After all the rumours, it's time for Schumi to make up his mind

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2006, 12:00am

This weekend at Monza, we will finally get to solve a Formula One mystery that has had the paddock gossiping for most of the season.

Not who is going to win the championship, but will Michael Schumacher be retiring at the end of the year. Many people have had their say on the matter, but the man himself has kept his counsel, saying only that he will reveal all at the Italian Grand Prix.

He may not be saying anything, but slowly the consensus is forming that the great man will be stepping down. The evidence? Well, it seems as certain as can be in this intrigue-ridden sport that Kimi Raikkonen will be heading to Ferrari next season. Schumacher has never countenanced a teammate of equal standing, preferring the lap dogs of Barrichello and Massa. In a team he has to be number one.

It's also rumoured that Ross Brawn, the brilliant Ferrari technical director, is likely to take a sabbatical next year. Perhaps the team who made the Prancing Horse so dominant is unravelling. It could well be that Michael decides to call it a day, especially if he wins this year's championship. If he does go, what will be his legacy and standing in the sport?

Looking at the statistics, he has no peers; seven world championships, 89 race wins and 68 pole positions. They're all records in the sport, built up over 16 seasons and 246 races.

He's certainly respected in the sport, but is he loved? Here the evidence is a little less clear cut. If you happen to be a Ferrari fan you will certainly love a man who has brought so much latter day success to a team who were going nowhere until he arrived. However there are many who find it hard to admire him, no matter how many times he wins.

Take Jacques Villeneuve. To say these two don't get on is like saying Prost and Senna had the occasional falling out. But in a recent magazine article he really put the knife in to his one-time championship rival. 'Michael simply isn't a great champion because he's played too many dirty tricks and because he isn't a great human being,' was the Canadian's opening salvo. 'He's a racer,' he continued, 'but a pure racer and because of that, I think the day he hangs up his helmet people will just forget him'

That seems a little far-fetched, and you have to remember that his view of Schumacher is coloured by the German's attempt to take him out in a race in Jerez in 1997 when he was on the verge of his world championship. He's been particularly incensed by Schumacher's refusal to admit he did wrong in qualifying in Monaco this year, when he was penalised for blocking Alonso's final qualifying lap.

Villeneuve, of course, has always been one of the most vocal men in the paddock, and you may feel his views are a little extreme, but for me there are elements of truth in there. No matter what his achievements, there is always the feeling they are to an extent undermined by some of his actions. Fans of Damon Hill will never forget Schumacher's crude and ultimately successful attempt to take him out of a race in 1994. Actions like that bar you from unconditional admiration. People like Ayrton Senna may have been equally ruthless, but they were blessed with a bit more charisma.

Those who know him, talk of a nice guy, a straightforward family man. Perhaps oddly that doesn't help in the strange world of Formula One, where partying, bad behaviour and the odd loudmouthed explosion help to cement a legend. He obviously loves his Ferrari team and they in turn adore him to a man. Perhaps it's the fact he's so clinical in his approach to racing that leaves you cold emotionally.

Ferrari announces their 2007 line-up after the Italian Grand Prix this Sunday. If Michael Schumacher isn't in it, the eulogies will start, and his true legacy will emerge.

If he does surprise us all and stay on, then cut out and keep this column for use in a year or two.

'Many people have had their say on the matter, but the man himself has kept his counsel'