Michael Schumacher, the seven-time champion who dominated the sport for the best part of a decade, announced his retirement on Thursday not with a garland around his neck, but in the knowledge he’d been replaced by a younger man.
The 43-year-old German revealed his decision at Suzuka, scene of one of his greatest triumphs, just days after being told he was being ousted by Mercedes in favour of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
Schumacher has a record 91 wins and is one of only two men to reach 300 grands prix. But he admitted his battery was “in the red zone” two years into his comeback, after initially retiring in 2006.
“I have had my doubts for quite a while whether I had energy to (carry on). I said in 2006 my battery was empty and now I am in the red zone,” he confided.
“I don’t know if there is time to recharge them — but I am looking forward to my freedom.”
Schumacher won his 91 races between 1991 and 2006, including two world titles with Benetton in 1994 — the year of Ayrton Senna’s death — and 1995, and an incredible five in a row with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004.
And it was at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2000 that Schumacher sealed Ferrari’s first championship in 21 years with victory in the penultimate race of the season.
Schumacher’s duels in his hey-day with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, fired by an unquenchable competitive spirit, have gone down in Formula One lore.
But recent outings have been less inspiring, highlighted by his clumsy crash into the back end of Jean-Eric Vergne’s Torro Rosso at last month’s Singapore Grand Prix.
Schumacher was born in January 1969 near Cologne, Germany, the son of a bricklayer who also ran the local go-kart track, where his mother worked in the canteen. His younger brother, Ralf, also became a Formula One driver.
The four-year-old Michael enjoyed playing with a pedal go-kart but when his father fitted it with a small motorcycle engine, he crashed it into a lamppost.
But by 1987, Schumacher was the German and European go-kart champion and had left school to work as an apprentice mechanic, although he was soon racing professionally.
In 1990 he won the German F3 championship and was hired by Mercedes to drive sports cars. Just a year later he burst onto the Formula One scene, qualifying seventh for Jordan in his debut race at Belgium.
Schumacher won 18 races over the next four seasons with Benetton but his first world title, in 1994, was tainted by suspicions of technical irregularities.
And in the championship showdown in Adelaide, Schumacher’s collision with Williams’ Hill put his British rival out of the race and had many commentators crying foul.
After joining Ferrari in 1996, Schumacher achieved infamy by trying to ram Williams driver Villeneuve off the road at Jerez in the last race of 1997, and was disqualified from the championship as punishment.
In 1998 he finished second, and his 1999 season was interrupted by a broken leg. But in 2000 he won nine times on his way to the drivers’ title, Ferrari’s first since 1979, and he proved unstoppable for the next four seasons.
In 2002, Schumacher won 11 times and finished on the podium in all 17 races. In 2003, he broke Juan Manuel Fangio’s record by claiming his sixth world title, and in 2004 he won 13 races, his best season.
A misfiring Ferrari car in 2005 halted the run, but Schumacher still managed to finish third and won another seven races in 2006 — including the 91st and final in Shanghai — to challenge for the title, before retiring aged 37.
Accolades flowed for a man who set new standards in fitness, mechanical awareness and meticulous preparation — allied with a win-at-all costs mentality that drew as many detractors as admirers.
However, the family man and father of three could not resist the lure of the track and in 2010 he signed a three-year deal with Mercedes.
But with slower reflexes and a less competitive car, Schumacher could not reproduce his former glories and instead his last two seasons have been marked by crashes, mishaps and disappointment, with just one finish in the top three.
It has been a less than stellar return, but Schumacher departs as the sport’s most decorated champion, a record which is under no immediate threat.