Modern times

Michael Schumacher didn’t have to wait until the chequered flag fell at Suzuka to be heralded around the world by various media — some well-informed, some less so — as the greatest racing driver of all time. The final race of the season finished soon after 8am in the UK, so the Sunday papers had to go to press before the race, and were on the nation’s breakfast tables after any readers keen enough to get up for the live coverage knew the result.

One paper coped with this little problem by devoting an entire page to its opinion of who, whatever befell in Japan, were the 10 greatest racers ever. It was a misguided effort. Its author seemed to labour under the mistaken belief that the only measure of a driver’s ability is how many points he scored, under whatever system was in force at the time.

Of course, none of this will bother Schumacher. However, such lists do nothing to put his towering achievements into context. Far better to look at the job that he has done against his own opposition over 13 long seasons, 2003 included, and decide once again that he is unquestionably the greatest racing driver of his period. His sixth title wasn’t perfect, but it included plenty of demonstrations that he is a racer apart: like the job he did in Austria, for example, when he coped impassively with a fire during a refuelling stop and still won the race; or at Indianapolis, where he paced himself superbly in constantly changing conditions, some of which suited his tyres, some of which didn’t.

Nevertheless, it could so easily have been someone else’s title. Ferrari hit the doldrums during the summer, while Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes both had moments of glory. But in the end the real key was Ferrari’s reliability — and the others’ lack of it. Schumacher’s car was always astonishingly robust: in fact, Michael hasn’t retired from a race for mechanical reasons since low fuel pressure sidelined him at Hockenheim back in 2001. That’s 38 grands prix ago — a fantastic achievement by the entire Ferrari organisation, even if team-mate Rubens Barrichello hasn’t always been quite so lucky. By contrast, Juan Pablo Montoya would probably have gone on to win the Austrian and Japanese grands prix had his Williams-BMW not failed him. To coin a truism, there can be no ifs in motor racing, but those two wins would have given Montoya the title by 12 points. Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, never got to race the long-awaited McLaren MP4-18, but even so his MP4-17 was leading comfortably in the European GP when its engine blew. That would have made 10 points for him and one less for Schumacher — more than enough for the Finn to win the title.

So, in a way, it was the Ferrari team that won the world drivers’ title, and more than anything it underlines the fact that Formula One is a team sport. If the whole organisation, from grid to factory, isn’t one cohesive, single-minded unit, the results won’t come. The renaissance at Ferrari from its low point in the early 1990s has been extraordinary, and from the first it has been about the relationship between the four men who matter most: Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Schumacher himself. When the latter, twice champion already, was lured from Benetton for 1996, part of his deal with Maranello was to be able to bring Brawn and Byrne with him. Apart from singleton victories for Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, Ferrari hadn’t been winners for five years. It seems unthinkable now, but some thought that the red fire of Maranello had finally gone out. But by early June that year Schumacher had scored his first Ferrari victory — and since then he’s won fifty more, and four world titles. In victorious post-race press conferences, when he fulsomely thanks the team, it’s no empty PR-speak. Michael knows that it’s the team that has won the race, and that he is but a link in the chain. The highest-paid, highest-profile link, of course, and the one carrying perhaps the biggest burden of responsibility for every result. But as long as Ferrari is the best team, Michael is happy to be a team player.

How different from the days at Ferrari in the 1950s, when the Old Man delighted in maintaining his absolute power by sowing dissent, suspicion and near paranoia, not only among his bickering lieutenants, but also among his drivers. He believed it would make them race harder. In the case of Luigi Musso, it probably contributed to his death at Reims in 1958, desperate to prove to his imperious team chief that he could match Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

But move on 15 years, and you find a clear parallel to the way that Michael Schumacher turned the team around, through sheer force of character, determination and hard work, and by gathering the key people around him.

In late 1973, with Ferrari deep into one of its lean periods, a young Niki Lauda was summoned to Maranello and offered a test in the current F1 car. Then he was ushered into the presence of the Old Man to pass on his comments. Lauda, as always unfazed by the dignity of others, told Ferrari directly that his car was no good. Ferrari, unused to being spoken to like this by a driver, summoned his engineer Mauro Forghieri (who had not designed the 1973 F1 car, as he’d been transferred to work on Ferrari’s road cars). He told Forghieri that he had a week to listen to Lauda’s complaints and modify the car accordingly; then Lauda would drive the car around Fiorano again. If he wasn’t at least a second a lap faster, he would be told not to darken Maranello’s door again. Lauda and Forghieri spent seven frantic days modifying and testing the car, and the following week the Old Man watched as Lauda had his second official test — and was much more than the required second a lap faster.

He got the drive. More importantly, he had started off on the right foot with Forghieri, and they forged a strong relationship which saw Lauda win 15 grands prix and two world titles over the next four years. He also made sure that he spoke man to man with Enzo as often as possible, bypassing the ring of yes-men that surrounded him. His reviving influence on the team was just as great, in its way, as Schumacher’s more than 20 years later.

And now we look towards 2004. McLaren is promising that, after the failure to produce its new car this year, the developed version will be the first of the next year’s chassis to appear. It is to be hoped that Mercedes and Ilmor will find some more horsepower to help Raikkonen and David Coulthard on their way, for McLaren’s engines were not the best last season. BMW and Williams must between them find more reliability, and perhaps generate a happier working atmosphere for the fiery Montoya and the inconsistent Ralf Schumacher. It will surely be Montoya’s last season with Williams before he moves to better-paid pastures at McLaren. Renault has a rising star in Fernando Alonso, but has lost technical supremo Mike Gascoyne to Toyota. Horsepower wasn’t the French team’s strongest suit last year, but it is forsaking the wide-angle engine for a development of the older unit to try to catch BMW and Ferrari.

However, you have to say that retirement is probably the only thing that will prevent Schumacher from collecting his seventh title in 2004. Some paddock sages are predicting that this may happen, that Michael will call it a day early in the New Year. I find that very hard to believe: letting the team down at the last moment, the team that he’s striven to support and lead for eight long and dramatic years, simply isn’t his style.