In the last 20 or so years of Formula 1, few within the sport have aroused more passion – and controversy – than Michael Schumacher. His record – seven World Championships, 91 Grand Prix victories – is unequalled, and may well remain so. At his best, which he was for countless years, Michael was a magnificent Grand Prix driver.
I think back now to 1991, when the news broke that Schumacher was to make his F1 debut, with Jordan, at the Belgian Grand Prix. Quentin Spurring, the longtime editor of Autosport, then covered sports car racing, and had seen a lot of Michael’s drives for Mercedes: “This guy is something else,” Q said. “I guarantee you he’ll qualify in the top 10 at Spa…”
And he did. Spa may have been the nearest thing to a ‘local’ circuit for this lad from Kerpen, but he had never seen it before, and one can hardly imagine a more daunting place at which to make one’s F1 debut. In fact, Schumacher took to it immediately – it became very much his favourite track – and qualified seventh. In the race he was out immediately, having fried his clutch, but it didn’t matter, I wrote at the time: already we had seen enough.
By the next race, Monza, Schumacher was a Benetton driver, replacing Roberto Moreno, who was handed to Eddie Jordan. A poor exchange, you might say, but when ‘the next big thing’ comes along in F1, the powers-that-be don’t mess about.
And ‘the next big thing’ Michael clearly was: at Monza he out-qualified Benetton team leader Nelson Piquet, and beat him in the race, too, finishing fifth, and scoring the first couple of his 1586 points.
Schumacher also gave early evidence that he was no shrinking violet: at Interlagos, early the following season, he was subjected to a violent chop from Ayrton Senna, and didn’t hold back in his comments afterwards: “I don’t know what game he was playing, but it wasn’t a nice one. For a three-time World Champion, it’s not necessary to do something like this…”
Quite right, it wasn’t – but over time Michael’s words would come back to haunt him, for he took over Ayrton’s mantle, not only of the greatest driver in the world, but also of the most ruthless.
Following Senna’s death, Schumacher assumed the role of king of the hill in F1, and won the World Championship for Benetton in both 1994 and ’95. The first of these came hand in hand with controversy, however, there being a widespread belief in the sport that his coming-together with Damon Hill in Adelaide – which settled the title fight in his favour – was hardly as ‘accidental’ as Michael claimed it to be.
Ditto Jerez three years later, this time with Jacques Villeneuve. By now Schumacher was a Ferrari driver, but this time a blatant attempt to ‘take out’ his World Championship rival in the deciding race did not work out, for Jacques survived to take the title, and Michael was out on the spot. “You made a mistake, my friend!” commentated Martin Brundle as it happened. “You hit the wrong part of his car…”
As with Senna, this was always a conflict in many enthusiasts’ minds when they considered the place of Schumacher in the scheme of things: why – as Michael had said of Ayrton – did so great a driver need to resort to such unattractive – not to say dangerous – tactics?
There was also the ridiculous mock ‘accident’ at Rascasse, designed to keep Fernando Alonso from taking pole in the dying seconds of qualifying at Monaco in 2006. It fooled no one, and again one wondered why Michael would do such a thing. As Stirling Moss said, while both Senna and Schumacher belonged in the pantheon of racing, he could bracket neither with a man like Fangio because “Juan would never think of doing anything underhand…”
As Alonso can tell you, it takes time to turn Ferrari into a championship-winning team, and although Schumacher won many races, it wasn’t until 2000, his fifth season with the team, that he added a third title to his CV. This was, mind you, the first of five on the trot…
When Michael retired from racing, at the end of 2006, many believed that he was going before he was ready, that Luca di Montezemolo’s determination to sign Kimi Räikkönen effectively put him in a position where he had no choice. When he turned up at races, still working with Ferrari, in following seasons, he looked like a lost soul, plainly bored, missing his old life.
Therefore it was no surprise, when his pal Felipe Massa was injured at the Hungaroring in 2009, that he accepted Ferrari’s offer to stand in until Massa was fit again. When he found, in testing, that a neck injury, sustained in a Superbike accident, made it impossible to return at that point, he was mortified.
Come the end of the season, though, Jenson Button left Brawn for McLaren, and now Ross’s team had been bought out by Mercedes. A new opportunity presented itself, and Schumacher, coming up on his 41st birthday, signed a three-year deal to partner Nico Rosberg. For Mercedes, it was a PR coup, for Michael a chance to get his old life back.
In the course of his three years away, though, much had changed in F1, and it took time for him to acclimatise to a new breed of car – and, even more, a new breed of tyre. Although long a Bridgestone devotee, in his Ferrari days, Schumacher did not care for the ‘one type fits all’ rubber on offer in the company’s final year in F1. That first season back, he scored 72 points, against his team mate’s 142; in 2011 it was much closer, Nico ahead by 89 to 76, but last year opened out again, Michael trailing by 93 to 49.
In the course of his three-year return, Schumacher made the podium only once, in Valencia last year, so in terms of results his comeback can be viewed only as a failure, and many wished he had not made it. Sometimes there were flashes of the old Michael – in qualifying at Monaco 12 months ago, he was faster than anyone – but many who had savoured his long domination of the sport did not care to see him in midfield.
It’s a fact that Mercedes failed to come up with a truly competitive car between 2010 and ’12 (although Rosberg did win in China last year), and neither assuredly did Schumacher have the best luck, but too many times he was involved in accidents with other drivers which seemed, on the face of it, to be the consequence of simple misjudgement. By the end of the season there were major management changes at Mercedes, and the signing of Lewis Hamilton put a final end to Michael’s career.
Some miss him, and some do not. In the paddock he was a distant figure, many considering him aloof, and it’s fair to say that his colleagues admired, rather than loved, him. On the other hand, invariably those with whom he worked – Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds – were immensely fond of him, always stressing that the world outside did not know ‘the real Michael Schumacher’, who was loyal to those around him, loved animals, gave most generously to charities.
Now, in 2013, it is Rosberg and Hamilton at Mercedes, and if Nico’s performances – relative to the man most consider the fastest driver on earth – have caused many to reassess their opinions of him, so also perhaps should they make us look again at Schumacher’s second time around.
Without a doubt there were those in the Mercedes camp (although not Brawn) who thought of it in terms of ‘Michael’s team’, and certainly Rosberg is more at ease with Hamilton, both a contemporary and a long-standing friend, but I don’t believe Nico’s driving has been suddenly transformed this season. He looked forward to Lewis’s joining the team, he said, because he always liked to have a top class team-mate – just as Michael had been.
I’ll admit I was never a Schumacher fan, because, as with Senna, I didn’t care for much of his on-track behaviour, and found no way to excuse it. That said, his greatness as a pure driver was never in doubt first time round, and perhaps we are only now coming to see that in his comeback more of that greatness remained than sometimes we appreciated. For that he has the long underrated Rosberg to thank.