In terms of Grand Prix careers, Ralf Schumacher is a dead man walking.
Although he salvaged a point at Montreal there is little doubt his time in Formula One is progressively coming to an end. There are plenty of rumours suggesting that he could be replaced as early as the French Grand Prix by either Franck Montagny or Kazuki Nakajima.
It would be a surprise Toyota dropped Ralf mid season, especially considering his mammoth salary. Not only would it cause significant embarrassment to the Japanese manufacturer but there are no quality replacements ready to take his spot. Montagny and Nakajima are largely untested and neither is likely to do any better than Ralf whilst they settle in. Replacing a driver of 169 Grands Prix experience with a relative rookie is seldom a wise move. There was also talk that Adrian Sutil would step in to replace Ralf, but that is improbable given the wrangling required to free him from Spyker.
More than anything else Ralf Schumacher’s main problem is consistency. On a great day Ralf can be fantastic and if he sustained that level of performance every weekend he would have won the world championship for Williams. Unfortunately great days for Ralf are few and far between and he spends too much of his time looking out-of-place in Formula One.
Ralf Schumacher’s best drive came at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001 when he beat his brother to victory in a straight fight. Beating Michael was difficult on any occasion so trouncing him at Montreal where he won seven times was particularly special. It is hard to believe the man who won at Canada in 2001 was the same Ralf Schumacher that qualified 18th at the same track this weekend.
Ralf’s stocks have never been lower which is rather unfortunate for the man who showed so much potential during his first season at Williams. The FW21 was fairly average in 1999 but Ralf still managed three podiums and should have taken victory at the Nurburgring. There were notable mistakes at Austria and Malaysia but nobody questioned his potential. It was arguably his best year in Formula One and although it produced none of his six wins it set up a lengthy stint at Williams. He represented the sports future.
Ralf took victories in ’02 and ’03 but they were also the years that signalled the decline of his career. He started being outpaced by Montoya and although both Williams drivers made plenty of mistakes it was Juan Pablo who ended up challenging for the title. Before the 2004 season had even begun Williams knew Ralf was no longer an asset to the team and he was told to seek employment elsewhere for ’05 and beyond.
Both Schumacher brothers are managed by Willi Webber, whose cut of Michael’s salary makes him more valuable than most of the drivers. He immediately got to work negotiating a new home for Ralf and quickly found solace at Toyota. In order to boost their profile the Japanese team were keen to have a race winning driver on their books and one with the surname ‘Schumacher’ was a huge bonus. Weber preyed on Toyota’s enthusiasm and scored Ralf a long term megabucks deal.
Toyota’s entire Formula One program is a marketing exercise so it’s not surprising they hired a driver based on advertising potential. They quickly took advantage of the subconscious connection between success and ‘Schumacher’ by planting his name on billboards and in magazine ads everywhere. Toyota attempts to cash in on Ralf’s family connection were not even subtle when you consider one particular campaign referred to him only as ‘Mr Schumacher’.
Now that Michael has retired the Schumacher name is no longer a selling drawcard and Ralf’s worth to Toyota is waning. It lends strength to the argument that Ralf’s entire F1 career has survived on the coattails of his brother.
It was certainly Michael’s success that brought his younger brother into Formula One. Ralf’s debut came courtesy of Jordan who hired him following a solitary Formula Nippon season. Ralf won that championship, but given other Nippon success stories include Toranosuke Takagi, Ralph Firman and Yuji Ide, it isn’t the best pool of potential F1 talent available. Ralf is the only Nippon champion to win a Formula One race, which underlines how much of a risk it was for Eddie Jordan to sign him so young. Eddie took the gamble because he was hoping Ralf had Michael’s skill and would be every part a formidable driver. No-one would have considered Ralf’s genetic potential in 1997 had Michael not already proved himself to be the best.
The added bonus of having Schumacher DNA in the car was the extra media attention that came with it. Eddie Jordan was always a keen wheeler dealer, surely using Ralf’s appointment to woo sponsors.
The then 21 year old actually tested for McLaren in 1996 but the Woking outfit saw little potential in the German, deciding not to take their dealings any further. Just like Toyota, Jordan hired Ralf because of his surname and it would be interesting to see how his career would’ve progressed without Michael paving the way.
Ralf’s speed in that first year was awesome, but he was also mistake prone and bent plenty of yellow bodywork. He was quick enough to win only his third Grand Prix but caused a collision that took both him and his team-mate out of contention. The flashes of speed and amateur errors have continued throughout Ralf’s time in F1.
After all those ups and downs it is a shame Ralf Schumacher’s relationship with Toyota has deteriorated because it initially promised so much. He seemed to be thriving in an environment where there was less pressure and expectation, and by the end of 2005 he comfortably had Jarno Trulli’s measure. Although Trulli grabbed more podiums it was Ralf who went closest to winning Toyota’s first Grand Prix. Ralf set fastest lap in the 2005 Belgian Grand Prix whilst battling for the lead, and might’ve won if wasn’t for a botched tyre choice mid distance.
Since then Ralf’s form has gone downhill and unfortunately for Toyota it is now also affecting Trulli. Jarno is another inconsistent driver who can produce world beating performances one weekend but seemingly average drives the next. The Italian really needs someone fast and consistent in the other car to push him along just like Alonso did in 2004. Jarno lifted his game with Fernando as team-mate and was arguably the better of the two Renault drivers early on.
With two inconsistent drivers Toyota are limiting their progress up the grid. Nakajima and Montagny will do little to help.
It will be disappointing if Toyota hire Kazuki Nakajima either this year or next because his only qualification is Japanese nationality. Toyota would love to upstage Honda with a Japanese driver in their factory car, but it would be a ploy unlikely to yield on track results. Toyota’s philosophy on hiring drivers will need serious reconsidering if Nakajima gets a ride without anything more than a bit of success in Japanese Formula Three. The Williams team have praised Nakajima’s consistency in testing but haven’t had much to say about his outright speed or technical feedback.
As well as not pushing Trulli, a rookie driver won’t be able to help Jarno develop the car. Montagny’s technical abilities are already questionable since he was dropped from Renault’s test program. When he got his break at Super Aguri he was outclassed by Takuma Sato, suggesting Franck isn’t the best candidate available for the team who may have to look elsewhere for quality new talent.
Signing Trulli in 2004 was a good step for Toyota who had grown tired of average performances from Da Matta, Panis and Zonta. When Trulli drove in the final two races that year he quickly showed how much difference a genuinely fast driver can make. His signing filled the team with fresh confidence and now it’s time for Toyota to take another similar step by hiring someone like Heidfeld or Webber.
Interestingly, David Coulthard has admitted to having talks with Toyota about a deal for 2008. That could be a decent short-term result for the Japanese team depending on David’s motivation, but their best bet for the future might be Adrian Sutil. The young German is quick, cheap, and would push Jarno to stronger performances or retirement. Although largely unproven, Sutil is a far better option than either Nakajima or Montagny and his year at Spyker will provide great experience.
Whatever the case, Ralf Schumacher won’t be taking the covers off next years TF108. If the world’s biggest car manufacturer wants to succeed in the world’s biggest motorsport they can’t hire someone because of their surname or nationality.
They need someone fast, and sadly that someone is no longer Ralf.