James Allen’s new biography of Michael Schumacher has got F1 fans talking. We’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the book below and ten copies of it to be won (terms and conditions apply).
In “The Edge of Greatness” Allen reveals how Schumacher set his plans for retirement early in 2006, and how a dispute at Ferrari lead to his famous announcement at Monza. In another part of the book Max Mosley claimed that Schumacher would not have kept his controversial 1994 title under modern rules.
Read on for an exclusive excerpt from the chapter “The Constant Little Hurdles” where Mark Webber claims Schumacher used his position within the GPDA to extract a competitive advantage. Plus enter the exclusive competition to win one of ten copies of the book.
Exclusive excerpt from “Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness”
Chapter Seven – The Constant Little Hurdles
“Let me tell you something about Michael Schumacher. He is a man who spends every waking hour looking for ways to crush his opponents into the ground.”
Norbert Haug, Vice President Mercedes Motorsport
So far it is clear that Schumacher’s genius behind the wheel, allied to his prodigious work ethic and team-building skills, made him a tough opponent to beat. But was there more to him even than that? According to his rivals there most certainly was an untold part of Schumacher’s game plan. He was accused of using his and Ferrari’s power and influence within the sport to stay one step ahead of his rivals.
Schumacher undoubtedly used his role as a director within the Grand Prix Drivers Association to make the sport safer for his fellow drivers. But he also used it as a platform to lobby the governing body. Some people would say that this is merely the prerogative of the dominant beast in the jungle, which Schumacher undoubtedly was from Senna’s death in 1994 until his own retirement in 2006. But for the opposition it felt as though they weren’t just fighting against another team and driver, but against a system they could not beat. Renault and Fernando Alonso felt this way, especially during the hard-fought campaign in 2006. At the end of the season, engine boss Denis Chevrier said, ‘This battle with Ferrari was not honest,’ while Alonso went further.
At the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Alonso was given a ten-place grid penalty by the stewards for ‘blocking’ Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in qualifying. With the world championship finely balanced, such a big decision, which could affect the outcome of the championship, was intensely scrutinised by the governing body and the media alike.
What had happened was this: in the closing minutes of qualifying, Alonso had suffered bodywork damage in an incident and had had to make a visit to the pits before his final run. Back out on track, he was in a hurry to make it across the line to start his qualifying lap before the chequered flag came out. Massa was on his flying lap and was a few hundred metres behind him as they hurtled down the back straight. Through the final Parabolica corner, Massa complained that his car’s handling was affected by the dirty air from Alonso’s car, costing him perhaps a couple of tenths of a second. But Alonso was clearly not ‘blocking’ Massa, he was making every effort to get around to the start line as quickly as possible. But Ferrari sensed an opportunity and put in a protest and the stewards abandoned common sense and upheld the complaint. They moved Alonso back ten places on the grid, wrecking his chances of victory and greatly improving Schumacher’s. It was impossible to find anyone, not employed by either the FIA or Ferrari, who backed the decision.
Even Max Mosley, the FIA president, says that he struggled to justify the penalty.
I thought it was wrong. I suppose I can say this now, but I went to the stewards on Saturday evening and said, ‘I think that is very hard to justify, will you reconsider it?’ and they sat down again on Sunday morning and went through the whole thing. Charlie [Whiting, the FIA race director] took the opposite view. He thought that it was right. It was nothing to do with helping Ferrari. Did he or did he not destabilise the car? Should he or should he not have given Massa precedence? It was a combination of Alonso and Renault’s fault that this situation arose. So why should poor little Massa suffer? But still I thought that in the cut-and-thrust of racing and at that stage in the championship, it didn’t seem fair to me.
I have to be very careful because I appoint the stewards, but I would never use that and say to them, ‘Change this.’ I would hope that they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. But I did feel entitled to ask them to look at it again.
Alonso was livid. He held a press conference hours before the race at which he famously stated that he could ‘no longer consider F1 a sport’. He wanted to fight Schumacher and his team on the track but felt that Ferrari had an advantage due to their supposed ‘special relationship’ with the FIA, which meant that the competition was unbalanced.
Mark Webber, like most of the other drivers, was dismayed by what had happened to Alonso in Italy and spoke to Schumacher about it during the drivers’ parade lap before the race. ‘When Fernando got that penalty, I said to Michael, “Why did Ferrari protest? For what’s at stake here, Fernando got a puncture, he damaged his bodywork then he was on his out-lap going as quick as he could go, doing his best, even gave Massa a bit of a tow on the straight. Can’t you take the whole thing in context, give a half a per cent?” Michael said, “You don’t see it from the outside, you just don’t see it,” and this is what you were up against.’
In the office of race director Charlie Whiting on that Saturday afternoon in Monza, Alonso showed his frustration. He is alleged to have kicked a waste-paper basket across the floor and shouted, ‘I know you are trying to take the world championship away from me, but I’m going to fucking well win it anyway.’ After the weekend Alonso went on Spanish radio station Marca and said, ‘Michael is the man with the most sanctions and the most anti-sporting driver in the history of Formula 1. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he has been the best driver and it has been an honour and a pleasure to battle against him.’ Then, referring to Schumacher’s impending retirement, he added, ‘Things will be more equal now.’
Schumacher took the view that Formula 1 is a tough, ruthless business and that to win you have to press home your competitive advantage at every opportunity. Sometimes he would overstep the mark, but who is the arbiter of where the mark is drawn? Is it the FIA, the fans, the media or the other drivers? Some would argue that he was such a good driver that he didn’t need to go to such extremes because he would probably have won anyway. But Schumacher was incapable of leaving anything to chance. If there was an opportunity to strike, it must be taken.
In his early years with the Benetton F1 team, he regularly found himself on the wrong side of the FIA, which was intensely uncomfortable for him. But when he joined Ferrari, this relationship was encouraged to flourish. The team has a long history of being at the centre of power in F1 and Schumacher came to understand how valued the views of a multiple world champion were. Mosley got to know Schumacher well when they spent time together on the road working for the FIA’s road safety campaign.
Initially Schumacher’s participation in this cause was forced on him, as part of the penalty for his collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997. He was sentenced to seven days ‘community service’, or voluntary work for the FIA. But when his sentence was served, Schumacher voluntarily continued the work and this cemented a close bond with Mosley, with whom he would travel to various European capital cities. Behind the scenes, Ferrari boss Jean Todt helped to foster the relationship. He had long been on very good terms with Mosley and he skilfully pushed the two men closer together. Mosley says:
Jean Todt has many talents but his greatest single talent is human relations. When you have someone reticent or shy, as I am, then what Todt does is quite positive. I would be reluctant to call up Michael and say, ‘I’m going to be in Geneva, do you want to come and have dinner?’ because I feel I’m disturbing people. But Todt said to me, ‘If you want to invite him then just call him up; if he doesn’t want to go he won’t go.’ So then we ended up having quiet dinners together. And that was very helpful to me because when I want to talk about things like driver aids [traction control, ABS etc] or what really goes on when they are driving the car, you get a really intelligent answer. I realise that he is a racing driver and he wants to win the championship so he has an axe to grind. But you can learn so much from someone intelligent who is currently driving the cars.
But some rival drivers saw this as a very exclusive club and one from which, rightly or wrongly, they felt excluded. Mark Webber worked closely with Schumacher on the GPDA and had the opportunity to watch him operate at close quarters. He was dismayed to find the degree to which the great champion was working the system, as he saw it. He felt that it was time that the story was told from the perspective of the other drivers, those trying to compete with Schumacher.
When I first started racing Formula Ford in 1994 he was winning the world championship. In the Webber household Schumacher was the man. My dad loved him, I loved him. He put the cat among the pigeons. All the big guys, Prost, Senna, Mansell, they had a bit on trying to handle him. He was very impressive straight off. There was that real excitement on the podium, which was great to see.
He was golden bollocks in my view. I arrived in Formula 1 in 2002 and finished fifth on my debut in a Minardi in the Australian Grand Prix. Quite quickly I started to realise how clever he is and how clever the whole Ferrari juggernaut is. He had won the race but he knew that the story that day was Minardi and me so he came down and was photographed with me and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I don’t know this bloke from Adam,’ but then I wondered how cheesy and false it was. Was it genuine or was it really slick?
A couple of races later in Brazil we were in the gym and he came up to me and started asking questions about the first few races from my perspective. When he talks to you he wants to get as many answers out of you as possible with him giving nothing away. If you can keep the ratio to ten to five in his favour you are doing well. You learn that he is very clever in terms of discussions. We struck up quite a sensible relationship during my Jaguar years and then he asked me to be on the Grand Prix Drivers Association.
The closer you get to how he ticks and how the Ferrari thing is controlled it’s amazing, but I guess it also showed some of my own naivety at this early stage of my career at this level. Ferrari had no success for so long then he came along and they ended up dominating the sport to such an extent that he could drive one-handed and win Grands Prix. That was when I started to wonder if the widely held public belief of there being a special relationship between the FIA and Ferrari was true. And if it was, it was hard for the real F1 fan in me, the purist if you like, to take.
I was disappointed that there were lots of consistent small things that just put hurdles in front of the opposition and that pissed me and a lot of other people off quite a lot, things like the ban on Michelin’s front tyre in 2003. [At a critical stage of the championship with three races to go the FIA ruled that Michelin's front tyres, which they had been using for over a year, were illegal because when the tread wore down the contact patch of the tyre was wider than the regulations allowed. Michelin argued that if the tyres were checked before running they were legal, but the FIA said that they were illegal once they were running on the track.]
If these views on Ferrari and the FIA were true, they [the hurdles] are brilliantly disturbing bombs. Yes, it’s a big business, yes, it’s political but come on let’s try to make it as fair as we can.
Of course the impression was that Williams and McLaren weren’t party to the kind of relationship it is said Ferrari and the FIA enjoyed. It was a message to everyone else and we were left thinking, ‘What are we up against here?’ So when I saw that side of it, he lost some brownie points for me.
Max Mosley totally refutes the suggestion that there was a ‘firm’ putting up hurdles to the opposition:
There is a tendency to see something unfair in this business. But no way in the world [is it true]. The penalties [and decisions] are the cut and thrust of life. I think they are jealous of him, it’s all nonsense and we would never ever favour someone. Back in 2004 if we could have found a way to slow him down we would have done.
Todt got them [Ferrari] all working together. It is a completely cohesive unit. What he has succeeded in doing there is quite extraordinary. Everywhere he’s been he’s won and that’s because he is an absolutely outstanding manager. I reckon you could have put Todt in the last five years in any of the top five teams and you’d have had the same result.
‘Of course the FIA will always deny it but Michael was like “teacher’s pet”,’ says Webber. ‘But you couldn’t get at it to fight against it. It was nearly unfair, but this is why the drivers felt disappointed with him a lot of the time.’
Max Mosley laughs at the suggestion that Schumacher was ‘teacher’s pet’.
I can see that, but it’s a little bit like some of the teams saying, ‘You are too close to Ferrari.’ It’s because Ferrari talk to me. I never fail to take a call from a driver or return one if I’m busy. Same is true of the team principals. If they don’t have contact it’s because they don’t bother. Jean Todt does bother. I have relationships going back a long way. I’ve known [Ferrari president Luca di] Montezemolo since the early 1970s. Frank Williams and I go back even further, I did my first deal with him in the 1960s. So I have that kind of relationship with Frank. I don’t know Ron Dennis as well, but contrary to popular opinion I get on quite well with him. But he doesn’t pick the phone up and I don’t feel I have to chase after him. The last thing Alonso wants is me ringing him up and saying, ‘Do you want to come for a coffee?’ But if Alonso rang me up, or any of them, and said, ‘Can I come and see you?’ then it’s an open door.
“Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness” by James Allen is published by Headline Books
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