Former rally champion, Walter Rohrl, reckons that the end of Michael Schumacher’s career as a driver will be good for all forms of motor sport. He points out that, in the last few years, advertisers have lined up to have even a tiny decal on Michael’s car, rather than use the same money to sponsor an entire rally car.
For those of us primarily interested in F1, it has been easy to overlook Michael’s influence beyond our favorite sport. If Rohrl is relieved to see him go, the ripples of Michael’s success must have reached way beyond our limited horizons. And I can believe that he is right; the Schumacher years changed F1 itself to such an extent that it is only logical that the effects should have spilled over into other areas.
Michael was both good and bad for F1. In becoming a household name, he attracted many more viewers, come to see what all the fuss was about, and this automatically brought the advertisers clamoring for a piece of the pie. But his domination of the sport also raised the most common criticism of the races: that they were predictable and boring as a result. For those of us who became fed up with the same guy winning all the time, the only enjoyment left to us was the hope that someone, somehow, would beat the blighter.
It is a danger that always threatens F1. In the past there have been flashes of domination by a driver or a team that have hinted at the boredom of such a situation. The total domination of Mercedes in the mid-1950s, Jim Clark’s succession of wins in the Lotus 25, Chapman’s Lotus 79 in 1978 and the swapping of dominant years between McLaren and Williams in the 1980s and 1990s were examples of how F1 races can become foregone conclusions.
What saved us in those years was that the boredom never lasted too long. Mercedes got out after a couple of years, Clark was always subject to the fragility of the Lotus, Chapman’s designs after the 79 were not as effective as others’ and neither Williams nor McLaren could achieve total dominance for long. Michael’s reign, however, just seems to have gone on and on.
So F1 breathes a sigh of relief to see Michael go. Suddenly there are new stars in the shape of Alonso and Raikkonen and a hoste of young bloods eager to make their names. This is what makes for great racing years: uncertainty as to who will win, real battles between several drivers and cars, the championship won by a point or two.
Already the advertisers spread out and begin to hedge their bets. McLaren and Renault find new sponsors and even lesser teams such as Spyker manage to attract good money. Perhaps Rohrl is correct in assuming that some of the money will go to rallying – and that has to be good for all motor sport.
Not that Michael is really to blame for all this; the object is to win and, if he proved the most complete racer for ten years, succeeding as a driver, politician, strategist and team builder, he was only doing his job. But F1 loves the real racer, the guy who fights through adversity, doesn’t always win but gives his all in the battle and cares nothing for the politics and strategy – hence the enormous popularity of Gilles Villeneuve and the fans’ preference for the skill and courage of Senna over the clinical approach and carefully planned races of Prost.
F1 might lose a bit of advertising revenue in the coming years – there are no obvious stars that will dominate in Schumacher style and the household will have to deal with several names rather than just one. But the health of the sport will improve immensely. Big names may attract new viewers but it’s competition that keeps them.