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Michael Schumacher won more world championship and races than any other driver in a career which spanned 19 seasons.
At times his unparalleled success raised questions over how it had been achieved.
His debut drive for Jordan at Spa in 1991 rocked the F1 establishment. Here was a little-known driver from the Mercedes sports car team qualifying seventh on the grid at one of the most respected circuits on the calendar.
We quickly learned that Schumacher’s driving genius and controversy were never far apart. Flavio Briatore pounced to prise Schumacher out of his Jordan deal and got him into a Benetton for the next race.
The following year Schumacher successfully interrupted the dominant Williams team’s stranglehold on success with an opportunistic win at the track where he made his debut. An off-track excursion gave him the opportunity to observe the state of his team mate’s tyres as the damp track dried. Schumacher made a plucky call to switch to slick tyres earlier than his rivals, and his driving skill took care of the rest.
That was the first of what would eventually be a record-smashing 91 wins. A further win followed in 1993, again snatched from the Williams juggernaut, this time thwarting Alain Prost at Portugal.
But in 1994 the way became clear for Schumacher to lay waste to the F1 history books. Most of the recent champions had retired or were retiring. Three races into the season Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola. By the end of the year Schumacher had won nine of the 16 races.
But his Benetton team were repeatedly accused of cheating. The FIA found evidence of an illegal traction control system on the car. After Schumacher’s team mate Jos Verstappen suffered an horrendous fire during the German Grand Prix an investigation discovered a filter had been removed from the fuel rig. Years later, Verstappen insisted Schumacher’s car had not been legal.
Schumacher was disqualified from the British Grand Prix after overtaking Damon Hill on the formation lap, and was banned from a further two races for failing to heed the black flag to begin with. And at Spa he was stripped of a win for a technical infringement.
This left him with a scant one-point lead heading into the season finale at Adelaide. Under intense pressure from Hill, Schumacher went off and damaged his car. Seeing his promised title slip into away he swung into the side of Hill’s car as the Williams driver moved to pass him, taking both out and securing the title for himself.
His second title in 1995 was achieved with less controversy and more displays of driving greatness. The season got off to a slow start but once Schumacher got into his stride the wins came thick and fast,
Hill was simply out-classed – the pair clashed twice on-track at Silverstone and Monza. In wet conditions at Spa and the Nurburgring Schumacher produced virtuouso drivers, leading many to conclude that in Schumacher a new F1 great had been found.
Having conquered F1 with Benetton, Schumacher resolved to do it all over again with Ferrari. It took five years to bring the drivers’ title home to the Scuderia, with a few near-misses on the way.
It was clear from the outset that little would be achieved with the F310. But when the teams assembled at a near-flooded Catalunya circuit for the seventh round of the season, Schumacher battled through the field and disappeared off to a dominant victory. He added two more by the end of the year, at Belgium and Italy.
With Benetton ally Ross Brawn rejoining him for 1997 Schumacher was ready for another crack at the title. He persistently took points off rival Jacques Villeneuve despite his Williams often enjoying a considerable performance advantage. When rain fell at Monaco and Spa Schumacher was untouchable.
The season took a controversial twist at the penultimate race in Suzuka, where Villeneuve collected a hefty penalty for going too quickly through a yellow flag zone. Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine – who’d grown used to the idea that he was expected to support rather than rival his team mate – was deployed to help Schumacher win the race, and go into the season finale with a one-point lead.
At Jerez events took a familiar turn. Villeneuve reeled Schumacher in and pounced – only to find the Ferrari swerving unavoidably into his path. This time the contact proved terminal only for Schumacher – Villeneuve was able to limp to the flag and claim the championship.
Schumacher was vilified but the sport’s governing body stayed its hand. It handed down a token punishment of exclusion from the 1997 championship (not that second place mattered much to Schumacher) and required him to participate in a road safety initiative.
Schumacher hit back and the two pushed each other hard all season. The championship went down to the wire at Suzuka where Schumacher started from pole position – only to face demotion to the back of the grid after his car overheated on the line and wouldn’t start. Schumacher battled his way through the field but a puncture finally ended his hopes and confirmed Hakkinen as the champion.
Schumacher’s 1999 championship bud ended when his right-rear brake failed on the Hangar straight at Silverstone on the first lap of the race. His car hurtled off the track at Stowe, plunging head-on into the barrier. He suffered a broken leg.
The year had begun well with victories in San Marino and Monaco. At the British Grand Prix McLaren and Hakkinen hit back, and given how Hakkinen’s title bid went off the rails in Schumacher’s absence it’s possible he might have won the championship had he not been injured.
Schumacher returned to the cockpit at Sepang for the penultimate race, now expected to support Irvine’s bid for the championship. This he did in a crushing display of superiority, first disappearing off into the distance, then holding rivlas up while letting Irvine through to win. But at the season finale in Japan Schumacher had no reply for Hakkinen, who wrapped up his second title.
Ferrari’s wait for their next drivers’ champion finally ended in 2000. Now partnered by Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher won the first three races of the year leaving Hakkinen with a lot of catching-up to do.
At the middle part of the season it looked as though Schumacher was going to be denied again. First-lap crashes in Austria and Germany handed golden opportunities to McLaren. And at Spa Hakkinen triumphed in gripping battle with his Ferrari nemesis. Schumacher’s attempts to fend off Hakkinen’s attacks by pushing him onto the grass at 200mph drew fierce criticism from many – not least his rival.
But that race marked a turning point in the season. Schumacher came back stronger and won the final four races, putting the title beyond Hakkinen’s grasp. He wouldn’t let go of the trophy for five years.
The first half of the 2000s in Formula 1 was the story of total dominance by Ferrari and Schumacher – whether in terms of driving brilliance, technical innovation, reliability – or politics.
Schumacher redefined the terms of domination in Formula 1. He won nine races in 2001, then 11 in 2002. No cars were able to rival the Ferraris – and it was clear from events at Austria in 2001 and 2002 – where Barrichello was twice ordered to pull over and let Schumacher past – that Ferrari were not interested in pairing him with any kind of serious rival.
By 2002 the pairing of Schumacher with a fast, reliable Ferrari with its powerful engine and near-bespoke Bridgestone tyres combined to produce one of the most dominant seasons the sport has ever seen. The F2002 never let Schumacher down once, he finished every race on the podium, and set a new record by winning the world championship with six races to spare.
The 2003 season proved much more closely matched as Schumacher came under pressure from the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya.
But late in the season a controversial change in the rules forced Michelin – rival to Ferrari’s tyre supplier Bridgestone – to change the construction of their tyres. After that decision Ferrari won the next eight races in a row, and Schumacher collected title number six.
In 2004 Schumacher pushed Ferrari’s devastation of the F1 competition to new heights. He won 12 of the first 13 races, and might have won the one that got away in Monaco but for a collision with Montoya.
Once his seventh championship title was wrapped up Schumacher had an oddly uneven end to the season. He suffered a serious crash in testing at Monza, was all at sea at the new Shanghai circuit, and had a grid penalty in Brazil after crashing in practice and damaging his engine. This proved a foretate of a difficult 2005.
What finally brought the Schumacher domination of F1 to an end was not the arrival of a new opponent but a change in the technical rules. In 2005 tyre changes during the race were banned, forcing both tyre companies to build harder compounds. Michelin mastered the technology while Bridgestone struggled.
Schumacher won just once all year, the farcical United States Grand Prix where only the six Bridgestone-shod runners competed – those being the Ferraris plus the throroughly uncompetitive Jordans and Minardis.
The tyre rules were changed back for 2006 and Ferrari were back on form. But Schumacher faced a tough rival in the shape of new world champion Fernando Alonso.
This was as closely-matched a championship battle as has ever been fought. While Alonso managed four wins on the trot Schumacher hit back with a hat-trick of victories in the middle of the season.
It brought out the best and worst in Schumacher once again. His final victory in the rain Shanghai was up there with his very best – but parking his car during qualifying at Monaco to try to have the session stopped while he was on pole position was a crass stunt that fooled no-one – even the stewards couldn’t let that one go unpunished, sending Schumacher to the back of the grid.
At a crucial point Ferrari’s usually exceptional reliabilit failed them. Schumacher’s engine blew while he was leading from Alonso at Japan.
He narrowly lost the championship but signed off with a majestic drive against the odds to finish fourth at Interlagos after a puncture. It seemed a fitting conclusion to a great career – but it turned out this was not the end.
In 2009 it briefly looked as though Schumacher was going to make a surprise comeback after Felipe Massa was injured at the Hungaroring. But Schumacher had damaged his neck in a motor cycle racing accident earlier in the year, and after testing an F1 car discovered he could not return to the cockpit after all.
Having whetted his appetite for a comeback, Schumacher later confirmed he would be racing in F1 again – but not for Ferrari. Instead he joined the new Mercedes team in 2010.
Three years away from the cockpit seemed to have dulled Schumacher’s edge on his return. Throughout the season he was comfortably handled by team mate Nico Rosberg.
At times his driving looked distinctly desperate, particularly at the Hungaroring, where he was censured for almost pushing Rubens Barrichello into the pit wall as the pair battled for position.
Schumacher stuck with it and the situation seemed to be improving towards the end of the season, achieving fourth place in the rain at Korea.
Schumacher’s second season with Mercedes was a mixed bag – glimpses of his old form, albeit compromised by consistently poor qualifying and a string of race collisions, mostly involving Vitaly Petrov.
When Schumacher had the car at the front of the field he was at his best, scrapping with the Red Bulls and McLarens in Canada, and resisting Lewis Hamilton for lap after lap at Monza.
He ended the year behind Rosberg again, but much closer than he had been in 2010.
The third year of Schumacher’s comeback got off to a promising start as the W03 proved immediately competitive. But he retired while running in a strong position in the first race and an error by his team in the pits ended his race in China, while Rosberg headed to victory.
Unreliability cost Schumacher on several other occasions, mostly in the early part of the season when the car was at its best. But he also made mistakes, such as when he drove into the rear of Bruno Senna’s car during the Spanish Grand Prix.
His grid penalty for the collision cost him what would have been pole position in Monaco. However in Valencia it finally came right and Schumacher finally returned to the podium, finishing third.
That would be his final visit. Unsure whether he wished to continue in F1, Mercedes moved to sign Lewis Hamilton for 2013 leaving Schumacher to make a widely-anticipated return to retirement. He signed off with a final points finish in Brazil, symbolically pulling over for Sebastian Vettel as his countryman and successor headed to his third world championship.
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Books about Michael Schumacher
- “Michael Schumacher: Driven to extremes” (James Allen, 2000)
- “Michael Schumacher: The edge of greatness” (James Allen, 2007)
- “Schumacher: The life of the new Formula 1 World Champion” (Timothy Collings, 1994)
- “Team Schumacher” (Timothy Collings, 2005)
- “Michael Schumacher: The Whole Story” (Christopher Hilton, 2006)
- “Michael Schumacher: Driving Force” (Sabine Kehm, 2003)
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