As F1 season begins, Michael Schumacher still fighting, far from forgotten

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As Formula One drivers prepare for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix next weekend, Michael Schumacher continues a very different fight far away.

There remains huge respect for the seven-time F1 champion who, more than four years after a near-fatal brain injury in a skiing accident, is still being cared for at home in the quiet Swiss town of Gland on the shores of Lake Geneva. He’s been treated there since September 2014. The thick forest surrounding his castle-like home provides sanctuary from fan and media intrusion with high surrounding walls.

While his family fiercely protects his privacy, Schumacher’s reputation still towers over F1, and fans of all ages continue to adore him.

“What can be said is that the family really appreciates the empathy of the fans,” Schumacher’s manager Sabine Kehm told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday. “The people really do see and understand (his health situation) is not to be shared in the public eye.”

The current condition of the 49-year-old German’s health remains closely guarded. Kehm would not comment on it when asked by the AP.

MORE: Neurosurgeon answers questions relating to brain injuries such as Michael Schumacher’s

On March 18, 2012 – exactly six years ago – Schumacher began the last season of his F1 career at the Australian GP in Melbourne. He secured the last of his mammoth 155 podiums that year at the European GP in Valencia on June 24, 2012, before retiring definitively at the age of 43.

In his last race Schumacher finished seventh behind Sebastian Vettel. It felt somewhat like a changing of the guard, with Vettel growing up with posters of his German countryman on his wall.

A little more than a year later, Schumacher was fighting for his life.

NEAR-FATAL ACCIDENT

While skiing with his teenage son Mick in the French Alps at Meribel, Schumacher fell on Dec. 29, 2013.

He hit the right side of his head on a rock, splitting open his helmet. Doctors worked frantically to remove blood clots from his brain, but some were left because they were too deeply embedded. Schumacher’s condition stabilized after he was placed in a drug-induced coma, from which he later emerged.

Following his accident, updates went from scarce to non-existent as those around him sought to protect his privacy. Understandably so, amid fears stolen medical records were going to be sold , and unsourced speculation saying Schumacher had slowly started walking again. Reported figures estimated his treatment at more than 23 million euros ($28 million) and counting. The exasperated family stopped communicating altogether.

“Michael’s health is not a public issue, and so we will continue to make no comment in that regard,” Kehm said. “Legally seen and in the longer term, every statement related to his health would diminish the extent of his intimate sphere.”

That statement was made 16 months ago.

NEVER FORGOTTEN

On an F1 track near Barcelona this month, a red flag fluttered over a grandstand facing Ferrari’s garage.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day Two

Two words were written on it – MICHAEL FOREVER – in a permanent testimony to his five titles with Ferrari from 2000-4.

Schumacher quit F1 in 2006 after finishing second to Fernando Alonso by only 13 points in a bid for an eighth title. When he announced his comeback for 2010, he swapped the flashy red of Ferrari for the gleaming silver of Mercedes.

Schumacher’s record seven titles and 91 wins made him an F1 colossus.

“He was the benchmark of physical approach, of mental approach,” said 33-year-old Polish driver Robert Kubica, who grew up watching Schumacher and himself earned 12 F1 podiums from 2006-10.

FERRARI FUROR

Amid the frenzy of Ferrari’s success at the turn of the decade, F1 even threatened to give soccer a challenge for pole position in the hearts of Italian sports fans.

In 2000, Schumacher delivered Ferrari its first world title since Jody Scheckter in 1979.

“I remember the top audience in Italy on TV was 12 million. He was very popular all over Italy,” veteran Italian sports journalist Stefano Mancini told the AP. Mancini, who has covered F1 since 2000 with Turin-based newspaper La Stampa, said “the atmosphere was incredible. Calcio (soccer) is always first, but it was also about Formula One.”

Even then, access to Schumacher was not easy. Mancini remembers Schumacher as someone who “wanted to protect his privacy” and described him as “shy, reserved.”

Until it came to karaoke time.

During Schumacher’s pomp, a handful of Italian F1 journalists would join him on a pre-season ski trip to Madonna Di Campiglio in the Italian Dolomites. They all lodged at the cavernous Golf Hotel.

“There was a room with a karaoke and bar,” the 55-year-old Mancini said.

Schumacher’s choice of song is of little surprise.

“‘My Way,’ by Frank Sinatra,” Mancini said. “He was a good singer.”

HAMILTON’S HOMAGE

At F1 pre-season testing in Montmelo near Barcelona, no driver was too busy to speak about Schumacher, amid clear respect for the driver widely considered the best ever along with the late Ayrton Senna.

Like Schumacher in his junior days, Lewis Hamilton excelled at karting growing up.

Even though Schumacher was by then an F1 star, the lure of going back in time prompted the German driver to compete in a karting race. Hamilton was there, still a teenager.

“It was in 2001, and the word was Michael was coming to race … and he raced in our class,” Hamilton recalled. “I just remember being on the track with him and I thought `That was cool.”‘

Five years later, Hamilton was breaking into F1 when Schumacher was racing in his then-last season.

“I think I was testing, it must have been in 2006. I saw him ahead of me and I thought `Oh my God, I’m in Formula One and there’s Michael Schumacher,”‘ Hamilton said. “He pulled away from me because I couldn’t keep up with him at the time. It was a surreal moment.”

When the 41-year-old Schumacher came out of retirement, Hamilton competed against him in 2010.

“The weather wasn’t great. It was wet. I remember pulling into (the paddock) afterward and my car was parked behind him,” Hamilton said. “He really spoke to me on the same level and it was just awesome to meet a great.”

Hamilton is now such a great. He replaced Schumacher at Mercedes in 2013, winning three F1 titles to add to his first with McLaren in 2008. Last season, the 33-year-old British driver broke Schumacher’s record of 68 pole positions. He took No. 69 at the Italian GP in Monza: Ferrari’s home.

INSPIRING A NEW GENERATION

Two years ago, Ferrari signed up 20-year-old Charles Leclerc to its prestigious drivers’ academy.

As soon as he set foot there, the Frenchman, who makes his F1 debut next Sunday for the Sauber team, felt Schumacher’s “enormous” influence all around him.

“They push us as hard as possible, so we have the same will to learn. He never gave up. I never knew him personally but a lot of people at the (academy) have said that,” Leclerc told the AP at pre-season testing. “After four world titles, quite a few drivers would have eased up a bit, but everyone told me that he continued to work just as much, as if he was going for his first. I think that’s an enormous strength, it inspires me a lot and I try to reproduce it.”

As a youth, Leclerc was mesmerized watching Schumacher on television.

“Seeing him gave me even more will to succeed and to maybe one day have the same success,” said Leclerc, who won the F2 championship in 2017 in some style. “I’m very, very far away, but it makes you dream.”

Max Verstappen, F1’s rising star, is the same age as Leclerc but has already won three races.

The Red Bull driver’s fearless driving style has drawn early comparisons to Schumacher.

His father, Jos Verstappen, was Schumacher’s teammate when he won his first title with Benetton in 1994. They became friends, holidaying together with young Max and the younger Mick in tow.

Mick Schumacher competed in the European F3 championship last year, securing a podium.

Like Verstappen before him, he hopes to follow his father into F1.

GIVING BACK

Schumacher’s family appreciates the unfailing support from fans.

From June 16 onward, The Michael Schumacher Private Collection – including cars, race-worn helmets and other memorabilia from his F1 days – will be displayed at an old airport in the Germany city of Cologne.

“It is to give back to the fans,” Kehm said. “To celebrate Michael the racing driver.”

More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org

 

A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

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It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.