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

 

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”