Each Formula One fan will have his own opinions on Michael Schumacher, such is the mans polarising nature. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find any other Motorsport personality that has resonated with so many millions outside the sports vacuumed bubble. This summer I had the opportunity to visit rural India for some healthcare experience. The people there hadn’t heard of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso or even Aryton Senna. Yet of Micheal Schumacher and Ferrari, they knew well.
There are “binders full of” records and achievements that one can tout of Schumacher. His era with Ferrari from 2000-04 saw a win percentage of 56% and a podium percentage of 77% He won more than every other race and was only off the podium less than once every 4 races. The majority will remember Schumacher as the Red Baron who ruled the pinnacle of Motorsport. Yet, in my view, that was not Schumacher at his very best.
Schumacher’s greatest achievement was his influence on the very sport itself. He was the purveyor of a tectonic shift gone under-appreciated in the undercurrents of his exuberance. The vast majority of the generation of young Formula One fans (which at the age of 20 I consider myself part of) simply haven’t been exposed to what I consider to be greatest display of sustained driving excellence in the sport’s history. Think an amalgamation of Vettel’s supreme excellence in 2011 and Alonso’s remarkable relentlessness in 2012. That was Michael Schumacher of the 1990s, especially in his early Ferrari days.
Formula One was a very different sport in the early ’90s. There existed this belief that a race weekend was compromised very much of two halves: the first qualifying where a driver would give it everything for one spectacular lap. The second the race, where a driver would sustain a paced, tactical battle of attrition with his competitors. One couldn’t possibly drive 60 laps akin to the fervent intensity of qualifying! Niki Lauda famously said “The secret is to win going as slowly as possible.” The exert minimum strain to best sustain your mental and physical abilities for the trials of a world championship.
Schumacher took that established norm and simply blew it out of the water. He brought an intensity to the sport never seen of before that took it by storm. Physically, he was a relative Arnold Schwarzenegger for the current grid of driver, who simply couldn’t respond. Damon Hill & Nigel Mansell recall incidences in their own career where towards the end of a race, their tiring muscles and dwindling concentration where no match for a rampaging Schumacher who would be driving each lap as if it was his last. He made it seem remarkably easy and wouldn’t even appear to break sweat at the end of some races. Asked about his early ascension on a SkyF1 program he simply noted:
“Some people naturally talented. You need to beat them, by simply working hard. Harder tha anyone else.”
Today’s Formula One drivers train at altitudes, run triathalons and excessively manage their food and fluid intake. They’re all built like pro-altheles. That is a direct result of Schumacher’s influence of our very sport sport. He raised the bar and brought an off track component of fitness and training to maxmise on track benefits. Formula One today is a better, even more competive sport thanks to his contribution.
A Tale of Two Races – Brilliance Distilled
As is often the case with great sport stories, the circumstances in place viewed retrospectively suit the protagonist. Shumacher’s notion of racing flat out was a perfect match for low fuel sprint racing of the time. He was a famous critic of the Pirelli tyres on his comeback, since he had to lend more effort into managing tyre life instead of pushing the limits of the car itself. The best demonstration of Schumacher’s speed and determination was shown at Hungary 1998. Battling the quicker McLarens of Haikkenen and Coulthard, Schumacher was relegated to a third and effectively championship challenge ending position. The Ferrari pit crew, lead by Ross Brawn gambled on Schumacher’s racing finesse and opted for a three stop strategy asking for a tall order: making up around 25 seconds in 18 laps. Schumacher delivered. And then some. Each following sector was faster than the last, leaving a trail of purple on the timesheet. He lapping constantly 1.5 seconds faster than the whole field, even faster than his qualifying pace.
Schumacher’s first victory for Ferrari is perhaps his very finest. Rain. The perennial equaliser of machinery and appraiser of inherent talent. The 1996 Spanish Grand Prix saw Schumacher lapping a whole three seconds faster in a car which was over a second slower in the dry. In conditions which led to just 6 cars finishing the car. It was a performance best described as ’Senna-esque’ which earned him the title “Regenmeister”.
The Schumacher-Ferrari era
Schumacher’s utter dominance in the early 2000s doesn’t sit well with passionate Formula One fans. Some have always highlighted the above advantages and doubted Schumacher. They feel a sense of pride being “in the know” of the real in-depth aspects of Formula One. The ones who’d tell their mates down in the pub in 2004 “He’s not as good as he looks you know”. It’s simply true: Schumacher held signficant advantages during that tenture at Ferrari: Bespoke, custom built, durable Bridgestone tyres; a private test team and test track (Fiorano) to endlessly test new parts; a clear ‘second driver’ and of course, the colossal budget of the prancing horse.
However, just as true were the significant disadvantages Ferrari had in 1996. “Truck”, “pig”, and “accident waiting to happen” here the labels conjugated to the uncompetitive Ferrari’s of the early nineties by Alain prost. The poor performance of the Ferrari pit crews was a running joke amonst mechanics.
Schumacher became a beconing leader for Ferrari, a figure with the gravitas of consecutive world championships looked up in admiration by every engineer at Maranello. A true team player, along with Jean Todt and Ross Brawn Schumacher simply brought about one of the most remarkable transitions in F1 history. You don’t simply “chance into” into a good team – you galvanise and build it piece by piece. Hamilton’s remarking on his own voyage with Mercedes, hoping the replicate the same efforts.
Let his dominant machinery not not detract from the talent and efforts of a remarkable individual who had more than proven his credentials well before he bored many into irrational anger towards him. Eddie Jordan recalls a young Schumacher testing an F1 car for the very first time at Silverstone and within the space of an hour lapping faster than Jordan’s race drivers.
307 races spanning a period of time greater than my lifetime. Competing and beating Senna, Prost, Mansell, Haikkenen, Raikkonen and Alonso. Attaining a collosal seven world titles – the amount of Senna and Prost combined.
Some have questioned whether he’s tarnished his legacy by competiting with Mercedes from 2010. There have certainly been dissapointments in the comeback. I’ve covered the trials, tribulations and failures of Mercedes in a separate article but retrospectively, it’s obvious to see the appeal of Mercedes for Schumacher. An automotive goliath, deeply ingrained in German culture that enabled his entry into the sport he dominated giving him the opportunity to compete against what was hailed as the best grid of drivers? You can see how Ross Brawn appealed to Schumacher’s inner competitive soul.
Still, it takes some skill for a 43 year old to drag a below-par car onto pole position at the hardest circuit and beating drivers half his age. His luck and reliability this year have been nothing short of atrocious – 5 retirements in the first 7 races where the Mercedes was even slightly competitive.
Here’s a confession – I was never a Schumacher fan growing up. I was an ardent supporter of the ‘Flying ‘Finn’ Mika Häkkinen and vivdly remember cheering in disbelief that overtake at Spa 2000. The Finn’s lighthearted character clashed with the German’s steely nature.
Thanks to his comeback and onset of maturity at the solem age of 40, you saw a more human Schumacher in his comeback. Not a charecterised part-driving machine where breakneck competition was the only was forward. There no incidents like Jerez 1997 or Monaco 2006. He’d always have a charming smile on his face on good or bad days, referring to “his boys” and the work they were putting in at the factory. He won me over and I found myself cheering for him at Canada 2011 and all throughout 2012. The more I researched and looked up on him from the ’90s, the more impressed I became. I may not be a fan of him, but I can appreciate incredible showcases of driving masterclass when I see them.
Schumacher-the-driver’s legacy will always remain untarnishied. The present can’t change the past and won’t erode on scaresly believeable performance such as Spain 1996. In his comeback, Schumacher-the-human rose to the top.
This long article (thank you for reading this far) is a homage to the man who defines and personifies modern Formula One: the good, the bad and the ugly. The dominance, the struggles and the controversies. The likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenburg credit Schumacher’s achievements as their key inspiration for the sport. He took Formula One in Germany from a fringe sport to the nation with the most drivers currently on the grid and third on the all time list of championships. His influence on the sport in simply unquestionable.
In an interview with Top Gear whilst masquerading as the legend Stig, when asked why the retired at the end of 2006 he said he had simply nothing more left in the tank to give. He also joked “I missed curry too much” referred to his strict diet during his driving.
Michael Schumacher, thanks for the memories. Have a nice curry with your family on us, the Formula One community.
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