Hold the back page: Driven by winning instinct
FOR a sport that, to the uninitiated, can seem dull and aesthetically lacking, Formula One has had an enduring habit of producing remarkable champions. Whether the deadly charisma of James Hunt, the dashing elegance of Ayrton Senna or the inspiring courage of Niki Lauda, there is something in the merciless chase of speed, the adrenaline-soaked rush of withstanding g-forces that would knock an ordinary mortal out, that propels extraordinary men into doing extraordinary deeds.
In the list of great champions, Michael Schumacher unquestionably belongs close to the top. The German didn't have Hunt's flamboyance or wow racing fans the way Senna did, but in the ice-cool grip he exerted on F1 over the guts of a 20-year career, in the ruthless and, sometimes, flagrantly dangerous manner in which he chased down his rivals, there was unarguably a champion to compare with the ages.
Inevitably, Schumacher's place in the motor racing pantheon was always likely to be a topic of interest once news broke that he was lying in a coma in a French hospital after suffering serious head injuries following a skiing accident last week.
A total of seven world titles, two clear of his closest rival Juan Manuel Fangio, speaks volumes, of course, but there has always been a tendency to diminish Schumacher's greatness while elevating the likes of Senna or the Scot, Jim Clark, ahead of him. Whether that can be attributed, partially at least, to Schumacher's relative unpopularity or his ruthless style of driving is a moot point.
For us, though, there is an acid test. Whenever the heavens opened, and the slicks were swapped for wets in a few blinks of an eyelid, when the premium was placed on driver skill rather than car performance, Schumacher invariably came into his own. Senna is considered the greatest in wet conditions, but the German wasn't far behind. Occasionally, you'd spot him off-season, indulging his passion in some karting event in which, naturally, he competed to win and usually did.
Beyond the talent and titles and records broken, however, it's that competitive drive that fascinates, that marks Schumacher out from the common herd, the compulsion that made him return, ill-advisedly, after his initial retirement in 2006. Not that this was unprecedented, of course. Motor racing is full of examples of drivers returning for second flings or embracing alternative challenges like the Indy or Nascar circuits, rivalling other risk-laden sports such as boxing for the frequency and variety of its comebacks.
The inner demons that so furiously propel performers like Schumacher are endlessly fascinating because they remain so elusive and tricky to understand. The vast majority of us feel no urge to stand on top of Everest or to slalom down a ski slope at speeds we normally only reach driving on motorways. For all our youthful reveries, most of us accept we'll never hold the FA Cup aloft or sink the winning putt at Augusta. And, by and large, we're quite okay with that.
The outliers -- those, like Schumacher, drawn helplessly to the thrill of the chase -- perplex us. We can admire their drive and passion, respect their achievements, but seldom do we grow up wishing to be them. We dream of being the pampered centre-forward or the well-travelled golfer. Not of being as gaunt and as grumpy as Tony McCoy to whom the act of winning sometimes seems to bring no visible sign of joy or release. What drives them, though? That's the question. McCoy has published two well-written, thoughtful autobiographies, done countless interviews, answered the same question as many times as he's had winners and yet the conundrum hasn't unravelled. Is it the winning and the records broken? Is it the daily fix of riding a ton of horseflesh over five-foot obstacles? Is it a combination of the above or something entirely different? It's still hard to say exactly.
A few years ago the former Olympic rower Gearóid Towey, seeking to recapture the buzz of competition, set out to row the Atlantic with his friend, Ciarán Lewis. Towey's imagination had been fired by reading stories about Chay Blyth, the adventure-seeking Scotsman who had started the Atlantic Challenge a decade before. Towey loved Blyth's response when someone had once asked him to explain what motivated him.
"Because, like everyone else on the planet, I'll have to face my final curtain sooner or later," Blyth replied. "When that moment arrives and I'm lying in bed looking at my toes, I'll be asking those toes some hard questions. Have I enjoyed life? Have I taken all my opportunities? Have I done everything I've wanted to? Unless all the answers are in the affirmative, I'm going to be really pissed off."
The problem for highly-driven sports people is that, essentially, they live their lives in reverse. The conventional life journey through to retirement and the ultimate fulfillment of cherished personal goals doesn't usefully apply to those who might already have accomplished their greatest achievements by the time they reach their mid-30s. For all the wealth and status they might have earned, that knowledge is a hefty burden to shoulder.
Some cope better than others, of course. Right now, it's probably an even money shot that Richard Dunwoody is ploughing some lonely Arctic furrow in an attempt to score the fix that was available every day he was one of the UK's leading jump jockeys. If not, you can bet he is planning something soon. Towey is in Australia, thinking of a race in the Gobi Desert this summer. McCoy is busy being McCoy, setting new targets, refusing to see an end point arriving any time soon.
In the gripping Ronan O'Gara documentary screened on RTE on Thursday night, the dominant theme was of a player raging against the dying of the light, distracted
and tormented by the onset of age. For all the glories of the outhalf's career, the accolades garnered, what was instructive and unsettling was how often he used the words "hurt" and "pain", the lack of fulfillment he seemed to have derived from a hugely successful career. "It's all about playing," a wistful O'Gara tells the camera. "There's nothing but playing. And I can't get that buzz back. It's gone. Standing on the side of the pitch in Colombes with Racing [Metro], I'm realising that. It's horrible because I love the thrill of competition, of challenging myself."
Perhaps the thought of Schumacher lying stricken in a hospital bed would offer perspective, but these are tricky feelings. By all accounts, the German was an accomplished skier, known to enter competitive races and win them. For Schumacher, the thrill wasn't in being on the mountain and skiing, rather in doing so at speeds most ordinary mortals would flinch at. Is there a small consolation in the fact that he fell victim to his own nature, in the pursuit of something elusive that defined him as a person? Maybe. But his heart-broken family might not share that sentiment.
It's all we can do, really, to hope he pulls through and to remember his place as one of the greats and, possibly, the greatest of all time.