3rd January 2016 will mark the 47th birthday of one of the greatest drivers to have ever been a part of Formula One, a person whose name has, quite simply, become synoymous with the sport.
He may not be everyone’s favourite driver*, but even non-Schumacher fans will acknowledge the gargantuan impact the Red Baron has had on the sport.
Yes, there were aggressive drivers before 1992. There was the mighty Ayrton Senna, who may have even continued to rule the roost had the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix not played out the way it did. There was his bitterest rival (and in the end, a close friend), Alain Prost, who raced strategically, but pushed the limits nevertheless.
There was the fearsome Jim Clark, who perished just as Senna did, in the prime of his racing career, and then there was the pre-Schumacher Ferrari legend Juan Manuel Fangio, whose records Schumacher would break on his way to glory.
If Senna’s qualifying sessions and flat-out speeds on the track enthralled fans in the 1980s, a new young German would burst onto the scene in the early 1990s and Formula One would never be the same.
It was Senna who many still consider the superior driver (and at 65 pole positions, only three less than Schumacher’s in 144(!) fewer races, perhaps the statistics indicate it too. But considering the Brazilian’s targically truncated career, it is unfair to compare.
1989 saw a number of talented young German drivers join Formula 3, all under one of the sport's most iconic managers, Willi Weber. All of them would join Formula One. All of them still names fans remember today.
All drivers are equal, but some are more equal than others. In a show that starred Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher, it was the shoe-maker, the son of the bricklayer, who stood out.
Karting had not been easy for the young German, whose parents took on extra jobs at the track just to fund his talent, which ultimately saw businessmen in Hurth pitch in to help a young Michael get a new engine for his kart that his parents were unable to afford.
It wasn’t something Schumacher would have to worry about much longer. Contracted to Mercedes in 1990 for the World Sports-Prototype Championships, they would pay famed F1 boss Eddie Jordan $150,000 for Schumacher’s 1991 Jordan Racing debut.
Much has been written about his racing prowess and immense talent, his immediate impact on the sport, his stupendous results only two years into the sport.
But it is in his aggression, his masterful handling of the most torrential downpours, that thrilled fans.
The title translates quite literally to ‘rainmaster’, and watching Schumacher’s races makes the title self explanatory. Where other drivers would aquaplane and lose grip, veer off track and be left unable to race, Schumi did not just excel – he revelled.
One of the best wet-weather drives in Formula One came courtesy of Michael Schumacher at the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix. The race had been tense, with choppers flying overhead surveying conditions, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone overseeing proceedings, and a general environment of uncertainty surrounded the Circuit de Catalunya.
Schumacher had just made his debut for Ferrari fresh off a double world championship with Benetton, and the Grand Prix began with that year’s eventual champion Damon Hill on pole, but the Briton was unable to handle the rain, and spun out twice in the initial stages of the race (and a few times afterwards), and with his teammate Jacques Villeneueve now leading, Schumacher decided to seize the lead in lap 13.
Going neck and neck now with Jean Alesi, Schumacher was driving in conditions so bad that even spectators were barely able to make out the outlines of the vehicles on track, with visibility even poorer for drivers on a track known for its turns.
And where nearly every other driver spun out, lost control, struggled for grip, Schumacher gave all of Formula One a masterclass in handling wet races.
He had many great wet-weather drives, but the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix will stand out as one of F1’s best in history. It was also Schumacher’s first ever victory with Ferrari, and the rest is history, with his next big nickname.
The Red Baron
This title belonged to an actual historical figure before Schumacher all but took over.Manfred von Richthofen was one of the best fighter pilots of the Imperial German Army Air Service during the First World War, and one of its most decorated.
It would need big feet to fill the shoes of a man who had 80 air combat victories to his credit, and the ace-of-aces in Formula One took over from the ace-of-aces in World War One.
Schumacher spent a decade with Ferrari, and if he had had success with Benetton, he would have much, much more at the stables of the Prancing Horse. In his debut year, he won more races for the team than they had won in the four years prior.
He would finish third in the World Championship that year, with Williams’ FW18 at the time far superior to the F310 at the time, in spite of which Schumacher led the team to 3 wins that year and 8 podiums overall, taking them to 2nd in the constructors’ championships.
Schumacher would have finished at 2nd the following year had he not been disqualified for causing a collision with Jacques Villeneuve, and although he was allowed to keep his whopping five race wins, it was an odd repeat of the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, where Schumacher sealed his first ever championship after a ‘collision’ with Damon Hill ensured the German would take the eventual title in a race won by Briton Nigel Mansell.
He may have been known for his aggression, his willingness to do anything to win, and it won him accolades beyond the imagination of most, but it also ensured controversy followed him for much of his career.
Following a lull in form – which also would later see the start of the iconic Schumacher-Hakkinen rivalry, the German won Ferrari the 1999 Constructors’ championship, although it was reigning drivers’ champion Mika Hakkinen, who had won 8 races in 1998 and 5 the following year, who kept the title after having spent 10 of the year’s races on the podium.
That rivalry would culminate in one of the most-admired friendships in the sport; Schumacher went on to say that Hakkinen was one of the few rivals he had raced whom he truly respected.
The respect and camaraderie the two shared was evident – battling closely for the title in 2000, the title, even halfway through the year, could have gone either Ferrari or McLaren’s way. It was at that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza that Schumacher, who had already won 5 races that year and been on the podium for another three, equalled Ayrton Senna’s record of 41 race wins.
An emotional Schumacher, at the post-race press conference, was unable to continue speaking to reporters – and it was at that point that Hakkinen assumed all responsibility for the conference, diverting attention from the overcome German.
To say that the next five years were the Schumi Show would be an understatement of epic proportions. The 2000 championship went Schumacher’s way despite three retirements on the trot. 2001 saw two retirements in the year and one lowest of fourth place – barring which he finished every single race in either first or second, and his fourth championship title.
2002 saw Schumacher, who switched from the F2001 to the F2002 two races in, win 11 races and finish every single other race on the podium. Between Schumacher and teammate Rubens Barichello, Ferrari won all but two of the year’s 17 races.
That year, Schumacher equalled the old record – 5 World Championships, one that had been set by Fangio years earlier.
His only real rival in 2003 was Kimi Raikkonen, and considering the maw of points that separated the two, it was probable Schumacher would win yet again. And he did.
He would only finally end that streak in 2004 as he sealed his fifth drivers’ title with Ferrari and his seventh overall, setting a record that no driver has so far been able to even come close to.
In winning 13 of the year’s 18 races, he also broke his own record of 11 race wins in a single year.
In his final two years at Ferrari, he raced the dominant young Fernando Alonso of Renault, and at one point in the year even took the championship lead from the man who would eventually become Formula One’s youngest ever World Champion at the time, a record that has since been broken.
He took his first retirement in 2006, having won 7 of the year’s races.
Retirement, return, retirement
But it appears he could not stay away from Formula One for long. In 2010, at the age of 41, Schumacher returned to the sport, driving for the team with whom he had made his F3 debut – Mercedes. Having been considered as Felipe Massa’s replacement at Ferrari in 2009 after the Brazilian’s accident at the Hungaroring, the German had decided to return to the sport.
In a testament to his illustrious record, that season was the first in twenty years Schumacher had finished a season without a fastest lap, win, pole position or podium finish. Even then, he showed flashes of the Schumacher of old, managing to make his way far up the grid despite starting nearly at the back on multiple occasions.
Schumacher was known for many, many things. His prodigious driving skill foremost, his aggression, his collisions, and according to many, his ‘dirty’ driving. Despite this, he continues to be one of the most loved, respected and revered figures in Formula One (and really, in all sport).
He was responsible for repopularising Formula One in Germany – and was the inspiration for one of Formula One’s current best – Sebastian Vettel, whom he mentored.
After two decades in arguably the most dangerous sport one could be a part of, it was a skiing accident that would render Schumacher, who was also an experienced skiier, comatose for months and leave him with severe brain injuries that he is still in recovery from following his December 2013 accident.
Could we ever see a return to the Schumi of old? Perhaps not. But today, as the legend turns 47, perhaps we should remind ourselves just how great he really is.
**The writer herself is an Ayrton Senna fan