I’ve received some private email in recent days, taking me to task for giving Bernie Ecclestone too much credit for Michael Schumacher’s decision to return to Formula One next year.
“Michael was hounded into retirement and really didn’t want to quit in the first place,” one person wrote.
“He never really left,” wrote another. “He was at every test and every race in the three years he didn’t drive. I’m surprised he didn’t come back sooner.”
Valid points. But the timing of his return is what’s of interest to me.
F1 is coming off a dreadful year. Probably the worst scandal in the history of the sport came to light this year (the race-fix) and manufacturers and sponsors were announcing their withdrawal – it seemed – almost every second day.
F1 needed a big boost and Schumacher’s comeback announcement for 2010 probably did the trick.
How much did Bernie Ecclestone really have to do with it?
I suggest lots – and here’s some indirect evidence.
In 1992, one of the giants of the sport shocked everybody by winning the world championship and then quitting. Nigel Mansell left Formula One to race in North America with CART – where, incidentally, he won the 1993 championship.
In 1994, Mansell was in his second season of
driving for the Newman-Haas team in the CART series. He was its biggest star (although there were many - the Andrettis, Unser Jr., Tracy, et al), the series was at the height of
its popularity in North America and challenging F1 for popularity around the
In May, F1’s biggest star, Ayrton Senna, was killed at Imola. A second driver was also killed and another seriously injured. F1 was on its heels.
Within weeks, Mansell was suddenly back in F1, driving for Williams. He returned to F1 full-time with McLaren in 1995 but then – almost as suddenly and almost as mysteriously – left the sport for good after only two races.
Here is a guy who won back-to-back major championships in '92 and '93 and then, within 18 months, was gone forever.
How very strange.
In the December issue of Motor Sport magazine, journalist Simon Taylor asked Mansell about the circumstances surrounding his sudden departure from CART and his short-lived return to F1.
“I’m not permitted to talk about that,” said Mansell in the article. “Let’s just say that, among all the power brokers, I was a small pawn in a big game. . . There was a lot of politics behind it, and one day the truth will come out.”
He then goes on to tell Taylor this (and the real reading here is between the lines . . .):
“I still had contracts that bound me until 1997 and prevented me from driving anything else. I’m a simple person – all I ever wanted to do was drive a racing car fast. Then the lawyers show you that even when you think you’ve agreed something, that’s not exactly what was meant. . .
“When they can buy out three years of contracts
in America out from under your feet, and you turn up to do your job, and your lawyers tell you that anybody can
be put on gardening leave if they’re paid in full, and you can’t do anything
about it – well, it’s not the way to finish.”
If Bernie Ecclestone can - apparently - cut short the career of one of the most determined and charismatic racing drivers of our lifetime, then getting Michael Schumacher back into the cockpit would be, for him, a piece of cake.