The world of Formula 1 will be waking up to a very different world this morning. Some say that Michael Schumacher is very important to Formula 1, that his success has attracted fans who want to be able to say to their grandchildren that they watched the greatest racing driver of all time.
I don’t buy that. Michael Schumacher is famous because he is a good Formula 1 driver. Formula 1 isn’t famous because Michael Schumacher was dominant. There are probably a great many sportsmen who are dominant in their field, but are completely unknown because their field is anonymous. Formula 1 was big before Michael Schumacher and it will be big after Schumacher. It might even be bigger in his absence as we see closer competition.
Michael Schumacher is unquestionably the most successful Formula 1 driver in history. He was just one victory short from having as many wins as the two next most successful drivers (Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost) put together. Dizzyingly, he has won more than a third of the 250 races he has entered.
He also has more pole positions, more front-row starts, more fastest laps than anyone else (and actually more than the next two drivers — Prost and Nigel Mansell — put together), more podiums than anyone else, led more laps, scored more points and — of course — won more World Championships than anyone else. Put simply, he has achieved every record worth setting, and then some.
What is also incredible about Michael Schumacher is that he has looked capable of winning every single World Championship since 1994 (apart perhaps from 1996 when he was driving a dog of a Ferrari — and he even managed to score a good few race victories in that).
But these records are just lists of numbers. You can argue that a lot of this is just down to the nature of modern-day Formula 1 racing. In the 1950s and 1960s there were far fewer races per season — sometimes in the single figures compared to today’s eighteen in a season.
So what about Schumacher’s actual racing? This is where there is great debate about Michael Schumacher’s status as one of the sport’s true greats. The phrase “flawed genius” is a bit of a cliche, but it might as well have been invented for Michael Schumacher. It is difficult to think of a more controversial driver. Almost all of the most negative publicity in Formula 1 over the past decade and a half has involved Michael Schumacher in some form or another — last year’s exploding Michelin tyres at the US Grand Prix being the exception.
It was beginning to feel as though Schumacher was mellowing in recent years. And then came Rascassegate, where Michael Schumacher controversially parked his car on the track during qualifying at Monaco to prevent Fernando Alonso setting a faster time.
You can clearly see his movement in the steering wheel — he starts to steer left in the middle of a right turn. Jackie Stewart said, “This was too blatant. When you see it in slow motion, turning the wheel one way and then the other, he had plenty of time to do something.”
The incident brought back a lot of bad memories from the past decade. The July issue of F1 Racing magazine listed some of Schumacher’s transgressions. The list is long.
- Britain 1994 — Disqualified and banned for two races after failing to take his stop-go penalty for overtaking on the warm-up lap
- Australia 1994 — Crashed into Damon Hill to ensure victory in the 1994 Drivers’ Championship
- 1994 season — Suspect software found on the Benetton that Schumacher drove
- Brazil 1995 — Accusations that Schumacher delibrately put on weight for the twice-yearly weight check so that he could race underweight
- Belgium 1995 — Blocking moves lead to the introduction of the ‘one move’ agreement where drivers can only move once to prevent being overtaken
- Europe 1997 — Drove into Jacques Villeneuve in an attempt to secure the Drivers’ Championship. “You’ve hit the wrong part of him my friend!,” said commentator Martin Brundle. Williams put Villeneuve’s car on display to show the mark left by Schumacher’s tyre.
- Britain 1998 — Wins the race in the pit lane by taking his stop–go penalty after crossing the finish line
- Canada 1998 — Forces Frentzen to leave the track by abruptly joining the racing line after a pit stop, leading to the introduction of the pit lane exit line that cannot be crossed
- Belgium 1998 — Accuses David Coulthard of “trying to fucking kill me” after crashing into the back of the Scot
- Austria 2000 — Following a shunt, manoeuvres his car into a dangerous position in an attempt to get the race red-flagged and re-started
- Austria 2001 — Team-mate Rubens Barrichello forced by Ferrari to pull over to let Schumacher through on the last corner
- Germany 2001 — Once again moves his car into a dangerous position in an attempt to get the race red-flagged — this time successfully
- Austria 2002 — Barrichello again forced to let Schumacher pass on the final corner — this time for the win. The spectators were furious. This leads to the “ban” on team orders
- USA 2002 — A failed attempt at a “manufactured dead heat”. Some say it is payback for Austria. Once again, the fans are furious — and of all places, the USA is the one place this should not happen
- Europe 2003 — Successfully encourages track marshals to push his beached car back on to the race track
- Britain 2004 — Deliberately spins in quali 1 to miss the rain expected in quali 2
- Australia 2005 — Yet again helped out by marshals who choose to ignore Nick Heidfeld who is also beached
- Monaco 2006 — Rascassegate
What you have here is a man who is determined to win at all costs. Not all of these incidents were methodically planned in advance. Many of them happened when Schumacher was under great pressure. These decisions were made quickly. Schumacher is a quick thinker, and he knows how to make the best out of a bad situation. Unfortunately, it has left this otherwise outstanding driver with a somewhat tarnished reputation; a reputation as an ruthless, intimidating cheat.
Many argue that this is what you need to become a seven times World Champion. You need a bit of aggression, a do-or-die attitude, a notion that you must win at all costs. It’s just unfortunate that this trait has overshadowed his achievements.
People point at the fact that Ayrton Senna was hardly a clean racer either. He was known for stooping to low levels in order to win, probably most controversially when he crashed into his own team mate and championship rival, Alain Prost in order to win the Drivers’ Championship. Jacques Villeneuve might be known for his outspoken rants, but I think he had it spot on when he was asked about Michael Schumacher in an interview for the September issue of F1 Racing.
Michael simply isn’t a great champion because he’s played too many dirty tricks and because he isn’t a great human being. Yes, Senna played dirty tricks, too, but he did it with more class, more integrity. When he took Prost out at Suzuka in 1990, he said he was going to do it before the race. So, unlike Michael, who ridiculously insisted he was innocent at Monaco this year, Senna said, ‘Yes, I did it. But I told you before the race that I was going to do it.’ That’s very different from what Michael did at Monaco and Jerez [in 1997] and Adelaide [in 1994]. Senna wasn’t lying to his fans. Michael was.
Another dimension of the Michael Schumacher debate that has cropped up this weekend is the fact that it is difficult to remember any great overtaking manoeuvres that he has made. I was thinking the same thing myself before this weekend. Schumacher is certainly quick at getting a car around a circuit, but when he actually has to race other cars? That’s more tricky.
But in retrospect I think that might be an unfair criticism. Even today we saw a few great moves from him. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Ferrari and Michael Schumacher preferred to make gains in position through having a superior pitstop strategy rather than taking a risk on the circuit. This might be the prudent thing to do from Schumacher’s point of view, but it is a very unattractive way to win a race.
Then add in to the equation all of the races that Schumacher has won from pole position. This is another one of Schumacher’s incredible records. He has done it a staggering 37 times. Sometimes it was all too easy for him to win races, particularly in 2002 and 2004. The dominance is not good for the sport. I cannot remember a great deal of the early part of this decade.
When Schumacher hasn’t had such a dominant car it has sometimes felt like he is a bit rusty at actually racing. Nevertheless, Schumacher’s ability to make his way through the field so easily if he happened to start at the back of the grid for whatever reason is pretty much unparalleled. As far as overtaking goes, I’ll give Schumacher the benefit of the doubt.
Another, kind of related, criticism of Schumacher is that for most of the time he has been in the best car. This was certainly true for some seasons. But were the Benettons of 1994 and 1995 really the best cars? Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve benefited more from their utterly dominant Williams cars in 1996 and 1997.
The Ferrari of 1996 certainly wasn’t the best car in the field. Ferrari might have had the prestige, but it was in a horrendous barren spell which had seen little substantial success for the team since the 1970s. And Michael Schumacher can certainly take much of the credit for building Ferrari into a team of world beaters by the 2000s.
But it is true that Michael Schumacher has had little real competition. Formula 1 in days gone by has had so many greats — Prost, Senna, Clark, Stewart, Fangio and so on. But the past ten years has been a barren spell, Schumacher aside of course. Maybe this is genuinely because Michael Schumacher is simply head and shoulders above everybody else.
But really, where was his competition? In the 1990s the closest he had to a championship rival was Damon Hill, and Hill can hardly be considered one of the sport’s very greatest. And Jacques Villeneuve certainly can’t. After Mika Häkkinen won his back-to-back titles in the late 1990s, Michael Schumacher literally had no rivals for years. Now we have a crop of young promising drivers — Kimi Räikkönen and particularly Fernando Alonso look as though they have great futures ahead of them.
We’ve seen a few good seasons of Alonso versus Schumacher, so you can’t accuse Schumacher of running away as soon as the competition got tough. But everybody will remember the way he would never allow a competitive driver to be his team mate. The list of Schumacher’s team mates is hardly a hall of fame: Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa. Then there is the fact that the entire Ferrari team was built around Schumacher’s Championship hopes. The team would do everything in its power to manipulate the result even if it meant a gain of just one point for Schumacher.
Now that Kimi Räikkönen has joined Ferrari, Michael Schumacher has jumped ship. There was an opportunity for Michael Schumacher’s talent to be measured against a genuinely quality driver racing in identical machinery. But Schumacher denied the fans a chance to judge his ability in a competitive environment. So we’ll never know. What a great shame.
Schumacher didn’t like racing. He only liked winning.
So will Michael Schumacher mainly be remembered for his amazing skill or for his questionable tactics? I think the fact that the debate even exists means that we already know the answer.
Update: Schumi comes under fire from Hill.