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The Way It Is/ Going for his eighth world title, Michael Schumacher announces his retirement at the end of the season

by Gordon Kirby
It took all of Michael Schumacher's remarkable professional discipline to contain his emotions after winning Sunday's Italian Grand Prix as he announced that he will retire after this year's season-closing F1 race at Interlagos in Brazil. Schumacher scored his sixth win of the year in Italy and pulled himself to within two points of championship leader Fernando Alonso after the Spaniard's engine blew in the race's closing stages. His win also pushed Ferrari into the lead of the manufacturer's championship, three points ahead of Renault with three races to go.

After a shaky start to the season, Schumacher and Ferrari have come on strong this year and by winning at the spiritual home of Italian motor racing, Schumi and the team have put themselves in position to win both FIA championships yet again. If Schumacher pulls it off--and on current form it's looking very likely--it will be his eighth world title, a seemingly unbeatable record.

Schumacher was heavily criticized last week in the Italian media in particular for not confirming before the weekend that it would be his last race at Monza. His decision had been rumored for weeks and it was believed that a statement clarifying the situation would be released by Ferrari sometime after Sunday's race.


"I'm sorry if it may have taken longer than some of you wanted," Schumacher announced at the start of the press conference following the race. "But you have to set a moment and you have to find the right moment, and we feel this is the right moment. To make it short, this is gonna be my last Monza race I'm going to do. At the end of this year, I've decided, together with the team, that I'm going to retire from racing. It's been a really exceptional time. What motorsports in more than thirty years has given to me, I really loved every single moment of the good and bad ones, those ones that make life so special."

Schumacher then thanked his dad, his late mother, and his wife and kids for their support. "Without their support and their strengths, to survive in this business, in this sport, and to perform, I think it would have been impossible," he remarked. "I can't be thankful enough to my family but as well to all my mates at the Benetton team, and obviously, especially the Ferrari days where I've made so many friends. There are so many great guys in that team and it's been a really tough decision to decide to not work together at this level with all my friends and engineers and everybody. It's been so great."

He also acknowledged Kimi Raikkonen, who was sitting next to him, without mentioning his name. "At some stage the team will tell, but I always was pleased a long time ago to hear that he was the person," Schumacher said.

"Now," he added, "I'd just like to concentrate on the last races and finish it in style and hopefully with the championship. We've done a big step today for that. We're now two points behind with three races to go. If you go back to Canada at mid-season, nobody thought we could be in the position that we are, one hundred percent focused for the constructor's and the driver's championships."

Undoubtedly, Schumacher will go down as one of the greatest F1 drivers--ultra-fast, absolutely precise, a ruthlessly aggressive racer when required, and too, a blocker of the first order! Where Schumacher may have been the greatest of all-time, ahead of even Senna, was in getting the right team assembled around him and galvanizing them to action with an unremitting work ethic. Ten years ago, Schumacher brought Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne with him from Benetton to Ferrari and quickly made the legendary Italian marque his team. He was always ready to test and was deeply interested in the technical aspects of the development program, and of course, produced big-time on the track both in testing and on race weekends. The arrival of former Peugeot racing boss Jean Todt as Ferrari's team manager was the final key component, as the Frenchman helped turn the Maranello operation into F1's standard-setter.

Schumacher's record speaks for itself. He made his F1 debut in the middle of 1991 with Eddie Jordan's team, then moved immediately to Benetton where he spent four and half years, winning his first two championships with the team in 1994 and '95, powered by Ford engines in '94 and Renaults in '95. Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996 and finished second in points in '97 and '98, although he was excluded by the FIA from the rankings in '97 after running Jacques Villeneuve off the track at the season-closing race in Spain.

Michael and Ferrari finally hit their stride in 2000, winning the first of five championships in a row as the combination re-wrote F1's record book. With three races left in his career, Schumacher has ninety wins, thirty-nine more than second-placed Alain Prost and forty-nine more than Senna. He also has the record for poles with sixty-eight, three more than Senna, and for points (1,354 currently) more than five hundred ahead of second-ranked Prost! And of course, Schumacher also owns the records for fastest laps, front row starts and laps led, with three more races to complete his statistical dominance of F1.

The German's retirement signals a major power shift in in F1, certainly among the drivers, but probably among the teams as well. His replacement Kimi Raikkonen is lighting-quick, but it remains to be seen if he's half the person Schumacher is at leading and motivating the team, not to mention testing, testing, testing, which is known to be something other than one of Kimi's favorite things. The other big questions concern the futures of Todt, Brawn and Byrne. Schumacher men to the core, the betting is that all three will depart or retire. Without them, Ferrari will be a different team.

It seems to me that Fernando Alonso's move from Renault to McLaren is much more compelling. Alonso's calm demeanor, committed work ethic, and happiness to live in England, may be the perfect match for Ron Dennis's team. Dennis has been looking for the right man to lead his team since the days of Mika Hakkinen and he may have found him in Alonso. Regardless, with Heikki Kovalainen replacing Alonso at Renault, it's not at all clear how F1's top three teams will stack up against each other next year. And too, BMW-Sauber appear on recent form to be moving into contention with Renautl, Ferrari and McLaren. As I said earlier, Schumacher's retirement has made F1 a whole new ballgame and it will be interesting to watch it take shape next year.

The plan to freeze the development of engines in F1 for the next five years, starting from the end of this season, is sure to have a big impact on the world's most expensive form of racing. The freeze should be a godsend for Cosworth, assuming F1's only independent engine builder is able to wrap-up a deal to supply the Midland team with engines and therefore continue in F1 next year. Midland has been sold to a Dutch consortium called Stryker and it's not yet known if a Cosworth engine contract is part of the deal.

As everyone knows, Cosworth does a tremendous job with one-tenth the financial resources, or less, of the major manufacturers. F1 needs Cosworth because it's the only way that any remaining private, non-manufacturer-owned team can compete and Bernie Ecclestone is deeply aware of Cosworth's importance. If Cosworth is able to continue in F1 it will leave the door open for new, relatively small teams to come and go.

It will also be interesting to see how much more competitive Williams is next year with Toyota engines than the team was with Cosworths this year. Williams has been surprisingly competitive in many races, in contrast to the still-struggling Toyota team, and next year we'll be able to directly compare these two very different operations.

In contrast to F1 where there are just two or three superstars at any one time, NASCAR has acres of them, although Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Tony Stewart stand out. At various stages this year there were worries that all three would fail to make the chase for the championship, but as it turned out defending champion Stewart was the only one to miss the cut. Stewart's loss was Kasey Kahne's gain as this year's winningest NASCAR driver elbowed past Stewart at Richmond on Saturday night to steal the last qualifying place for the Chase. Stewart had another bad weekend, crashing his intended race car in practice and finishing eighteenth in a back-up car after starting fortieth.

This year's Nextel Cup championship contenders are Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne, comprising two Roush Fords, three Hendrick Chevies, two Childress Chevrolets, one DEI Chevy, one Joe Gibbs Chevy and one Evernham Dodge. Among those teams failing to make the Chase this year are Penske, Ganassi and Robert Yates, and it's interesting to note that the best-placed, one-car team in points is Robby Gordon's operation down in twenty-fifth place.

Favorites? Based on the season so far, you have to say it's between 2003 champion Kenseth and Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner Johnson who have dominated the top two spots in points all year. And as dark horses, I've got to pick four-time champion Gordon, impressive sophomore Hamlin, and the rapid Kahne, winner of more races than anyone to date this year.

At the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, IL on Sunday, Sam Hornish took his third IRL title by dogging Dan Wheldon's tracks all day and finishing a close third behind Ganassi teammates Wheldon and Scott Dixon. Hornish has won the IRL championship twice before with Panther Racing, but this is his first with Penske. It's Penske first IRL trophy since joining the series in 2002, and adds to his record of eleven CART championship and fourteen Indy 500 wins.

The race marked the end of a couple of eras for Penske. It was the last race for Marlboro after seventeen years as Penske's primary sponsor and the end of a twenty-two-year run for the cigarette maker in CART and IRL. And too, the race was the last for Team Penske as a resident of Reading, PA. Penske has been based in Reading for forty years, going back to his team's formative years in the CanAm, TransAm and long-distance sports car racing, but will now move his IRL team down to North Carolina. All of Penske's race teams--NASCAR, IRL and ALMS organizations--will be consolidated in Mooresville under Tim Cindric's overall direction and more than a third of Penske's IRL employees have decided not to make the move south from Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, testing of the new Panoz DP01 Champ car continued at Sebring over three days last week and the car will run for five more days this week. Driven by Roberto Moreno, the car is running extremely well, completing no less than six hundred miles in one day alone last week.

The new Champ car is beginning to attract new teams and drivers into the series, starting with Bob Gelles's announcement six weeks ago that he'll expand his Atlantic and Formula BMW operations to include a Champ Car team next year. Then last week, Pacific Motorsports announced it will join Champ Car next year with rookies Ryan Dalziel and Alex Figge. With this year's Atlantic standouts Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud also looking likely to move up to Champ cars next year and rumors persisting about Dario Franchitti's imminent return to the series, Champ Car is beginning to build some momentum.

"There's another two-car team that will be announced very soon," Jerry Forsythe said last week. "I believe we can get to twenty-four cars and we'd like to have twenty-six. That would really make a statement."

It may be that the pendulum in American open-wheel racing in 2007 will swing clearly in Champ Car's direction.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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