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I must have had a hundred conversations about Michael Schumacher at Monza, but one really sticks in my mind.

A former F1 driver told me that one of Michael's great strengths was that whenever possible he dealt with potential problems before he got in the car. On those occasions when he's had to react on impulse - Adelaide, Jerez and Monaco this year - he's shown what can happen when he hasn't had a chance to properly think things through and rationalise them.

So what has this got to do with last weekend? Well, it seems that this ex-driver once found himself sitting next to Michael, who out of the blue asked him what it was like to be retired. I've done touring cars and sportscars, said our man, but nothing can replace the feeling that you get driving a Grand Prix car. Michael nodded, as if he was filing away that thought in his memory banks. Preparing and rationalising, in other words.

The point of the story is this little conversation took place not this summer, but six or seven years ago. Thus, for at least that long, Michael Schumacher has to some degree or another been working up to the momentous announcement that he made at Monza.

His initial post-race monologue to the TV cameras was quite mesmerising. Love him or loathe him, you have to give Schumi credit for finding the right words to express what he really felt, in what after all is his second language, with millions of people watching. We can only guess at the sort of emotions coursing through his veins.

But perhaps the most interesting thing he said came a little later, in the relative calm of the press conference. Asked when exactly he had decided to retire, the German said quite simply "in Indianapolis". Not after, but in. Since the United States Grand Prix took place on July 2nd, we now knew that a full two months had passed since Schumacher had made his mind up.

It was an unexpected revelation that cast a whole new light on what had transpired in recent weeks. I thought of statements from Ferrari folk, conversations with various driver managers, and so on. People who kept insisting that no decisions had been made, and said that anyone who suggested or wrote otherwise was foolish, when in fact the picture was already clear.

Will he or won't he?

Schumacher said several times earlier in the year that what he wanted was the opportunity to make a decision at the end of season. And at Imola, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said that Michael was worth waiting for, and thus after the season it would be. Quite how Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa (and at that time even Valentino Rossi) fitted into that schedule remained to be seen.

Then, in the summer came a promise from Ferrari that we would know the 2007 driver line-up in Monza - a far more logical one in terms of the contractual arrangements of other drivers.

But this created an obvious complication, for Schumacher would now have to decide upon his future with the title battle still unresolved. Would an eighth title allow him to make a perfectly timed, graceful exit, or encourage him to stay on for more? Hard to say, but it seemed that he would not have the luxury of waiting to see how the championship battle is resolved. The impression one got was that the team were forcing his hand by demanding a decision by early September.

Now we know the true picture was very different. It seems that Schumacher actually brought his own decision forward, and was thus presumably part of the process that came up with the timing of the Monza announcement. Italy wasn't a deadline for his decision after all; it was just a grandstanding way of delivering it to the world.

So what has really been going on behind closed doors over the summer months? I'm sure I'm not the only one who just a few weeks ago still believed that Schumacher could have it in mind to carry on. It just didn't seem the right time to stop, bearing in mind he was on such a good run. But there remained the all-too-obvious nagging doubts about who else would be driving for Ferrari next year. Would Michael really want to share 'his' team with Kimi Raikkonen?

A lot of people thought that was impossible, since the rumours of Raikkonen-to-Ferrari-in-2007 began last year, and assumed that the Finn could only make the move if Schumacher was leaving. I've seen the two of them together away from the track, and I know that there's a respect there that Michael does not hold for, say, a Juan Pablo Montoya. One suspects that Kimi had little concern about just who his Ferrari teammate might be, and in fact relished the thought of being the first to beat Michael regularly in the same car.

So let's assume that Michael saw Kimi as a pal he could just possibly work alongside. But why, after all these years of having a clear number two, would he - in the twilight of his career - suddenly be willing to go up against a fast young superstar? It just didn't seem to make sense.

For that reason, it seemed logical around spring time when, instead of being a shoe-in for Ferrari, Raikkonen became an apparently serious candidate for the Renault seat to be vacated by Fernando Alonso. That, of course could only mean that Schumacher was staying.

Of course, we can only guess that any discussions the Raikkonen camp had with Renault's Flavio Briatore were a genuine attempt to explore a Plan B, and that the driver was not yet 100% committed to Ferrari. Kimi himself kept saying that no decision had been made, and a bullish Ron Dennis insisted that until he was told otherwise, he felt that he could still hang on to his man.

And yet after the race at Monza Jean Todt made it clear that a definitive arrangement went back a long time, as many people have always suspected: "The important thing is that we never had any kind of pre-contract, we had a signed contract, that's all. Sometimes I was a bit smiling when I was seeing those speculations, or the private meetings to try to get Kimi..."

Another intriguing story unfolded around the time that Raikkonen emerged as a possible candidate for Renault. Felipe Massa was being touted around other teams, and in Canada, just a week before Indianapolis, Red Bull Racing's sporting director Christian Horner said openly that the Brazilian was a strong candidate his team. If that was the case, it meant that Schumacher would indeed drive alongside Raikkonen, and thus there was no room for Massa. So which was the real scenario at that time?

I guess we will never know the full story, but it's perhaps not insignificant that the Friday of the US GP weekend was June 30, and that's a date often associated with options and the like (although curiously Michael also said he didn't tell the team until just after Indy).

But was that when Ferrari had to decide they were definitely taking Raikkonen? There was also something related to Massa's contractual arrangements around that time, as Schumacher made clear in the Monza press conference. He revealed that the Brazilian played a significant part in his thought process, and the German also implied that Raikkonen was coming come what may.

"There's no point just to hang in there and maybe take away the future of a very young talented driver like Felipe," Schumacher said. "Obviously my replacement... I was aware of this for quite a long time, but with Felipe it was obviously around Indianapolis that his future had to be decided and I didn't see a reason to just hang in there and maybe take away his opportunity, and I believe he's a very talented and great person."

He seemed to be quite genuine in his praise for Massa, but in a roundabout way, Schumacher was also giving us some interesting little clues.

Did he jump - or was he pushed?

As noted earlier, there is a definite school of thought that Schumacher had to some degree been encouraged into making his retirement decision, by circumstances if nothing else. One well-connected F1 insider went as far as to say he'd been 'stabbed in the back by Todt'.

That might be a little strong, given the close relationship between the two men, but the basic implication was intriguing. It does seem that he was not allowed an entirely free hand, and was perhaps put in a situation that we would never had envisaged even two or three years ago, when no hurdles would have been put in his way.

Firstly, it seems that Michael was given no choice in the matter of Kimi Raikkonen as teammate. Having identified Kimi as a better prospect that Fernando Alonso (who was later enticed away from Renault by McLaren, and was thus presumably open to overtures from Maranello), Ferrari wanted him for 2007, with or without Michael alongside.

This focus on the future was inevitable, especially with the management in a state of flux as contracts come up for renewal. Schumacher would be stopping some time soon, but once signed up, Raikkonen could be the heart of the team for years to come. Ferrari missed him once before when he was at Sauber and McLaren whisked him away. Perhaps it was a case of take him now, or miss him for a few more years.

Then there was the question of Massa. He is no ordinary Ferrari number two. He is joined at the hip to the Todt family, and thus enjoys a special position that such as Rubens Barrichello did not have. Whatever his relationship with Schumacher, Jean Todt also had to look after 'his' boy, who clearly has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. There was always a role as Ferrari tester if three into two didn't go, but he'd done that before in 2003, and now he was far too good a prospect to have to be demoted once again.

As noted, there was a definite attempt in the summer to find the Brazilian another home, but Jean Todt was in a difficult position. How could he commit Massa to a move elsewhere without knowing for sure whether Schumacher would be around or not? So he had to get a decision out of Michael well before September.

Which is how we come back to Indianapolis. Schumacher was put in a position where he knew he would have Raikkonen as teammate, and he also knew that if he procrastinated, Massa could find himself on the sidelines in 2007, something Todt did not want to see happening. And Michael, as we know, has an enormous respect for his boss.

Schumacher's Monza press conference comments confirm that he was more than aware of Massa's situation, and that he had to make up his mind sooner rather than later. After the race I asked his manager Willi Weber if Michael would have preferred to be in a position to wait until after the season before reviewing his situation. Typically, Weber's answer was very 'PC'.

"Well, you know in this moment you don't do a good job for your team," he said. "In the last 10 years we worked together with this team, and it's not a team, it's a family. We are so near, we are so close, this is not a way you should work with a friend. You must work together in a friendly way, and this is why you must make an early decision."

But wouldn't it have been a nice gesture, given his place in Ferrari history, to have given him a little more leeway? This time, he revealed a little more.

"No, not really. I don't see any reason why we should do this. You could say I stop, and you can say it immediately, or you say I go ahead and you say it immediately. I mean, there is a little politics inside, you must take care of many, many little things."

I asked whether by 'politics' he meant complications presented by the Massa/Todt connection, and he just smiled...

The Kimi question

So what of Raikkonen? It's would glib to say that Schumacher was 'scared' of being beaten by a faster, younger Kimi. We're talking about Michael Schumacher here. I'm sure he had complete confidence that he could beat the Finn over the long haul of a season, helped by his 11 season head start in the Ferrari camp, his knowledge of Bridgestones, his fitness, his unrivalled work ethic, and all the rest of it.

Even if Raikkonen was on balance to prove quicker in qualifying, there would be no shame in that - we all remember what a young Alain Prost did to Niki Lauda, and what Ayrton Senna did to a more mature Prost, and so on. Michael did it himself to such as Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese (and has probably kept that filed in his memory banks, too). It's just part of the cycle of racing.

But the bottom line is, why bother? After achieving so much, why put himself in the situation of having to take on a talent as great as Kimi in what would probably turn out to be his last season - or at best, last couple of seasons?

And that is pretty much what he admitted to after the race. It wasn't a fear of losing to Kimi, but a realisation of just what would be required of him in order to compete with the Finn - without doubt a stronger package than any of his 10 previous teammates in Grand Prix racing.

"You need all the energy and motivation and strength, and getting older does not make it easier," Schumacher said. "And to keep that for a whole year and go on. I just could not see that I had this. I had no need to worry for anybody, I guess, and I thought it would be nicer at this point than when you are at the other end."

After the race I pointed out to Todt the very obvious fact that he had always been very careful in choosing teammates who suited Schumacher. Did he really think that a Raikkonen/Schumacher combination could have worked? He gave me short shrift, as if I had struck a nerve.

"It will not happen. Again, that's a good thing for you. You do your job, I do my job. My job is done, we will have Kimi and Felipe."

I didn't give up. So it had no effect on Michael's decision, being put in that position, I ventured?

"Some people will speculate that Michael decided because he did not want to compete with Kimi. They are simply stupid."

So that's the end of that, then...

A different dynamic

Over the past few months we've all watched Michael closely and assumed that he's been wrestling with the decision over his future, when in fact he was actually already dealing with the consequences.

Think about it. If the decision really was taken around June 30 in Indy, i.e. even before the race, he wasn't exactly looking at a serious championship challenge.

Ferrari had gone to the previous round in Montreal in confident mood, but Alonso had scored his fourth win in a row. On three of those occasions Schumacher had to look up from the second step of the podium, and the fourth was Monaco, and no one but the man himself can really judge what effect that unfortunate episode had on his thinking in June.

But then it all turned upside down. There was a change in the delicate balance of power between Ferrari and Renault, Bridgestone and Michelin. The weekend he made his decision, be it before or after the race, he won. He followed up with two further spectacular successes in France and Germany, and suddenly the title battle was wide open.

That was perhaps something he genuinely hadn't expected when he made the decision to stop at the end of the year. In fact, he was probably enjoying himself more than he had for a while.

Ironically, as the points gap closed, the stakes grew higher, and in effect Schumacher had more to lose. If making the decision early had somehow freed up his mind, the opposite was now true. Perhaps we saw signs of the effects of that pressure in both Hungary and Turkey. From the outside, we thought he was still distracted by his yes/no retirement decision. Maybe he was distracted by the thought that he had perhaps jumped too soon, although that might be a little far-fetched.

A foregone conclusion

In fact, through the Turkish GP weekend it began to become more apparent that Monza would most likely see a retirement announcement. There had already been suggestions that Ross Brawn would take a sabbatical - impossible to imagine if Schumacher was still driving. Flavio Briatore had made it clear a while earlier that any discussions with Raikkonen had ceased. And the irrepressible Massa was making positive noises about being unconcerned about his future. There appeared to be no room at the inn for Michael after all.

There was also a sort of body language about the team that suggested this was the only possible scenario, and then there was the strange coincidence of Massa outrunning his team leader to a win, and proving beyond all doubt that he can get the job done.

Then, the following weekend, Schumacher turned up at a Ferrari event at the Nurburgring. It was hardly the sort of distraction he needed during a title campaign, and it was as if he was bidding farewell to the home fans. By the start of the Monza weekend, it was a foregone conclusion. Ferrari folk spoke not of a post-race confirmation of the 2007 driver line-up, but an announcement by Michael, and that could only mean one thing.

Everyone wondered why it was not done in a controlled fashion on the Thursday, but there was a naive idea that by postponing it until after the race, Schumacher and the team would somehow be able to rise above all the fuss going around them. Some chance!

In an ideal world, the plan was that Michael would win the race and then make his announcement in the post-race unilateral TV interviews. Second or third would not be ideal, but would also work.

The problem was what would happen if he didn't make the podium, and in the worst case, was a first lap crash victim or what have you. Sensibly, the FIA took the unprecedented decision to invite Ferrari to make full use of the official press conference facilities. He would be allowed to come in after the top three had left, make his own private announcement to the written press, and then deal with the TV folk.

I have no doubts that however hard he tried to distance himself from the madness going on all around him, the stress did get to Michael. I made a point of watching him on the grid, and by his standards, his head seemed to be all over the place.

After parking his car he made an usually early departure for a final pre-race pee, ducking into the first friendly garage he found in search of a loo - that of Toro Rosso. When he came back he all but brushed aside RTL TV interviewer Kai Ebel, to whom he has for years been contractually obliged to speak before the race. Usually he stands by the car and chats calmly with Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, but this time he unfathomably darted across to the pit wall and talked to Brawn there, well away from the car.

Photographers gathered, and when Ross left to go to the car, Michael suddenly realised he was utterly exposed to the posse of cameras. Trying to inject a degree of levity, he grabbed the umbrella his physio was holding and tilted it over his face.

Then he ducked back over to the car, and with 15 minutes to go began putting his balaclava and helmet on, although he had to fight off a wasp to do so! He was strapped in the c#ckpit, perhaps the only place he could truly feel at peace, way earlier than normal.

It was extraordinary to watch. And yet even more extraordinary was the way that nothing he did on the track over the next hour and fifteen minutes betrayed any sign at all of the pressure he was clearly under before the start. It was a champion's performance, and it earned him the chance to make the announcement in just the way he had planned.

It could hardly have worked out better for Schumacher and Ferrari. The only thing missing was Massa in the top three, which would have given us the perfect photo op. Perhaps we'll get Jean Todt's dream team podium, as seen in Germany, at the final round of the season - and the final Grand Prix in Schumacher's career - next month, in Brazil..


I came across this report and i thought it would be good to post it here, as it gives a more detailed view of what's happening behind closed doors and how desicions are made in F1.

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A bit long but a great read, thanks!!!!

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