Six years into the new millennium and so far the top levels of four- and two-wheeled motorsport, Formula One and Moto GP, have been dominated by two men: Michael Schumacher and Valentino Rossi. Both have been practically unbeatable, but comparing them reveals intriguing differences.
The first, obvious, similarity is their astounding successes and shared desire to win. Both Rossi and Schumacher have been scoring record wins in a single season with astonishing ease making the whole business look simple. Without a doubt Rossi and Schumacher possess rare talents and are the best of their era, Rossi perhaps the best ever on two wheels. But, beyond this, is the fact that neither gives up in the face of adversity.
Schumacher may have been a little slack from low grid positions in recent years, but who could forget his win at Spa in 1995 from 15th on the grid? For Rossi the burn from the stern is no longer even an event, but last year’s effort at Philip Island where he dealt with a ten second penalty by going one second a lap quicker than the whole field for most of the race was staggering.
For Schumacher, one suspects it is the will to win alone that motivates him, whereas Rossi clearly adores riding. His playful style is incredible to watch and you get the sense Rossi would race anything all day long, whereas Schumacher’ passion is for victory: the end rather than the means.
That said both are excellent ‘bad losers’. Schumacher has on notorious occasions escaped defeat by taking a rival out. Likewise when Rossi throws away a race his mood is thunderous; his last-lap defeat at the Sachsenring in 2003 is a great example.
Some critics have attributed both Rossi and Schumacher’s success to having the best equipment at their disposal. For both this has been true at times, Ferrari have produced the best car for several seasons now, whereas Rossi whitewashed in 2002/2003 on a works Honda that was clearly superior to the opposition. Rossi responded to the critics by signing for Yamaha for 2004 and promptly won the title again on his first year on the bike.
It is arguable that the rider contributes far more to success in Moto GP than the driver in F1, but even so Rossi’s was an outstanding achievement. Schumacher made a similar move in the mid-1990’s leaving Benetton for the then struggling Ferrari and he managed to win 3 times in his first year in a pig of a car. But today’s Schumacher would be unlikely to undertake such a challenge and such is the difference in cars, I doubt he could turn the 2005 Williams, for example, into a championship winner.
Likewise, both excel in getting a team to work around them, with team-mates often relegated to anonymity. Schumacher specialises in relegating his partners to a sideshow and has effectively killed the top-level careers of several drivers (Martin Brundle, JJ Lehto, Jos Verstappen). That alone is not enough for success, but they are superb technicians and Rossi in particular has astounded paddock insiders with his level of feedback. Given that Rossi’s one time crew chief Gerry Burgess worked with Mick Doohan this is no small achievement. Likewise Schumacher always seems to find a great set-up, which, despite Ferrari’s resources, is nothing without driver feedback.
However, it would be wrong to say that either is infallible – both have made high profile mistakes. Schumacher has been criticised for having more minor, unforced spins and crashes than many other champions. Rossi is the same and spent his first season in Moto GP (then 500cc) crashing with alarming frequency and he still has a couple of falls each season. But, more crucially, both are not immune to errors during the race. Schumacher’s resilience under pressure is still questionable and he is seemingly happiest running alone at the front. Rossi has thrown away races through tactical naivety and rider error. Even at Jerez in March a last-lap error nearly cost him a win.
Where Rossi and Schumacher differ is in their racing style and off track personalities. Schumacher likes to win from the front, blasting off into the distance. Rossi tends to shadow the leaders before making a decisive move a few laps before the end. Furthermore Rossi is without equal in terms of ‘turning on the speed’. At Valencia in 2003 he was ‘dicing’ with Sete Gibernau, then after a casual look over the shoulder, put the hammer down and smashed the lap record on the following lap. Schumacher is capable of the same, as Imola proved, but Rossi does it with such style and unremitting regularity, as if he is merely toying with the opposition.
Out of the car Schumacher is amiable enough, but does not exude charisma, always coming across as calculating. In contrast Rossi is like a hyperactive child, talkative and up for a laugh. His post race celebrations have become a thing of legend, although his 250cc celebration, when he nipped into a porta-loo on the victory lap, takes some beating.
Rossi does have a dark side: his fight with Max Biaggi following the Catalan Grand Prix in 2001 is an example (as Schumacher did with Coulthard in Belgium, 1998), and his ruthlessness at the final corner in Spain this year, demonstrates that despite the smiley exterior Rossi is utterly determined to win.
To judge between the two is nearly impossible, both are, whatever the critics say, unbelievable talents. However I have to say I believe Rossi to be the greater. Whilst Michael Schumacher is a superb F1 driver he has raced in a dominant car in an era with few great drivers. Had he achieved such success in a car punching above its weight maybe I would think differently.
Whereas Schumacher is the best of his generation, Rossi is quite probably the best ever. His talent is simply breathtaking, you can watch him going round all day and not get bored. Furthermore he has silenced critics by making a lesser bike a champion, and always seems to enjoy himself even in the face of adversity. Naturally this debate will run and run, but on current evidence it is Rossi who just edges it.