At Monza over the weekend, Ferrari bungled the retirement announcement of the most successful driver in Formula One history.
The Italian team insisted that delaying the news until after the chequered flag was so that Michael Schumacher, winner of 90 grands prix and seven world championships, could focus on the race without distraction. In reality, the ridiculous policy gave every pundit and reporter within yelling distance of the 37-year-old a defensible opportunity to hassle him.
By Sunday, his retirement was common knowledge, but Ferrari’s lips remained sealed.
Throughout the weekend, Schumacher’s daily huddles with massed racing reporters and journalists outside the Ferrari motor home became lessons in farce. They poked, pressed, prodded, probed and ployed, but the German – under a strict and perplexing order of silence – kept impressively schtum. He wiggled out of the most cunning of questions and spotted a trick a mile off. By Sunday, he was fed up.
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Entire newspaper articles focused on the tiniest of hints that, YES, the great man is about to quit. His eyes moved downwards while fending off a tricky question; he’s going to retire! Wife Corinna arrived by helicopter on Saturday evening; he’s going to retire! He uncharacteristically drank two large beers on Thursday; he’s definitely going to retire!
This went on for four days. Moments after the German’s red car greeted the chequered flag, television commentators informed their audience that they had no idea if Schumacher was going or staying. Mere seconds later, Ferrari officials were handing out press statements whose first line read: ‘Michael Schumacher will retire from race driving at the end of the 2006 World Championship.’
Why the big secret? Why not a press call at Maranello on Monday morning? Why the mess, smack-bang in the middle of Schumacher’s farewell championship fight?
Niki Lauda, the former Ferrari champion who is today a pundit for German television, told us in Italy that he thought his former employers were “imbeciles” for so mismanaging Schumacher’s last ever F1 race in Europe.
”For the championship, this was one of Michael’s most important races of the entire season,” said the Austrian. ”The most important… I have never seen anything like it. All anybody could do was talk bullsh-t about what they thought he was going to say on Sunday.”
”I said to (Schumacher’s manager) Mr Weber that if Michael made a stupid mistake during the race and threw it away, it would have been their fault.”