Top 20 Greatest F1 Racers: Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher is done. Finally. Ever since MS came out of retirement in 2009 he cut out a rather unassertive, fatherly figure in the paddock. With just one podium finish in the last 3 years, it is a completely legitimate question to ask if he is the same man who took Ferrari to their first title in 21 years, became the darling of the Tifosi and inspired a generation of racing drivers to take up the sport . Being close to 10 years older than the average age of an F1 driver, his decision to come back to racing and in turn put his legacy on the line is a contentious one. But make no mistake, his achievement in the sport stands alone in its own right.
When Michael retired for the first time, racing his Ferrari to a 4th place in his final race at InterLagos in 2006, it brought curtains on an unparalleled career – not just in terms of the stratospheric statistics he was leaving behind, but also because rarely has a formula 1 driver become so big that on his day, he was synonymous with the sport itself, its single biggest selling point, though not always for the right reasons. The best and the worst of Formula 1 was encompassed in one man, who took the terms ‘Ruthlessness’ and ‘Morality’ to the extremes of their meaning and while doing so, left behind a career of sheer dominance built on the foundation of speed, teamwork and an infinite pool of money.
Just to give the readers the cliched analogy of a great athlete’s longevity in a sport, when Michael arrived on the scene, Senna was in his prime, Prost was yet to win his final title, Michael Jordan was without a ring, Roger Federer was 10 years old, his good friend Sachin Tendulkar was yet to score an international hundred and Lance Armstrong still wasn’t aware of doping.
Something Fishy in Hungary
While it may not be possible to gauge the full potential of a rookie driver in sport in his first race, but its easy to figure out if he is one to stay in it for a long time. Turning back the clock to the beginning of 1991, Michael was 21 and the 1990 German F3 champion was ready to make the jump to F1. His manager Wili Weber played a carefully crafted lie to Eddy Jordan to get Michael a seat with Jordan racing, since their usual driver Bertrand Gatchot was serving a prison sentence. Wili assured Eddy that Michael was familiar with the circuit of Spa Francorchamps and had raced there previously. The truth was that Michael had only seen Spa as a spectator and never raced it. On the race weekend, Michael cycled the track to get familiarised. Come qualifying, Michael stormed the track to an eye raising 7th place, out qualifying his teammate Andrea De Cesaris who was in his 11th year in Formula 1.
Benetton grabbed him immediately and Michael quickly showed his class. In his first full season, he finished 4th in the driver standings, ahead of seasoned rivals. He followed it up with another brilliant season in 1993, finishing only behind the Williams of Prost and Senna, who were the class of the field with their active suspension cars.
Let the Championships begin
But Michael wouldn’t be stopped in 1994, a season remembered for the death of Ayrton Senna. It would also be his first tryst with controversy. Accused of cheating with illegal parts on his car and his last race clash with Damon hill, Schumacher won the title amidst all sorts of allegations. But he put all the detractors to rest by comfortably winning the next year, trouncing his nearest rival Damon hill by 33 points. The same year, Michael’s dominance in the rain became evident with 2 masterclass drives at Nurburgring and Spa. The new Regenmeister had arrived.
But after the season, Michael decided to pull out of his comfort zone and switched to the lacklustre marque team Ferrari, who were still looking for their first title since 1979. Michael brought Ross Brawn along with him, the architect of his 2 championships. In 1996, Rory Byrne came on board and completed the all star lineup. Michael quickly established himself as the top dog, actively playing a role in the all round development of the car. His pursuit of victory was relentless and after 3 winless years, Schumacher finally won the title in 2000.
For the next 5 years, Michael went on a remarkable winning streak, the longest in the history of the sport, accumulating championship after championship. His driving prowess to go with the phenomenal car annihilated all opposition, especially in the years 2002 and 2004 where he won 11 and 13 races respectively. In ’02 and ’04 , he was so dominant that not only was he the best driver in the world by a mile, but Laureus awarded him the best athlete in all of sports for these 2 years. But in ’05, the rule was changed to make the tyres last a whole race duration. With this rule change, Bridgestone was no longer the front runner. Fernando Alonso took the title in 2005 and in 2006, when the rule was restored. At the end of 2006, Michael called it quits in an emotional send off in Brazil.
The Second Coming
In hindsight, probably he retired too early, considering he was still racing bikes and advising Ferrari till 2009. But still, it came as a surprise to most when a 41 year old Michael sSchumacher announced his comeback with Mercedes, the team which introduced him to the sport. After three lackluster seasons in the slow Mercedes and being regularly outpaced by his teammate, he finally called it quits last year. Hopefully, this one is permanent.
His achievements may sound superhuman but throughout his glittering career, there has always been a steady trickle of controversy involving him, and that’s where his morality comes into question. His battles with Damon Hill, his confrontation with David Coulthard at Belgium ’98, his disqualification from the 1997 WDC for causing the accident with Villeneuve, Ferrari’s decision to let him win in Austria (2002), the bespoke Bridgestones he enjoyed in his championship winning years, his blocking Alonso’s qualifying lap in Monaco 2006, all put up a smoke screen to potentially devalue his legacy.
But any man worth his salt in F1 will tell you that when a debutant out qualifies his experienced teammate, he is a special talent. When a driver finishes a race in 2nd place having been stuck in 5th gear for over 40 laps, he is not your average driver. When someone wins more than half of the wet races he has entered, he is among the best in the field and when some of those wet races are documented as one of the greatest drives in the sport’s history (Catalunya 1996), he may as well be one of the drivers of the generation. In fact, for a driver of Schumacher’s stature, it is simply not possible to make a list of his greatest drives. His unmatched success spans 2 decades and we still haven’t talked of the dizzying statistics he has left behind. His metronomic ability to spring in fastest laps, the cocky attitude that said “I am just better than you” and his will to win, or for that matter ‘win at all costs’ makes him one of the shrewdest, fiercest competitors the sport has seen. Critics may claim that most of his success came at Ferrari and can be attributed to the unique position Ferrari had in his heyday, but don’t forget when Michael took on the reigns at the scuderia, the team was in shambles. To reform it into the most successful racing dynasty in sport while carrying the whole team with him is the stuff of legends. Damon Hill once wrote in his book:
There are two things that set Michael apart from the rest of the drivers in Formula One – his sheer talent and his attitude. I am full of admiration for the former, but the latter leaves me cold.
Schumacher was such a perennial winner that he virtually owns every record worth possessing. Most of the current crop grew up watching the master’s virtuoso drives and have always been in admiration. One Eddie Irvine, his former teammate at Ferrari, just echoes what was obvious when Michael was in his prime.
In every sport, someone suddenly comes along who is a genius and it just happens that Formula One is currently saddled with Schumacher,” Irvine said. “Whenever I watch (Tiger) Woods in action, I marvel at the power and the aggression he puts into his tee shots, or the delicate touch of his short game. His art is there for all to see but the trouble with most people watching Schumacher in action is they cannot fully appreciate his skills.
Michael’s mastery behind the wheel can be studied only in detail when shown in slow motion. That is when the untrained eye can capture his extraordinary car control while driving on the limit or his precision during a qualifying lap.
World Championships : 7
Grand Prix Entries : 308
Grand Prix Wins : 91
Pole Positions :68
The lad was quick, I say.