Schumacher remained with the Mercedes Group C team in 1991 – finishing second at Silverstone and emerging as the star of that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. He led after two hours and set a series of fastest race laps during the night. However, gearbox gremlins and overheating eventually restricted the Schumacher/Wendlinger/Kreutzpointner C11 to fifth overall at the finish. Jordan Grand Prix gave Schumacher his F1 debut at Spa-Francorchamps that year as replacement for the temporarily jailed Bertrand Gachot. The German started an impressive seventh on the grid (ahead of experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris) and was immediately poached by Flavio Briatore and Benetton Formula. Three points’ scores followed included fifth next time out in Monza and Schumacher ended the season as the sport’s most coveted talent.
Consistently in the top four during the first half of 1992, Schumacher finished second in Spain and Canada. That rich promise was confirmed when it rained at Spa-Francorchamps – Schumacher making the most of changeable conditions and Nigel Mansell’s delayed pitstop to win for the first time. Remarkably consistent during his first full F1 season, Schumacher always qualified in the top six, scored eight podium finishes and was third in the World Championship.
Benetton-Ford and Schumacher suffered reliability issues during 1993 but the German enhanced his reputation as F1’s next superstar. In a year dominated by Williams and Ayrton Senna’s virtuosity, Schumacher finished fourth overall after scoring a fine victory in Portugal – beating World Champion Alain Prost in a straight fight.
New Williams-Renault recruit Senna was clear pre-season favourites in 1994 but it was Schumacher’s Benetton B194-Ford that won the opening two races. However this was not to be the beginning of one of the sport’s great rivalries for Senna was killed when he crashed during the opening laps of the San Marino GP at Imola. Schumacher continued to dominate – winning four of the next five GPs and only denied in Spain when his car was stuck in fifth gear. Despite that handicap, Schumacher still managed to finish second behind Damon Hill’s Williams-Renault. However, his seemingly inexorable march to the title came with rumours of illegal traction control and disqualification at Silverstone after ignoring a black flag. Schumacher was banned from the next two races as a consequence. He won in Hungary and at Jerez but lost another victory in the Belgian GP due to an illegal skid-block. That allowed Hill to close to within a point before the final race in Australia and the Englishman attempted to pass and snatch the world title. Their cars collided to confirm Schumacher as World Champion for the first time although the manner of that success drew criticism.
Benetton switched to Renault engines in 1995 and Schumacher proved even more competitive. His nine victories equalled Nigel Mansell’s existing record for wins in a season although there was an increasingly tetchy rivalry with Hill – the pair colliding at Silverstone and Monza to hand victory to Benetton team-mate Johnny Herbert on both occasions. There were days when Schumacher was simply on another level to his rivals – especially at Spa-Francorchamps where he came from 16th on the grid after a disrupted qualifying to score an unlikely victory. Schumacher clinched a second title with two races to go but had already accepted Ferrari’s lucrative offer for 1996.
Ferrari had not won the drivers’ title since 1979 and Schumacher set about rebuilding the Scuderia’s fortunes. He scored a memorable first victory in the (very) wet Spanish GP and back-to-back successes followed in Belgium and, in front of the Tifosi, in Italy. Schumacher finished the year third in the points.
Ross Brawn, who had masterminded Schumacher’s successful Benetton years, joined Ferrari as Technical Director in 1997 and the German challenged Jacques Villeneuve for the title. Despite a clear performance deficit to the French-Canadian’s Williams FW19-Renault, Schumacher won five times to enter the final round at Jerez with the championship lead. But when Villeneuve passed Schumacher for the lead that would deliver the title, the German simply drove into his rival in an unsuccessful and cynical attempt to steal the World Championship. Villeneuve managed to restart, finish third and therefore win the title. The FIA subsequently stripped Schumacher of that year’s points and second-place in the 1997 standings.
Judged lucky by some to escape a race ban at the beginning of 1998 due to his Jerez indiscretion, Schumacher challenged McLaren-Mercedes’s Mika Hakkinen for the title until the final round. He won six times and only lost in Belgium when he crashed into Hakkinen’s team-mate David Coulthard during the inevitable Ardennes downpour. An obviously incensed Schumacher then strode down the pitlane in an attempt to confront the Scot. In the event, Hakkinen clinched the world title when Schumacher stalled at the start of the final round in Japan – the German officially finishing as runner-up for the first time.
Schumacher won successive races at Imola and Monaco at the start of 1999 but hopes of ending Ferrari’s title drought evaporated at the start of the British GP. He broke his right leg when he crashed at Stowe Corner and was absent for six races. When he returned it was to aid team-mate Eddie Irvine’s ultimately unsuccessful title challenge.
The ability to galvanise a team is one of the unquantifiable qualities of the truly great racing drivers, something that Schumacher had displayed during his first four years with Ferrari. Denied the ultimate prize so far, there was no denying him in 2000. Schumacher won the opening three GPs and again at the Nurburgring and Montreal to establish the points lead. Four retirements in five races and Hakkinen’s return to form threatened to derail his campaign but Schumacher clinched a third world title by winning the last four races of the season – in the process equalling his own record of nine victories in a season.
It was as if Ferrari’s first drivers’ title for 21 years uncorked the bottle for Ferrari were now F1’s dominant team once more. Schumacher matched those nine GP victories in 2001 and brushed David Coulthard’s early challenge aside to retain the title with four races to go by winning in Hungary. That equalled Alain Prost’s record for most GP victories and Schumacher established a new record in the next race at Spa-Francorchamps. He was the first Ferrari driver to retain the World Championship since 1953.
Hard to imagine before the season but Schumacher and Ferrari were even more dominant in 2002. He qualified and finished in the top three all season and won 11 of the 17 championship rounds to establish a new record for wins in a season. The Ferrari F2002 was so dominant that Schumacher was already confirmed as F1’s second five-time champion (matching Fangio’s long-standing record) in mid-July. Despite their advantage, Ferrari management asked Rubens Barrichello to cede victory of the Austrian GP on a rare weekend when the Brazilian had outperformed his team-mate. That prompted booing from the crowd and fierce criticism in the press. The resentment towards Ferrari was only enhanced by the contrived “photo” finish in the United States GP – Barrichello 0.011 seconds ahead as they crossed the line in formation.