At no point during his Grand Prix career did Michael Schumacher experience the level of support and respect that has been shown for him over the last week. Tributes and well wishes have come from around the world for Michael as he remains in a critical condition under an induced coma. The Schumacher family have extended their thanks for the outpouring of support they have received during this very difficult time.
Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident has become the catalyst for a celebration of his remarkable career. With the racing world united in support of Michael’s recovery, it is a fitting time to reflect on what makes him such a revered champion.
Michael Schumacher’s statistics tell their own incredible story but they’re not what make him a legend. Perhaps it isn’t the success that Schumacher achieved, but the way he achieved it, that ranks him amongst the best of all time. You could suggest that Schumacher’s greatness was defined during the late nineties when he secured regular race victories in average Ferraris whilst transforming the Scuderia into a winning team.
Schumacher won 91 Grands Prix but they didn’t all come in dominant Ferraris. He demonstrated the rare ability to win races in cars that were not worthy of victory. This was evident at different stages throughout his career, either in underpowered Benettons or against superior Michelin rubber, but never more so than during his first four years at Maranello.
From 1996 to 1999 Michael Schumacher won more races than any other driver, and he did so despite never having the fastest car. Schumacher was consistently the underdog but was still consistently competitive.
The 1996 Ferrari F310 was a dog of a car. It was very telling that Eddie Irvine, a driver capable of fighting for the World Championship in the right machinery, managed just 11 points in 1996 compared to Schumacher’s 59. The 1997 car was an improvement but was still very difficult as it arrived during Ferrari’s design switch from John Barnard to Rory Byrne. At the start of 1998, when Ferrari had a car that was relatively well sorted, it was still no match for Adrian Newey’s McLarens.
Despite an ongoing mechanical handicap, Schumacher continued to notch up Grand Prix victories.
One of the best examples of Schumacher dragging a car higher than it belonged came in the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix. Schumacher won the race in a Ferrari that couldn’t get anywhere near the McLarens during qualifying. There was no way that Michael could pass his rivals on track, so together with Ross Brawn he went for a risky three-stop strategy that would, at one point, require him to pull out a 25 second lead in 19 laps. Schumacher’s amazing stint of qualifying-style laps put him on another planet that day, and it is hard to imagine anybody else managing that in the Ferrari.
Many of Schumacher’s other great drives also came during that exciting four year period. There was his incredible win through torrential rain at Barcelona in 1996, and his crushing performance at Monaco a year later when he lapped 5 seconds quicker than everyone else in the opening stages. There was his surge through the field at Suzuka in 1998, and the afternoon at Sepang in 1999 when he ran rings around his peers despite carrying a much heavier fuel load.
Equally impressive were Schumacher’s less spectacular performances where he was able to seize victory when it was not expected. At the 1998 Argentine Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen said it would take a “miracle” for the superior McLarens to be beaten. After some canny racecraft, Michael Schumacher delivered exactly that. At the 1999 San Marino Grand Prix, Schumacher used an extra pitstop and a string of fastest laps to snatch the lead in a car that shouldn’t have been there. Those drives weren’t as exciting as a charge through the field in the rain, but were every bit as skilful.
Michael Schumacher was a man on a mission.
Schumacher’s career is perhaps most remarkable for his decision to join Ferrari in 1996 and help turn the Scuderia into a winning team. After claiming the World Championship twice, Michael set about a new challenge. He wanted his victories to have more meaning and wanted his career to have a sense of purpose. That is exactly what he found at Ferrari.
Ferrari is one of the world’s greatest brands. It is a company that is known and celebrated by millions everywhere, but it started life as a humble Grand Prix outfit that sold road cars for extra cash. Whether you like them or not, Ferrari transcends motor racing like no other team or driver ever could or ever will.
However, despite an incredible presence in Formula One, the most famous and best resourced team had not won a championship since the seventies and spent two decades being largely uncompetitive. Schumacher took it upon himself to make the greatest most popular team in the sport victorious once again. He was motivated by the desire for a new challenge, and went on a mission that would change the sporting landscape Formula One.
Ferrari paid Michael handsomely for his efforts, but money was not his primary motivation. It has been suggested that McLaren actually offered him more and that he simply turned it down. Schumacher wanted to achieve something beyond just winning, and that is what he accomplished. That, more than anything else, is what makes Schumacher’s career so great. No other driver in history has transformed a team like he did, let alone turn them into the sport’s dominant force.
That’s not to detract from the other personnel at Ferrari who contributed to the Scuderia’s dream run, but Ross Brawn’s strategies wouldn’t have worked without Michael’s driving ability. Rory Byrne’s cars would’ve forever been consigned to the midfield in the hands of Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger, or Eddie Irvine. Michael Schumacher’s amazing raw talent, and ability to create opportunities, attracted the best talent to Maranello and galvanised the team. Ferrari would never have developed into a modern superteam without him.
There is some truth to the saying that Formula One is strong when Ferrari is strong. With that in mind, Schumacher’s legacy extends well beyond his statistics, and for that he should be celebrated.
The late nineties also defined Michael’s reputation as a controversial champion. He was a ruthless aggressive driver who drew a lot of criticism, and so much of that stemmed from one moment at the end of 1997.
The 1997 World Championship came down to the final race at Jerez. With one point separating Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, it was a simple winner-takes-all shootout. After the final round of pitstops, the two rivals were fighting for the lead of the race when Villeneuve sensed his moment.
On lap 47, Villeneuve threw caution to the wind and made a wild lunge down the inside of Schumacher. Jacques said later that he knew he could only grab the lead if he surprised his rival, and that’s exactly what he did.
Michael’s first reaction was to back out of the corner and give the charging Williams room. His instinct wasn’t to hit Villeneuve at all, but with all the pressure of a Ferrari championship on the line, Schumacher panicked. You can see the very moment he stopped turning left and, in sheer desperation, started turning right.
Michael took himself out of the race and out of the championship, but did far worse damage to his reputation. He cast himself as a Formula One villain for the remainder of his career.
It is important to remember that Schumacher’s attack on Villeneuve at Jerez was not premeditated. It was simply a desperate moment of panic under extraordinary pressure. It was not a cold calculated manoeuvre that other drivers have been known to make, and that was made clear by the fact that he got it so wrong.
However, it was a still dirty move, and it did two big things for Michael’s legacy. The first was that it removed any question mark over the similar incident at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix. Although many held Schumacher responsible for the infamous collision with Damon Hill, there was still some doubt as to how deliberate it actually was. After the clash at Jerez, there was no longer any doubt about Schumacher’s intentions in Adelaide.
Secondly, the clash cast a question mark over everything else that he did in the future. Michael’s actions in Jerez made it easy to label him as a dirty driver regardless of what he was actually doing. Even racing incidents that were beyond Michael’s control were painted as his fault. It became commonplace to cast him as the bad guy, and he simply had to live with that having shown the potential to be unsporting.
Schumacher did cross over the line of bad sportsmanship at Jerez, just like he did in Adelaide, and like he did again at Rascasse in 2006. Michael is right to face harsh criticism for those three manoeuvres, and many other champions have enjoyed success without creating any such controversy.
However, Schumacher’s indirections were made under pressure, and were panicked heat of the moment decisions. He didn’t deliberately crash into someone on a warm down lap like Pastor Maldonado. He didn’t plot to take advantage of a parked car like Nelson Piquet Jr. He made a small number of unsporting decisions over the course of a 20 year career.
The controversy that always surrounded Michael would never have had the same intensity if it wasn’t for that misguided swerve at Jerez in 1997.
Michael Schumacher’s controversies might cast a spotlight on his ruthless win-at-all-costs attitude, but they do not take away from his remarkable achievements.
During the late nineties Schumacher consistently won races and fought for championships without the fastest machinery, and he set himself the mission to transform the sport’s oldest team into a winning outfit. The subsequent success that he enjoyed had meaning and a sense of purpose. Schumacher’s rise from 1996 to 1999 is put into context when you compare it with Sebastian Vettel’s dominance of Formula One today. Schumacher’s first unsuccessful years with Ferrari showed more skill and tenacity than Vettel’s four consecutive championships in the quickest car. That isn’t meant to discredit Vettel’s achievements, but to highlight just how special this phase of Michael Schumacher’s career was. You could suggest they were the years that made him a legend.
Sebastian Vettel may one day equal Michael Schumacher’s statistics, but they will never tell the whole story.
Greatness comes from how success is achieved, and what it means, and that is why Michael Schumacher will forever be remembered as one the greatest Formula One drivers of all time.