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Jacob Sweetman: Watching paint fly

Sometimes watching people doing exciting things isn't actually that exciting in itself. Take the Red Bull Stratos project, or more pertinently, Formula 1 racing. As Germany mourns Michael Schumacher's retirement, the Sportsdesk remains unmoved.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: Watching paint fly
Photo by Daniel Milbord (Wikimedia Commons)

Bild called him a “luminary” and “one of the greatest sportsmen of all time”. Stern.de used simply “legend”. Of course the German press have used up the giant heaving mass of the EU superlatives mountain on Michael Schumacher’s retirement from Formula 1 – he is not just the most successful German racing driver, but is simply the most successful racer of all time. Although he was arrogant and aloof, he was always respected, if never universally loved in his home country. He always competed, and above all, he always won. At least he did until he came back to the track a couple of years ago, when the chances of him adding to the glittering pile of prizes (as well as the glittering pile of cash, which took care of itself) were always going to be pretty slim.

You may notice by the sneering tone that the Sportsdesk doesn’t necessarily concur. We are misnamed, and in a perpetual state of schizophrenic confusion. We are I, and I don’t have time for Formula 1. Michael Schumacher’s second retirement has left me feeling as if I’m watching a bloated piñata of indifference swinging from a branch of stinking apathy. I’d hit it with a stick of detachment if I could be bothered.

I should love him. As a kid I watched The Right Stuff almost daily. There is nothing more fascinating than those who go faster and higher than anyone else, nothing as awe inspiring as those who “go out there and chase the devil in the sky”. Formula 1 shouldn’t be any different. It is fast and dangerous. The speeds that they reach, their arses an inch from the ground, are inconceivable, the skill, fitness and mental strength required are unimaginable.

In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager was the greatest man in the world – nobody flew higher, faster or whilst more injured. He raced horses against his beautiful wife, and sunk whiskey by the bottle in the corner while the “putknockers” preened themselves at the bar. He was the first man to break the sound barrier. He was awesome. John Glenn was the first American into orbit, but he was a bit dull compared to Yeager. His wife made cookies, while he had strong, passive shoulders and an all-American smile. John Glenn was fast, but he was, well, a bit Formula 1.

The problem is the lack of personalities. The sport is dominated by car manufacturers, car drivers and car fetishists. They like to talk about cars, shit, we can understand that, but it puts a windshield up between us and the racers, the ones who put their lives on the line. Schumacher was a great front for his teams. He was arrogant, but he was unbeatable – and therefore untouchable in a world where young men live in a weird fantasy land made out of Pussycat Dolls and yachts made out of truffles. He would push the laws of the sport to the edge, he was dangerous enough, but I couldn’t ever love him or loathe him like a narcissistic, overpaid footballer – there was just too little to him outside of a massive engine. Even the golf (THE GOLF!) chucked out an interesting, dare I say exhilarating, day last week, but, despite the risks, the duchy of Formula 1 remains a dull place.

Schumi – Wikipedia says he has three exciting nicknames, “Schumi”, “Schuey” and “Schu”, but in Germany it’s just the one, “Schumi” – is better than his successor, Sebastian Vettel who makes travelling at hundreds of miles an hour through dead-eye turns sound like doing the washing up. He ran Damon Hill off the road once, so he can’t be that bad, and one could, almost, genuinely get excited about his win in the rain in Belgium, so part of me feels bad that, outside the slightly myopic tabloid view of him here, he has barely registered on my radar at all.

Watching people do exciting things isn’t necessarily always exciting itself. It is that simple. Take the case of Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who was going to plummet 36.5 kilometers (120,000 feet) to earth yesterday, watched by millions on Youtube, only to leave all of those viewers streaming live coverage of a few men in Red Bull T-shirts instructing a load of other blokes in Red Bull baseball caps on how to blow up a balloon. Until it got too windy.

It should have been the most exciting thing in the world, but it just wasn’t. They were just blowing up a balloon. It was like watching Formula 1, sorry Michael.