Schumacher at his sporting best


Has there been a day since December 29, 2013 when you haven’t thought about Michael Schumacher?

This Monday was my first such.

Time is said to be a healer. Let’s hope so.

It certainly numbs.

While we continue to offer support to Schumacher’s dignified family as it hopes for the best, it’s difficult not to waiver and imagine the worst.

And then we forget. For a day. Or two.

And then we remember with a start – his present and his past – with an intensifying bittersweetness each time.

1999’s unique situation

Malaysia, 1999: Schumacher had missed six Grands Prix because of leg fractures sustained at Silverstone, and doubts lingered over his fitness – and motivation. Team-mate Eddie Irvine had mounted an unlikely title challenge in his absence and there was a distinct chance that the gobby Ulsterman would become Ferrari’s first world champion in 20 years.

If that thought irked Schumacher, he kept quiet counsel.

It was his performance at Sepang that spoke volumes. On pole by more than nine-tenths, he pulled away at the rate of a second per lap before slowing dramatically to let Irvine into the lead on the fourth tour.

David Coulthard, always seemingly keener and more decisive when it came to overtaking Schumacher, muscled, all kerb and grass, into second place on the next lap. The Scot, McLaren’s ‘hare’, then rushed up to Irvine’s rear wing – and suffered fuel pump failure.

Schumacher was on a different strategy – and plane – to those around him. McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen was of most concern to Ferrari and Schumacher had him covered. Within five laps he had cost the Finn seven seconds. Then, as Irvine’s first pitstop loomed, he speeded up and set the race’s fastest lap – by a margin of almost four-tenths – to ensure that he maintained control.

Häkkinen, the only driver to opt for the harder Bridgestone, had no answer to this raw pace, and so his team gambled by short-filling him in a bid to jump Schumacher in the pits. Though the latter stopped just one lap later, and was stationary for three seconds longer, the pair held station upon the resumption of their battle.

Häkkinen, though lighter, again could do nothing about the one-stopping Schumacher; his goose was cooked.

Irvine was also two-stopping and Schumacher resumed the lead on lap 42. He still had Häkkinen for company – but that nullified threat dissolved entirely when the latter splashed-’n’-dashed.

With five laps remaining, Schumacher’s lead over Irvine stretched to almost seven seconds – and you couldn’t help but wonder. He certainly deserved the victory, so brilliantly had he shone, but instead he slowed dramatically for a second time and handed it to his team-mate, as good as gold.

Third-placed Häkkinen revealed it had been the hardest race of his career. Having driven flat out all the way in hot and humid conditions, he appeared unsteady on the podium, suit unzipped, hands on knees. Schumacher looked as though he had just popped to the corner shop for a loaf of bread and a bag of sugar.

That was always the biggest difference between them.

Häkkinen had no complaints about how Schumacher had handled him – “lifting in high-speed corners and fluctuating his speed” – and indeed praised Ferrari’s “brilliant tactics”. He didn’t blame them.

He was less impressed when Ferrari took his laudatory quotes out of context in the aftermath of its disqualification for illegal bargeboards – and was distinctly underwhelmed when the FIA Court of Appeal reinstated the Scuderia’s 1-2 and so ensured that the title fight went to the wire in Suzuka.

What happened at Suzuka?

Controversy – some of it of his own making and some not – was never far from Schumacher. It stalked him, clawed at him and dragged him down from the heights.

And there was more of it at Suzuka. Having secured another pole position, Schumacher’s start contained too much wheelspin and, perhaps, too little conviction. It was Häkkinen’s turn to control proceedings.

Later, though he made much capital of his being blocked by Coulthard, who was recovering from a spin caused by the gearbox oil leak that would eventually cause his retirement, Schumacher had appeared content on the podium.

An annoyed DC, integrity impugned, said what lots of people were thinking: that Schumacher had never wanted Irvine to become world champion. The consolation of Ferrari’s first constructors’ championship since 1983 appeared to suit him just fine.

Perhaps it did. Perhaps Malaysia was a glossy cover for his real, darker hopes and intentions. He was certainly sufficiently talented and clever to orchestrate it all.

Though I wouldn’t blame him if that indeed was what he did, I prefer to remember Malaysia 1999 in simpler terms: the greatest driver of a generation operating at his absolute best, in all its sporting senses.

Schumacher had returned from injury better than ever.

Thinking of him today, we just want him to return.

More from Paul Fearnley
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Jacky Ickx’s final flourish in Formula 1
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