To a generation of fans, F1 is the sport where Michael Schumacher is king. Their view of it will forever come from the perspective that he is the most successful driver of all time.
As well as defining the sport, Michael Schumacher’s career asked questions of it that have not yet been answered satisfactorily: about the ethics of his racecraft and the role of teamwork (or ‘team orders’) in a drivers’ championship.
Since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, F1 has been the Michael Schumacher show. What should we make of what we saw?
It’s one of those little ironies of chance that raises a smile when leafing through the pages of history. Gachot never started his home race that year, and car 32 was taken by a little-known World Sportscar Championship driver called Michael Schumacher.
By the end of the weekend everyone knew who Michael Schumacher was, and at the front of the queue to get his name on a contract was the ever-shrewd Flavio Briatore.
Briatore had big plans for his young charge. By the end of 1992 Schumacher’s competitive team mate Martin Brundle was elbowed aside for the more pliable Riccardo Patrese.
In 1993 Schumacher dominated Patrese by even greater margins than Nigel Mansell had at Williams the year before. The Italian cut his two-year contract short at the season’s end.
Nelson Piquet saw the writing on the wall after sharing Benetton with Schumacher for five races in 1991, and retired. Mansell departed after his 1992 championship, offended that team boss Frank Williams had signed Alain Prost. Prost won the ’93 title but was too often shown up by Senna in the vastly inferior McLaren, so Prost quit while he was ahead.
Then Ayrton Senna was killed in the third race of 1994.
When Schumacher arrived in Monte-Carlo, to win his fourth consecutive race of 1994, it was the first time in 14 years that an F1 race had been held without a previous World Champion. And that event, the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, was a one-off, boycotted by more than half the entrants of the previous race including three former champions.
In other words, Schumacher reached the top of the sport just as it was entering an exceptionally fallow period for established talent.
Much has been written of Schumacher’s enormous ability, professionalism and athleticism that gave him a decisive edge over his rivals. What also allowed him to exploit this enormous opportunity to rewrite the record books was his experience of race strategy and refuelling, garnered during his years in the World Sportscar Championship.
Armed with this he easily overcame Damon Hill in 1994 and 1995. But in 1994 the first of his negative traits emerged: his weakness under pressure, and his capacity to employ unsavoury racing tactics. Hill beat Schumacher in a straight fight in Suzuka, pressured him into a mistake in Adelaide, and was taken out by his rival as a result.
Jean-Pierre Sarti, the fictitious driver in John Frankenheimer’s film Grand Prix, said “there is no terrible way to win – there is only winning.” If Schumacher ever disagreed with him, it was only once, on the 1st of May 1994.
The demonisation of Schumacher in the British press began in 1994, fuelled by allegations of illegal traction control systems and fuel rig tampering.
It was against the background of this that Schumacher turned his back on Briatore and Benetton to join Ferrari in 1996.
Whatever Schumacher’s exact motivation was for this – the desire for a challenge, the allure of an historic team, money, a need to distance himself from the Benetton scandals – it was a decision that would bring one of the great names of the sport back to championship success.
Surprisingly, given the success that was to come, it took five years to make the Ferrari experiment work. He came close in his second season, but in circumstances similar to this year, it was a questionable stewards’ decision that went against rival Jacques Villeneuve that gave Schumacher him the lead of the championship before the final round.
So too did the assistance of team mate Eddie Irvine, with whom Schumacher made a mockery of the 1997 Japanese Grand Prix, conspiring to baulk Villeneuve and help Schumacher win.
Schumacher did not invent team orders – they date back to long before the formation of the World Championship in 1950.
But his string of subservient team mates and the uncompromising manner in which the status quo was enforced pushed the issue into the spotlight. As the popularity of F1 grew, so more fans came to the sport who could not comprehend why the apparent ‘greatest driver’ needed such assistance to win – and whether his underlings had no desire to be champions themselves.
For every dubious encounter with a rival, Schumacher paid the sport back with one of his crushing displays of genius: Finishing second in Barcelona stuck in fifth gear in 1994; annihilating the field in the wet at the same track two years later, or at Monte-Carlo or Spa-Francorchamps in 1997.
My personal favourite was the 1995 Portuguese Grand Prix. All Schumacher needed to do was maintain his points advantage over Damon Hill, but late in the race he caught and sat behind the Englishman, planning a move.
Lap after lap he approached the tight hairpin off-line, testing the ground, preparing to pass, before slicing through with ten laps remaining.
It’s not just that he was so much quicker than Hill that day. It’s not even that he had the spare mental capacity to plan and practice the move so carefully. It’s the sheer audacity he had to demonstrate to Hill, for lap after lap, exactly how he was going to pass him and then make it work.
Faced with no opposition from his team mate, they were not memorable years for the sport. Onlookers recalled the Senna-Prost battles at McLaren in 1988 and 1989 and wondered Schumacher would ever win a championship in circumstances such as those.
Had he triumphed in 2006 it surely would have. Fernando Alonso is a relentlessly fast, exceptionally professional driver cast in the Schumacher mould, only without the controversial edge.
After five championships won with unbeatable cars, with optimised fuel strategies often keeping him clear of wheel-to-wheel racing, and with a team mate somewhere in the background, occasionally being called upon to fend off a rival or pull over, it was a delight to see his swansong performance in Interlagos.
This was vintage Schumacher – brutally fast, racing hard for position and, frankly, showing up every driver on the field who wasn’t a Fernando Alonso or a Kimi Räikkönen.
Truly, he went out at the height of his powers. And in doing so he has done greater service to the sport and his reputation than many of his championships did.
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