second on the road in Abu Dhabi, but we'll remember him as a winner.

Rosberg's title-winning race also turned out to be his farewell drive // PA Images

Contrast this with the sport's ultimate winner – and a man who certainly does belong among the elite – Michael Schumacher. Statistically the greatest driver of all time, Schumacher holds the records for most world titles (seven), race victories (91), pole positions (68) and fastest laps (77). That is to say, all of the best records in F1.

But, unlike Rosberg's, Michael's career did not end at its peak. Far from it. Looking at these two very different cases, it is interesting to consider how a driver's final years in the sport impact upon their ultimate legacy, and whether this figures in their thought process when it comes to calling it quits.

It's worth noting that when Schumacher first retired from F1, he was very much at the top. Though he was not world champion in 2006, finishing as runner-up to Alonso, he was clearly still at the peak of his game. Aged 37, Schumacher pushed the 25-year-old Spaniard right to the wire. Had his engine not failed while leading at the penultimate race in Japan, Schumacher might well have been able to walk away as champion that year.

READ MORE: How Formula 1 Quit Smoking and Ruined Its Health

In 2009 Schumacher very nearly made a shock comeback to replace the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari. That deal fell through, but Schumacher's interest was sufficiently piqued; soon after, he signed to race for Mercedes in 2010, aged 41.

I can't begin to speculate on Schumacher's thought process at this time, but it seems obvious that, above all, he wanted to race again (to the extent that, in his so-called retirement, he'd been competing on motorbikes and go-karts to scratch the itch). All other thoughts – of the mental and physical challenges he'd face, of his safety and his legacy – must have fallen behind this. Ultimately, all that mattered was his desire to return to F1.

And – given that we're talking about Michael Schumacher – there must also have been a strong desire to win. With 91 victories to his name already, he must surely have believed he could extend his record further, perhaps reach 100.

Of course, it didn't work out that way, with Rosberg beating Schumacher in each of their three seasons together. It was not entirely one-sided – Schumacher was particularly close on points in 2011 – but overall there's no question that Nico emerged looking better. What's more, Schumacher was involved in a few unedifying incidents – not least his terrifying squeeze on former teammate Rubens Barrichello at the Hungaroring – that served to take some of the shine off his legacy. During those three campaigns Nico scored a grand prix win and four more podiums; Schumacher took just a single top-three finish.

The 2012 European Grand Prix brought the only podium of Schumacher's comeback // PA Images

At the time, this seemed to confirm the view that Schumacher's comeback was a full-scale failure and that he was wholly washed up. I can't offer a revisionist history on that one: in many respects it was a failure, and in some ways his talents had faded. Between 2010 and '12, Schumacher's legacy was damaged, though it was so titanic to begin that this was largely cosmetic. Did he care? It must surely have hurt to watch his win percentage dwindle with each frustrating grand prix, to know that the number of starts was climbing ever higher while the victory column remained static. Being beaten by Rosberg can't have been easy, even if the younger man was considered a very good grand prix driver at the time.

But perhaps history will judge this period just a little more kindly than it may have seemed back then. With Rosberg having since shown himself to be fast and psychologically resilient – and now a world champion – the context changes. Remember that this was a guy in his early-forties who'd already won it all going up against a hungry racer in his mid-twenties. That Schumacher was able to beat a future champion on occasion despite this age difference is noteworthy, though at the time it was seen as the bare minimum we should expect from him. Remember too that Schumacher set the fastest qualifying lap at Monaco in 2012, the 43-year-old edging out 26-year-old Rosberg by a little over a tenth of a second. What seemed good at the time now seems stellar. Though much of the 2010-12 experience was harmful to the Schumacher legend, the odd moment of brilliance against a future champion actually serves to enhance it further.

READ MORE: Lessons From the Life and Death of Gilles Villeneuve

An interesting question is whether Schumacher would have made his 2010 comeback if he'd retired as champion in 2006. Without claiming any real insight, I'm going to say no. It would have been too perfect: the greatest of all time retiring as champion with world title number eight. How could he risk spoiling that?

But perhaps I'm approaching this question too much as a follower of the sport, rather than as a competitor. Schumacher was clearly extremely driven by his passion to race and to win – that's a big part of how he came to be so successful. When the opportunity to return at a team like Mercedes came along, it's hardly surprising that someone of his mindset grabbed it with both hands.

In terms of his legacy, of course Schumacher would have been better not to return. But then, if all you're concerned with is how people reading history books will perceive your achievements, it would be tempting to stop the moment you accomplish anything of note. With that approach, Schumacher could have walked away after his third title, which was his first with Ferrari and ended the Scuderia's 21-year drought; after his sixth, which put him alone as F1's most successful driver; or he could have gone after his seventh, which would have seen him depart off the back of five successive championships. But he clearly wanted more: he believed he could win again.

PA Images

Schumacher went on too long and, to a small degree, it tainted his legacy. Not much, but enough that we need to acknowledge it. Of course, he's by no means the only example. Nigel Mansell won the world title in 1992 and, after falling out with the Williams team, moved to America to race in IndyCar. He returned to F1 in late 1994, aged 41, to fill the seat formerly occupied by the late Ayrton Senna. Mansell actually won the last race of the '94 season, after Schumacher and Damon Hill had their infamous clash, which would have been the perfect way for the Englishman to sign off his grand prix career.

But Mansell, like Schumacher 16 years later, wanted more. There was no seat for him at Williams in '95, so he signed to race for a transitional McLaren. What happened next is part of F1 folklore: a rotund Mansell couldn't fit into the narrow McLaren and subsequently sat out the first two races of the season. When he debuted at Imola he was a second shy of his teammate Mika Hakkinen, and retired from the next race in Spain with 'handling problems'. He subsequently parted ways with McLaren, adding an ignominious final chapter to a career that was almost entirely spent at the sharp end of the grid.

READ MORE: The Sound and the Fury of Sebastian Vettel

But we can't really blame guys like Schumacher and Mansell for pushing on just a bit too long. There are very few men who have left grand prix racing with an aura of invincibility, partly because the instinct that makes them so good also pushes them to believe that one more try – be it in the pursuit of glory, or to secure one more payday – will be successful.

The grim truth is that – with a few exceptions, notably Prost, Jackie Stewart, and now perhaps Rosberg – the drivers whose reputations remain most pristine are those who lost their lives at the wheel. Men like Jochen Rindt, Gilles Villeneuve and Senna achieved near god-like status because they died at their peak. Senna was even leading a race when he suffered his fatal accident, while Rindt was leading the world championship, which he only secured a month after his death. These drivers went out at the height of their abilities, never growing old and racing after their skills had faded.

And so Rosberg has achieved something special, though not entirely unheard of: he has left F1 with both an unblemished reputation and his life. But I don't think that this is why he has walked away. I believe him when he says he doesn't have the mental energy for another title battle and that he wants to spend time with him family. For what it's worth, I think he is wired a little differently from other elite F1 drivers: incredibly driven, yes, but by different motivations from, say, Hamilton or Schumacher. I think Nico could have been world champion at whatever he'd fancied – it just happened to be F1.

Regardless of his reasoning, Rosberg's abrupt retirement leaves him with a pristine looking legacy. All he has to do now is resist any offers to return. If he can do that, history will look very kindly on the 2016 world champion.

@Jim_Weeks