No sooner had Michael Schumacher flashed over the Suzuka finishing line to win the Japanese Grand Prix than he’d thrust open his visor and was beating both clenched fists up and down on Ferrari’s high-tech steering wheel. The euphoria as he tasted his own third world title must have been almost overwhelmed by a towering surge of relief— the same emotion that reduced him to tears at Monza after he’d won on Ferrari’s home turf — because now, finally, he had delivered Ferrari a world drivers’ championship. That’s what he’d gone there to do, five long years ago.
We all know grand prix racing is a team sport, and that winning in Fl involves scores of very talented links in a long human chain. But, as far as the world at large is concerned, it is on Schumacher’s expensive shoulders that the real weight of responsibility for Maranello’s renaissance has rested, ever since 1996. It has been five years of intense pressure, and of prodigiously hard work. Suzuka marked Michael’s 75th grand prix for the Prancing Horse, and along the way there’s been plenty of drama. Like the first win in the Barcelona rain in 1996; the coming-together with Jacques Villeneuve in the final round at Jerez in 1997; the collision with Coulthard at Spa in 1998; the leg-breaking shunt at Silverstone that ended his tide chances in 1999; the first-corner accidents in consecutive races this year that destroyed his early points lead; and the persistent controversy over his driving habits (there was a vintage example of the Schumacher start-line lunge at Suzuka, trying unsuccessfully to squeeze Hakkinen out).
But that’s not the half of it. Away from the public eye and TV cameras there have been untold days, weeks, months of testing, and tens of thousands of kilometres at Fiorano and Mugello and elsewhere, working with his old Benetton pals Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, and building a strong relationship — as Michael is so good at doing — with everyone in a ceaseless team effort. The tabloids are fond of pointing out that Schumacher effectively earns £2 million a race, a sum so large that it’s hard for us mere mortals to put it in context: but there’s no doubt the man does work for it.
By the end of 1995 Ferrari had clocked up the longest drought of their illustrious Fl history, and their glory days seemed to be over. The richest team of the day thanks to their mix of Fiat ownership and Philip Morris tobacco money, they were the example pundits used to prove that money alone couldn’t buy F1 success.
No Ferrari-mounted driver had become world champion since the end of the 1970s, and now the team had gone for five depressing seasons with just two inherited wins.
By contrast, Schumacher was the brilliant 26-year-old who, in his first four full seasons, had already won two world titles. Sooner or later he could have picked any drive on the grid, and if he’d gone to McLaren we would have had a monotonous few seasons watching his statistics romp steadily ahead of Alain Proses. Instead he set himself a goal that he knew would prove far tougher than winning those first two titles. He decided it was his vocation to drag Ferrari out of the doldrums, turn round its dismal record of dashed hopes, political bickering and unfulfilled promise, and bring the drivers’ title back to Maranello.
Over the past half-century, seven men have won the world drivers’ championship for Ferrari. The first two fell to Alberto Ascari. He was a driver of undeniable greatness, who nevertheless won his titles against indifferent opposition during the two years that followed Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal from Fl at the end of 1951. During that period Ferrari’s only serious competition came from Maserati, who were handicapped for an entire season by losing their star, Fangio, while he recuperated from his neckbreaking Monza accident.
Surprisingly Ascari is one of only two men who have ever won more than one title for Ferrari. Fangio always treated offers from Enzo Ferrari with shrewd caution, and thus only ever drove for Maranello in 1956. That produced the fourth of his five titles driving the V8 D50-derived LanciaFerrari. Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Jody Scheckter — all of them only managed a single world drivers’ title.
Hawthorn’s crown in 1958 was achieved, Rosberg-like, with a single victory, at Reims, but five times he also earned the one point awarded in those days for fastest lap, at Monaco, Spa, Reims, Silverstone and Oporto. That was significant, because in the end he beat Stirling Moss, who’d won four of the ten rounds, by just a single point (although, as you could only count your best six scores that year, the Monaco point got dropped).
That year was the first to have a constructors’ championship, and the battle between Ferrari and Vanwall was almost of today’s Ferrari versus McLaren proportions. The portly, gruff figure of Tony Vandervell could often be heard railing against “those bloody red cars” — this from a man who’d begun his career as an entrant with a Ferrari painted green. Moss and Brooks, as well as poor Stuart LewisEvans, did brilliant work in the Vanwalls, while Ferrari piled up the points with Hawthom, Phil Hill and von Trips, as well as Muss° and Collins until their fatal accidents. At the end of that torrid season the two teams had lost three drivers between them, and both had scored 57 points. But the best six scores rule gave that first contructors’ title easily to Vanwall, with their six victories to Ferrari’s two.
Apart from Ascari, the only other double Ferrari world champion is a man who, although they share a common language, is very different in character to Michael Schumacher. But he became a Ferrari world champion by displaying some similar qualities to Michael, in similar circumstances.
Niki Lauda, just like Michael, joined Ferrari at a time when their fortunes were low. The previous season, 1973, they’d finished a poor sixth in the constructors’ championship, no better than BRM and worse than March — pretty much like battling with Arrows and Sauber today. Apart from a good year in 1970, courtesy of Jacky Ickx and Clay Rega7zoni (an amazing one win, three seconds and two fourths in his first 10 GP starts), hadn’t been consistent winners since Surtees’ day. Lauda joined as effectively the number two to the far more experienced — and 10 years older — Rega77oni and, by dint of sheer hard work and a fierce appetite for testing, he gradually swung the team behind him.
That first season Lauda won two races, Regazzoni one, but Clay had the reliability and was title runner-up, only three points behind McLaren’s
Emerson Fittipaldi, while Lauda was fourth. The buck-toothed Austrian’s self-belief was unshaken, however, and he worked on, forging a redoubtable working relationship with Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri that foreshadowed Schumacher’s relationship with Ross Brawn.
The 1975 312T was a brilliant car made better by assiduous testing and development, and between Monaco in May and Paul Ricard in July, Lauda won four out of five races, building a championship lead that was never breached and giving Ferrari their first constructors’ title since the Surtees days. They went on to be the most successful team of the era, winning the constructors’ title five times in the next eight years. In 1976 Lauda missed a second consecutive drivers’ title by one point, despite missing three races because of his dreadful Niirburgring accident, and then he went on to do it comfortably in 1977.
Niki Lauda was ahead of his time as a grand prix driver who understood how to use and motivate people, a man who knew that in order to turn a failing Formula One team into a successful one you need to be more than a great racing driver: you need to be single-minded, focused, an intelligent politician and a skilful motivator.
Motor racing has changed almost out of recognition over the last 25 years. But many of the personal weapons Niki Lauda used to reverse Ferrari fortunes, after others had failed, are precisely the same used in the past five seasons by Michael Schumacher. A quarter of a century apart, both these world champions have demonstrated one of the major reasons why Formula One, for all its faults, continues to be so endlessly fascinating. It’s not just about being the fastest driver, or building the best can It’s also about everything else.