The end of the Formula 1 season also marked the final chapter of the decorated career of Michael Schumacher. The seven-time world champion retired for a second time following the Brazilian Grand Prix, leaving many of us to reflect on a career that spanned 18 seasons and countless milestone achievements.
This past season marked the end of Schumacher’s three-year comeback after he reneged on a first and arguably premature retirement following the 2006 season.
He leaves Formula 1 having rewritten the record book, holding the record for the most championships, most grand prix victories (91) and countless other marks that were primarily achieved during his first stint from 1992-2006.
His second career, all with the Mercedes factory team, did not live up to expectations and produced just a single podium finish, occurring in this year’s European Grand Prix. His best championship finish with Mercedes was eighth in 2011 and his signature moment with the team – a pole position at Monaco – was taken away due to a grid penalty that came as a result of an accident a week prior.
Schumacher's comeback did not feature the familiar and expected parc fermé celebrations of yesteryear. Instead, the modern Schumacher was portrayed as a mistake-ridden and apologetic paddock pariah who was criticized by everyone from McLaren to Toro Rosso for perceived lapses in judgment.
The signs of rust – or perhaps age – were all too present during his second career, as Schumacher often found himself running in the middle of the pack, routinely outqualified and outperformed by his younger Mercedes teammate and German countryman, Nico Rosberg.
Indeed it was Rosberg, not Schumacher, who scored the team’s only victory in three years this season while the suddenly 43-year-old veteran provided some of the year’s more embarrassing moments.
Start with Barcelona, where Schumacher ran right into the back of Bruno Senna, taking both out of them out of the race. While Schumacher initially blamed Senna for changing lanes in the braking zone, race officials ultimately determined that Schumacher had initiated avoidable contact.
The resulting penalty, a five-spot grid deduction, cost him a signature comeback moment – the pole on the Streets of Monte Carlo.
Instead, Schumacher treated us to another head scratcher at Singapore where he sent his Mercedes head-on into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso. Schumacher initially told the media that something broke on his car but later admitted to the stewards that the accident was an error in judgment – a common theme to his drama-filled return to Formula 1.
While Schumacher has always been an aggressive driver, his inexplicable mistakes, combined with the limitations of the Mercedes car, has led many in F1 to question whether he should have returned in the first place.
That list includes F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who recently told the official formula1.com website that Schumacher tarnished his legacy by returning to the sport.
"I would rather he had stopped as a seven-time world champion than stopping now," Ecclestone said. "People new to the sport – people who have joined the F1 fan fraternity just recently – will remember Michael as he is now and not as he was. They don't see the hero that he was but the human that can fail."
So is Ecclestone right?
Schumacher picked what he thought was the perfect spot, signing with the team that had just won both championships in 2009 as Brawn GP. He was again working with Team Principal Ross Brawn who had engineered his championship seasons at Benetton and Ferrari and he had fully recovered from the neck injury that plagued him in 2005 and 2006.
So what went wrong?
Mercedes was far from the Brawn GP that won six of the first seven races of the 2009 season with Jenson Button. It was instead closer to the team that had just one podium finish during the final 10 races – enough to win the championship but not enough to stop Button from signing with McLaren.
The Brawn/Mercedes era was over before it could begin, as Team Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel became the new standard while Schumacher became an afterthought who struggled to finish in the points.
To his credit, Mercedes is in a much better spot today than it was when Schumacher first signed in early 2010. Despite his personal struggles, Schumacher’s data and feedback has led to the team becoming a legitimate threat in qualifying, scoring its first victory and becoming a legitimate enough option to lure former world champion Lewis Hamilton to drive for the team starting in 2013.
But ultimately, Schumacher’s return has to be looked at as a disappointment. A driver of his caliber did not return to race mid-pack -- that’s surely the reason he did not pursue the open seat at Sauber.
Instead Schumacher leaves us with one last podium in Valencia and the promise of what could have been in Monaco. Beyond that, he’s still without a doubt the most successful driver of his generation and perhaps all-time – and history will remember him for it.