MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO: There is an element of ritual to Ferrari's annual winter retreat in the Dolomites but this year Michael Schumacher broke with tradition.
For the past five years the German's message for his first press conference of the year has been the same - he is as motivated as ever, has no thoughts of quitting and wants to keep on winning.
Last week, after Ferrari's deeply disappointing performance last season, the 37-year-old failed to reproduce that mantra.
He talked about when he would decide about his retirement, the involvement of his wife in that decision and even talked up the man so many Italians would love to see replace him at Ferrari - motorcycling world champion Valentino Rossi.
Given Schumacher's character, his peerless professionalism, focus and intense desire to be the best, it would be unwise to presume, however, that he is about to wind down his career before bowing out.
In fact the last thing the seven-times world champion wants is another season as an also-ran - that would, he says, be most likely to cause him to quit because he simply cannot stand not being the best.
"The joy comes in driving but if you do testing and you drive at two seconds off the pace consistently and whatever you do you don't go anywhere, so that means all the effort that you put in is meaningless, it is quite frustrating," he said.
"We had quite a bit of this last year with all the testing we have done, around 90,000 kilometres. If you imagine that if you don't progress in spite of all this effort, it is tiring.
"But if I look at the tests I have been doing in December and now, being able to do good lap times, and feel the car, and push even harder and get a result, that is what is so great about racing and what I enjoy."
Schumacher says Ferrari's competitiveness will be the basis on which he decides in mid-season whether to sign a new deal with the Scuderia, retire or utilize the tantalising "one percent" chance he has left himself to switch to another team.
Like all great sportsmen, he is now facing that most difficult of decisions - how and when to end his career.
It would not be engaging in excessive mind-reading to guess that Schumacher's ideal scenario would involve him clinching his eighth world title before handing the keys to the famous red racing car to someone else - maybe the massively marketable Rossi.
Perhaps Ferrari's version would involve a season of transition in 2007 with the German racing alongside the charismatic Italian and passing on all his experience to a relatively young man making the switch from two wheels to four.
But what if it goes wrong again with another poor start to the season by Ferrari? Would that really be the way he would like to exit the sport he loves?
The possibility of ending his career on a low might explain why he has refused to rule out a move to another team - if Ferrari can't provide him with the grand finale to his career, perhaps someone else might.
And that slim chance of Schumacher delivering one final twist to his outstanding career will keep the paddock rumour-mongers busy for many months ahead.
On Monday, Schumacher gave Ferrari's new Formula One car its first outing when he drove it around the team's test circuit at Fiorano.
He completed four laps and practised starts in the car, which will be officially unveiled at Mugello on January 24.