Michael Schumacher is, statistically speaking, the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. With 91 wins, the joint-highest wins in one season, more wins in France, Canada and San Marino than anyone else, more pole positions than anyone else, and the most fastest laps (as well as the most fastest laps in one season), he has certainly re-written the record books!
But, what are my impressions and memories of him?
(Schumacher raced precisely once for the Jordan team, before being lured to the promising Benetton team)
I don’t remember Schumacher’s debut but I do remember in 1992 that he was not the least-bit intimidated by the established stars of the sport – he was quite prepared to challenge the likes of Mansell and Senna, and it was clear he was a consistent racer. He finished in the top four in every race he finished save once (and took his maiden win at Belgium that year)- and was only three points off second place at the end of the season.
In 1993 Schumacher wasn’t able to keep up with the superior Williams cars but he finished on the podium at every race he finished – winning in Portugal. He was clearly not afraid of the likes of Senna and Prost, and was demonstrating his pace quite nicely.
1994 is a year remembered for a lot of the wrong reasons by F1 fans, but it is also the year Schumacher, in only his third full season in F1, won his first world championship. I recall the disqualification he was handed at the British GP, which was the result of Schumacher passing Damon Hill on the parade lap (something not permitted by the regulations) and then ignoring the 5-second stop-go penalty that followed. This incident would prove to have enormous ramifications for a title race that was otherwise Schumacher’s to lose.
Schumacher was banned for two races, deferred on appeal but the appeal ultimately failed .He also ended up disqualified from the Belgium GP for a car infringement. In all, Schumacher missed four races, and Hill closed to the gap to just one point going into the final event in Australia.
What happened at that race is still a question of controversy and heated debate. Hill was putting Schumacher under increasing pressure and would actually force Schumacher into running wide – and Hill tried to get past at the next corner. Schumacher very abruptly closed the door, the two collided, and Schumacher retired there and then. Much to his delight, Hill was only able to make it as far as the pits before retiring himself, meaning Schumacher was world champion.
(Did Schumacher deliberately steer into Hill’s Williams?)
Schumacher has always insisted the accident was exactly that – an accident. The media at large has never been convinced of this, and in later years Hill accused him of causing the crash on purpose. He got away with it at the time as it was judged to be a racing incident – and Williams did not pursue the matter as they were still dealing with Senna’s death.
The Schumacher/Hill collision left a bad taste in many a mouth, including mine, and it left me with an impression of Schumacher that has stuck. This has not been helped by subsequent incidents – in 1997 Schumacher, now at Ferrari, deliberately turned into Villeneuve’s Williams as the Canadian tried to overtake him, but, unlike in 94, only Schumacher ended up retiring. Not only that, but officials judged Schumacher to have caused the incident on purpose, and he was disqualified from the championship.
When viewing the 94 incident alongside the 97 collision, it becomes harder to look at it as a racing incident. Suddenly, a stronger case emerges for Schumacher being entirely willing to crash into other drivers to win titles – Senna-esque and dangerous.
Nor can Schumacher claim to be motivated by the same anger and resentment that motivated Senna’s actions in Japan 1990 – With Schumacher, I can’t help but feel the gestures were more calculated – cold almost.
The Ferrari Years
The greatest legacy Schumacher left Formula 1 with was the incredible transformation of Ferrari that he helped spearhead. I remember thinking that he’d made a mistake – Ferrari had been a spent force for years, occasionally competitive (such as 1990), but by and large they had not looked great. They had last delivered a driver’s title in 1979 and their last constructer’s championship was in 1983.
(Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996, and would help revitalise the Italian team)
Schumacher brought with him to Ferrari Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne from Benetton (the trio had been instrumental in Benetton’s success), and in his first year at the team, Schumacher took three wins (seen by many as a surprise). In 1997, as already mentioned, he challenged for the title. In 1998, the Ferrari had improved further, and I recall his titanic season-long struggle with Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren – Schumacher would end up runner-up again, and in 1999 he would break his leg at the British Grand Prix, which ended his title challenge.
(Schumacher would win his third world championship in 2000)
In 2000, after another season-long fight with Häkkinen, Schumacher finally claimed his third world title, and his first with Ferrari. What followed was an era of utter dominance, though I have to admit I found it boring to watch. I used to remark that watching ‘Michael Schumacher’s Magic Roundabout’ wasn’t very interesting, but from a sporting point of view, what Schumacher achieved was remarkable. He won five consecutive world championships, breaking record after record along the way.
2005 was where his dominance of the sport ended. New rules, redesigned cars and the rise of Fernando Alonso meant Ferrari struggled to deliver a competitive car. 2006 however, saw Schumacher take seven wins, but he would end up runner-up in what, at the time, was his final season in Formula 1.
2006 is also when we saw the unsporting side to Schumacher once again. During qualifying at Monaco, he stopped his car (at the time arguing he had locked up his front brakes) at a point of the track where it became impossible for anyone else to complete a flying lap. The stewards didn’t agree, concluding that for Schumacher, with his experience, to lock up his brakes at that part of the circuit, would have had to deliberately mis-driven the car, and he was sent to the back of the grid.
Nevertheless, Monaco 06 is still regarded as one of his best races, coming back to finish fifth from 22nd.
Out of Retirement and to Mercedes
Late in 2009 Schumacher returned to Formula 1 with the newly reformed Mercedes team. Sadly for him, his return would not prove to be successful. The Mercedes was not a bad car but it wasn’t especially competitive either, and Schumacher also appeared to struggle to get to grips with the new car. His form would not improve during his three-year return and he would be consistently out-raced by teammate Nico Rosberg. Schumacher did offer up a few flashes of his best – I recall him keeping the faster McLaren of Lewis Hamilton at bay for some time during the 2011 Italian Grand Prix, and he would have started the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix on pole if not for a grid penalty – but these moments were fleeting, and, with the news that Hamilton was to replace him at Mercedes, Schumacher announced in October 2012 that he was retiring for good.
Not everyone is especially fond of Schumacher. The 94 and 97 championship-deciding collisions and the 06 qualifying fiasco in Monaco have left some with unpleasant memories of the ruthless approach Schumacher had. His undisputed status as number one driver at Ferrari also led to what some regard as the stifling imposition of team orders, which meant Schumacher was virtually unchallenged with some of his title charges (his teammate being contractually bound to help him).
Nevertheless, you cannot become a seven-time world champion, nor a winner of 91 races, if you are anything other than a supreme talent.
On the 29th of December 2013, Schumacher was injured in an accident whilst skiing in the French Alps – suffering a serious head injury after hitting his head on a rock. His helmet saved his life, but Schumacher was placed in a coma to protect his brain functions. He has been slowly recovering, and is now home and conscious, but whether he will remember the life he’s led and everything he’s achieved is anyone’s guess. The odds are not in his favour, but one can hope. He certainly deserves to.