Sunday, March 04, 2007

Schumacher’s last race – I was there

This may be a bit late or already a bit of nostalgia, but I cannot contain myself from writing about Michael Schumacher’s last Formula One race – The 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix. I have just watched the recorded TV coverage for the 2nd time and it does not pay justice to what I saw live at the race track.

Back to October 22nd, 2006: I had bought a ticket to the gigantic backstretch grandstands, which has the cheapest available seats. Interlagos is such a great track for spectators because there is a nice view of most of the action from anywhere. Some people say that A1-Ring in Austria is the only other full size road course with such great views, but I have not been there to confirm. From the backstretch you are able to see the entire track except for the pits and about a quarter of mile of the front stretch – unfortunately you are not able to see the start/finish line, but there had to be a reason for the tickets to be cheaper. The two main overtaking spots – the Senna Esse and the fast left-hander next to the pond at the end of the backstretch – are viewable if you seat right in the middle of the stands.

Since there are no numbered seats, you must get to the track very early to get a nice spot on the upper levels of the grandstands. Besides watching all the preliminary races, it allows you to feel the atmosphere. And it was quite a different atmosphere. Most people were wearing the Ferrari red, which is understandable, since Felipe Massa is Brazilian and was racing for Ferrari. But there were many farewell posters to Schumacher. Most people seemed happy to see Massa on pole, but a little bit sad due to Michael’s departure. Maybe the thought of seeing another great champion leaving reminded them of the emptiness left after Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994. It certainly reminded me.

It was noticeable that the crowd cheered – almost as loud as they did for Massa –as Schumacher drove by during the grid formation lap. I guess everybody was expecting something special from him. Due to a fuel pump failure in qualifying, he would be starting 10th.

As the race started, there were two loud roars from the crowd. One as Massa made it safely through the Senna Esse and the other as Schumacher did a zigzag on the backstretch looking for some room to pass the cars ahead. He passed both BMW’s on the next corner. He passed his brother Ralf on the front stretch, as he completed the first lap. He passed former teammate Rubens Barrichello right in front of me on the backstretch. The Brazilian crowd did not mind that a Brazilian had just been overtaken. The show was too good to be true. Some people were so excited that they were even jumping on the stands.

Then the safety car was deployed due to Nico Rosberg’s accident just before the end of the first lap. Schumacher was right behind Fisichella, in 6th. After a few laps, the safety car went back to the pits and Schumacher seemed to be very fast behind Fisichella. As he completed another lap, he was side-by-side with Fisichella as he went by the pit wall and out of my line of sight. Almost thirty thousand people on the backstretch grandstands turned their heads to the Senna Esse, waiting for the cars to come by. Fractions of second seemed like minutes. Then I saw a big puff of smoke as Schumacher red car was locking his brakes, closing to the inside, barely in front of Fisichella. That overtaking manoeuvre was historical. I was glad to be there, that was too beautiful too be true. The crowd was louder than anytime before during that weekend.

Unfortunately, I guess the move was not perfect. He may have been slightly touched by Fisichella’s front wing as he finished the pass. On the second leg of the esse, Schumacher almost spun out as he lost control of the rear end of the car, with a punctured left rear tyre. The crowd turned quite. If it were not for the F1 engines, you could hear your own breathing. At that time, I guess even Alonso’s fans wanted Schumacher to continue his show.

Very slowly he crawled back to the pits, where Ferrari changed the 4 tyres and added some fuel. As he came back to the race, he was almost a lap behind Massa. For the next laps, he would be a bit slow because of the heavy load of fuel. Massa had such a commanding lead that it seemed like he slowed down a little bit in order not to put his teammate a lap down.

Then there was some exciting action going on, but the TV did not show most of it. Schumacher was struggling with his car, driving every lap as he was on a hot qualifying lap. I could see him locking his brakes a few times on the trick curvy section in the middle of the track. His lap times started to improve as he burned some of the heavy fuel load.

Almost 30 laps into the 71-lap race, as the other drivers were pitting, Schumacher reached the backmarkers. Every overtake manoeuvre was celebrated on the grandstands, even if it was for a position outside the top ten. He made it to the points as he passed Nick Heidfeld for 8th with about 35 laps to go. The crowd realized that he could make even more.

With 32 laps to go, he got by Kubica on the first corner. Then something weird happened as he slowed down mid-lap and let Kubica went by. I guess we will never know for sure what that was, but it seems like the fuel pump problems he had in qualifying were back. The crowd was quiet again. But Michael regained speed and 2 laps later went by Kubica again.

He was picking up large chunks of track to 6th-place driver, Rubens Barrichello. It was visible; there was no need for a stopwatch. Barrichello pitted with 25 laps to go, and Michael would go in on the next lap. He was 8th on the return, still picking up time on Barrichello. In a couple of laps or so he got by Rubens on the Senna Esse. The crowed roared. I guess there was some resentment for the fact that the Brazilian had never been able to win his home Grand Prix.

As all drivers had pitted, Schumacher was 6h, and Fisichella was 5th. Michael got to the back of Giancarlo with about 15 laps to go. Two laps later, he had the same problem on the mid-section of the track as when he passed Kubica. But as he started to pick up speed again, the crowd forgot about that once again. I realised that the racing gods would not let him retire from his last race. The people were on their feet. It was time for payback. The TV did not show this part very well either. It was a masterful piece of driving. Michael pressured Fisichella so much that the latter lost it under braking for the Senna Esse, with 9 laps to go.

Kimi Raikkonen was the next. The feeling was that he would allow Michael to go by easily since he was already hired by Ferrari for 2007. That did not happen, and I am glad it did not. With 4 laps to go, Schumacher tried an overtaking manouvre on the front stretch, but Raikkonen closed the door to the inside. On the next lap, Raikkonen thought he had closed the inside, but Schumacher found some room between the McLaren and the pit wall. I could barely see the red car as it came towards the Senna Esse, since he was so close to the guard rail. He made his last overtaking manoeuvre, riding wheel-to-wheel with Raikkonen on the first leg of the Senna Esse.

The crowd went nuts. Grown men were in tears.

Schumacher did not have time for any other overtaking manoeuvres. He finished 4th, but that was one of the most amazing races I have ever seen. Everyone was happy. The likeable character that is Felipe Massa had won his hometown race. The competent Alonso was the world champion. The brave Jenson Button finished 3rd after starting 14th. Yet, it was the spectacular Michael Schumacher who had put up one of the greatest shows in the history of Formula One. He will be missed.

--Andre N.

4 comments:

Amit said...

too good dude, i got tears in my eyes remembering the schumi era again.. and then understanding the fact that he is not racing now..
yes, that was one of the top 3 best drives of schumi..

he is god of f1.. michael forever..

Andre N. said...

amit,

Even if we had forgotten for a moment that it was Michael's last race, that drive would still have everyone on the grandstands roaring. It would bring tears to many eyes anyway. It was THAT great.

As I wrote, I kind of have the same feeling of emptiness I had when Senna was gone - except for the shock due to the tragedy. F1 heroes like them - and like Prost, Piquet, Lauda, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Hill, Fangio and a few others - will never be forgotten, no matter what. People will create religions about them. It is healthy that you call Schumacher the god of F1, but don't forget to look out for your next hero!

--Andre N.

Anonymous said...

It has been 2 years since Schumacher left F1 and I was just googling for links on Schumi's last race.

I cried after reading your blog.
-Skid-

Andre N. said...

Skid,

Trust me, it is ok to be brought to tears. That was one of the greatest drives ever. And one of the greatest drivers. Too good to be true.

--Andre N.