Even without Schumacher, F1 cruising merrily along

MONZA, Italy -- Michael who?

It was here at the famed Autodromo Nazionale di Monza just one year ago that Michael Schumacher announced after the Italian Grand Prix that he would retire at the end of the season.

Many people questioned how Formula One would get along without the one of the most well known (not to mentioned one of the highest paid) sports personalities on the planet.

Well, the polls are in, and although Schumacher certainly is not forgotten, the world of F1 is humming along quite successfully without the megastar.

A major wrench could be thrown into that humming F1 machine, and that's the continuing spy scandal between Ferrari and McLaren.

It's been accepted that a McLaren employee illegally received confidential Ferrari technical information from a Ferrari employee. The FIA's initial investigation deemed that McLaren would not be punished because it was only a rogue McLaren employee who was guilty.

But now the FIA has received new evidence that will be heard by the its World Motor Sport Council in Paris on Sept. 13. The evidence could widen the spy ring and reveal more about who-knew-what-when regarding the secret data.

In the worst-case scenario, both McLaren and/or its drivers could be stripped of all the points they have earned this year and be thrown out of the championship next year as well.

If you work on the angle that any publicity is good publicity, F1 is certainly getting a lot of publicity and will get even more if the messy spy scandal really erupts.

This is a story about Schumacher, not about spies, but the spy scandal has indeed helped divert attention from the fact that Schumacher is no longer racing.

Last year, Schumacher said he would reveal his plans for his future at the Italian Grand Prix.

Would he stay or would he go?

He and Ferrari kept the world in limbo, and all through the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix, speculation ran rampant.

Much to the delight of the adoring "Tifosi" Ferrari fans, Schumacher won the race. Just as the race ended, the Ferrari press officers handed out a press release saying that Schumacher would retire at the end of the season.

The team also announced that it had extended Felipe Massa's contract and hired McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen.

All in all, it was pretty limp way to handle the announcement of the end of the career of one of the biggest stars ever in F1.

Finally, after celebrating on the podium, Schumacher faced the media and explained his decision.

"At the end of this year, I've decided, together with the team, that I'm going to retire from racing," he said a year ago. "It has been an exceptional, really exceptional time, what motor sport has given to me in more than 30 years. I've really loved every single moment of the good and the bad times. Those ones make life so special."

He had made his decision about the time of the 2006 United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in June.

"It has obviously, naturally, been difficult in a way," he said, "but at one moment I simply knew that all the effort, all the energy, all the motivation you need in order to be competitive -- and that's the only reason I want to be here -- I can't see I'm going to have that for further years."

Schumacher would win just once more in 2006. But he closed out his career with the fierce, fighting spirit and intense dedication that was the core of his success. He fought with Fernando Alonso for the world drivers' championship and with Renault for the world constructors' championship right up until the final lap of the final Grand Prix. On his second to last competitive lap ever, he set the fastest lap time of the race.

He retired having obliterated just about every F1 record in the books. In 250 starts between 1991 and 2006, he racked up seven world championships, 91 wins, 68 poles, 154 podiums and 76 fastest race laps. He also holds the records for most races led, most laps led, most consecutive podiums and most wins from pole.

It's no wonder that people questioned if Schumacher's retirement would be a serious blow to F1.

It was not.

One year on, heading into the same Italian Grand Prix where Schumacher announced his retirement, F1 is locked in a gripping four-way battle for the world drivers' championship. With just five races to go, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen all have a shot at the title. Each has won three times this year.

I really cannot say that have I found fresh challenges that would excite me so far.

Michael Schumacher

F1 has a sensational rookie in Hamilton and a tenacious double world champion in Alonso. Massa has matured into a winning driver. And Raikkonen, released from the over-controlling McLaren team, is getting into the groove with the more free-spirited Ferrari.

Even if McLaren suffers sanctions because of the spy scandal it has been an exciting season.

There are other new young guns out there as well, such as Robert Kubica, who finished third (his first F1 podium) in the same race that Schumacher announced his retirement, and Heikki Kovalainen, whose true potential has been masked by an uncompetitive Renault.

Other things that have kept F1 in the headlines in the post-Schumacher era include the family feud between Alonso and Hamilton, and the spy scandal.

Meanwhile, out on the track this year, Ferrari has been able to keep up its winning momentum without Schumacher in the cockpit. The seven-time world champion maintains an undefined consultancy role and indeed a slightly weird relationship with the team.

Schumacher remains close with Ferrari team boss Jean Todt and with Massa.
There is no relationship with Raikkonen. After Raikkonen won the season-opening Grand Prix for Ferrari, Schumacher, watching the race on TV in Europe, telephoned Todt in Australia.

As Raikkonen headed for the podium to celebrate, Todt handed him the phone so that Schumacher could congratulate him. Raikkonen said he couldn't hear. And you can be pretty sure he didn't want to hear. This is his time at Ferrari, not Schumacher's.

Schumacher attended five races this year, monitoring the race on the pit wall and sitting in the technical debriefings with the Ferrari engineers and drivers.

Ferrari says he is a member of the family and that his wealth of experience makes his input invaluable. Yet you also get the uncomfortable feeling that it's sort of like having an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend hanging around.

In fact, Schumacher admits he feels like the odd man out and he does not plan to attend any more races this year.

"I really cannot say that have I found fresh challenges that would excite me so far," he told reporters at the track recently. "At Ferrari, there are constantly new opportunities coming up. But I could not pinpoint what exactly would be right for me.

"There is one thing I adore, however, helping to develop road cars. That is a lot of fun, and I believe that I can be of help [with that]."

His ability to help develop the F1 car is limited.

"I have to admit that my knowledge is restricted by time," he told the Swiss magazine Motorsport Aktuell. "I would have to freshen it up constantly in order to be of help. I see many former drivers who try to comment on what is going on, but they are struggling. They are simply no longer deep in the business anymore."

From the current Ferrari driver's perspective, just how influential and beneficial has Schumacher's presence been for the team?

"It is difficult to say for sure," Raikkonen said. "He has a lot of experience in F1, but I don't know how much, or what he has actually done. I don't ask who has done what and who is responsible."

Massa has benefited from Schumacher's advice, although Massa insists that Schumacher is not his driver coach.

Overall, fan attendance at the Grand Prix circuits this year has not dropped dramatically in the post-Schumacher era. And TV viewing figures, even in Schumacher's native Germany, are pretty much on par with last year. In fact, both fan turnout and TV turn-on has increased in some countries.

Yes the F1 world is different without Schumacher, but it continues on its merry and sometimes controversial way.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.