Schumacher: The road to 300

© Keshav Pariat, 27 August 2012

I must, like George Orwell, warn everyone against my bias - I am a Michael Schumacher fan. I make no apologies for it. I've been a fan since my first season of F1, in 1996, and remain so today. Nevertheless, fairness is a quality I have tried to maintain throughout this piece.

The upcoming Belgian Grand Prix, besides being significant for being a Belgian GP - one of the truly great F1 racetracks - will also see Schumacher in his 300th race in Formula 1. It isn't an unprecedented feat, as his former Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello experienced a record 326 races. However, it is still significant because, love him or hate him, Schumacher has been a massive part of F1 for two decades. So, can I offer up a humble homage of some sort? A Top 10, perhaps, or a Schumi's Greatest Hits, as it were? This is something of that kind, an attempt to summarise his (ongoing) career in just a bit more than 10 points.


© Sauber
We'll start at the beginning, shall we? Schumacher has raced for several teams and had a debut race with each of them, but his first ever F1 race in 1991 still stands out. At the age of 22 he was by no means the youngest driver in F1 history and he retired on lap one with clutch problems. But it was still special. Fittingly, he made his debut at Spa, but he required an unfortunate London cab driver to suffer in order for him to get a drive.

Jordan, as it turned out, were one driver short. Bertrand Gachot, their regular, had gotten into an altercation while in London, which culminated in him spraying tear gas at a taxi driver; he was imprisoned for two months and had to miss the race.

Schumacher, with experience in German Formula 3, Formula 3000 and Le Mans, qualified in seventh, which was the joint best position for the team that year. He even out-qualified his more experienced team mate, Andrea de Cesaris, who made it to 11th.

Although he failed to cross the finish line, Schumacher would win his first race at the same venue one year later. In 2003 he labelled the track as his favourite.


© AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa
Schumacher has garnered several nicknames over the years, bestowed on him by commentators, writers and fans alike. Besides Schumi and Schuey, one that stands out is Regenmeister, rain master in German.

And he definitely earned it. Schumacher seems to have an affinity for wet weather racing. Even in 2012, with his fortunes not as rosy as they once were, hopes rise for the German whenever there's rain about during a race. Rain-affected races haven't always gone his way - Brazil 2003 comes to mind, although that was a race in pretty atrocious conditions.

He won his first race, in Belgium, during a partially wet Sunday afternoon. However, it was Malaysia 2001 that was arguably his best performance in the wet.

Schumacher had the advantage of starting on pole, but even he wasn't immune to making a mistake on the slippery track, going off into the gravel and slipping down to 11th place. He rallied from there to overtake everyone in front of him and regain the lead in just 10 minutes. Barrichello, who also ran off the track, came in second, which suggests that Ferrari had made the best use of the tyre compounds, but Schumacher was still more than 23 seconds ahead of the Brazilian.

The BBC sums up his Sunday best: “It was a masterful display of driving in a rain-drenched race packed with drama and confusion.”


© AP Photo/Claude Paris
With 68 in his career, Schumacher has the most poles in F1 history, three ahead of next best man, Ayrton Senna. Although he made his F1 debut in 1991, he didn't record his first pole position until Monaco 1994. He became better at it later on, and from 2000 to 2004 his name peppers the list frequently.

The 68 poles do not include any that he was forced to give up: for example, this year's Monaco Grand Prix, where he recorded the fastest time in qualifying, but was subject to a five-place penalty for an infraction during the previous race in Spain.

Is it his best pole position drive ever? There must be others, but this one was beyond special. It was his best qualifying position since returning from retirement in 2010. There were doubters aplenty saying he was beyond his best, past his prime. And diehard apologists couldn't even blame an underperforming Mercedes, at least not after Nico Rosberg claimed pole and the race win in China a few weeks before.

No, Monaco was exceptional. Pity about the penalty. And an even greater pity about his retirement during the race.


© Keystone/AP Photo/Cesar Rangel
With a record 91 F1 wins, it is a little challenging to pick the best race of Schumacher's career. One of those often thrown around when picking Schumacher's finest is the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, and we're willing to go along with that.

This race was Schumacher's first win at Ferrari. It was a wet race and one where all the drivers who finished it could be considered as heroes because there were only six of them.

Schumacher started third, but slipped back a few places. He then benefitted through the misfortune of others, but still had the tough task of overtaking Jean Alesi and Jacques Villeneuve, who had drawn out a fair lead at the front. Storming through the slippery conditions, he blitzed past the pair and then continued to lap three seconds faster than the rest of the pack; he finished the race more than 45 seconds ahead of Alesi.


© AP Photo/Teh Eng Koon
This man has won seven of them. Two more than the next man, Juan Manuel Fangio, who did it in the fifties. Fangio's five was thought to be extraordinary. What of seven? Two with Benetton, five with Ferrari, and Schumacher's first was more than controversial; that 'bump' with Damon Hill in Adelaide. Deliberate, unsportsmanlike or just an accident?

But it was his first, so was that his best? Or the less controversial second one in 1995? There was also his record-equalling fifth championship in 2002, the closely-fought and record-breaking one in 2003 or the utterly dominant one of 2004.

In 2000, however, after spending four years without the title at Ferrari, Schumacher did what he set out to do when he joined the Italian team in 1996. It was a struggle, and don't forget that Ferrari won the constructor's title in 1999, but in 2000, Schumacher won the first driver's championship for the prancing horse since 1979. It had been a long wait for the Tifosi, a long wait for Schumacher; 2000 must have been truly satisfying.


© Keystone/AP Photo/STR
There have been many of these. In 20 years, though, you'd expect a few, wouldn't you?

Yes, there was that clash with Damon Hill in 1994. There was also the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix fiasco of team orders, blocking Fernando Alonso during qualifying in Monaco 2006 and nearly driving Barrichello (now no longer a teammate) off the track at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix. To be fair, he was only found guilty of infringing the rules in the last two incidents.

But the one blot that will be hard to erase will be the collision with Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997. The final race of the year, Schumacher led the championship by a solitary point. Villeneuve looked to overtake and Schumacher swerved into him. He shot himself in the foot; Schumacher retired, Villeneuve finished in third and won the title. Two weeks later, the FIA disqualified Schumacher from the entire season, the first and only driver to suffer this punishment.


© AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Ferrari is a terrific brand. Perhaps no other car manufacturer can summon such an enviable image in the minds of so many. And this goes well beyond Formula 1, a sport it has participated in from the very beginning, in 1950. It has won more races than any other team and more driver's championships. But in the 1980s and early 90s it was a team that was struggling. There hadn't been a constructor's title since 1983 and no driver's title since 1979.

But in the 90s things changed. Not only were Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt brought on board, but the legendary Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne were also hired to change the team's fortunes around. Schumacher, who joined the team in 1996, was also part of the new package. He was the face of the team, the one who would ultimately be depended upon to win races.

Jackie Stewart judged Schumacher to be even more important to the team's success than Montezemolo or Todt. "Michael's greatest skill has been able to motivate people to come with him and raise the bar to create the best car that he could drive and get the success they wish to have," Stewart said, and Schumacher raised the Italian outfit to its highest heights.


© AP Photo/DAPD, Thomas Kienzle
At the age of 37 Schumacher retired from Formula 1. He'd done all that there was to do in the sport, hadn't he? He was still involved on the sidelines with Ferrari, but racing seemed to have been set aside for good.

Then there was the injury to Felipe Massa in 2009 that almost led to a comeback for Schumacher in Ferrari colours. That was scotched, but 2010 brought the opportunity to race for Mercedes with old friend Ross Brawn in charge.

Some relished the chance to see Schumacher up against the younger generation of drivers, like Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. Sadly, from a fan's point of view, it hasn't really been a dream comeback.

There have been some good results at times, with a much-improved performance in 2012, but there have also been the rumours of Schumacher's second retirement after this year, when his contract runs out. Does he still have the drive within? Now 43 years old, he may decide to call it quits, although the almost-podium in Monaco and the podium finish in Valencia, not to mention any other forthcoming good results this year, may just give him a boost. Fangio still has one record that Schumacher doesn't - the Argentine was 46 when he won his last driver's championship.


© AP Photo/Luca Bruno
The years 2002 and 2004 were seen by many as F1's most boring. There was a real fear that the sport's appeal was declining simply because Schumacher and Ferrari were so dominant.

Schumacher won his fifth driver's title in 2002, a year where he won 11 out of 17 races. Barrichello won another four. That left two for non-Ferrari teams. In fact, Schumacher had won the title by the end of the French Grand Prix, with six races remaining, which is still an F1 record.

While 2003 seemed to restore everyone's faith in F1, thanks to a tight season that wasn't decided until the final race of the year, 2004 was another Ferrari fest.

Schumacher's seventh and last title-winning year saw him victorious in 12 of the first 13 races, with only Jarno Trulli providing us with a change in Monaco. He won one other race that year, to set up a new record for most wins in a season.


© AP Photo/Fabian Bimmer
These are quite staggering:
68 pole positions,
77 fastest laps,
91 race wins,
155 podiums,
7 championships,
5 consecutive championships,
22 hat-tricks (pole, fastest lap and the win in a race weekend),
24 consecutive points finishes,
19 consecutive podium finishes,
181 races with one team (Ferrari).



© Keystone/AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Perhaps it's obstinacy, stubbornness or pride. When all seems hopeless, why bother continuing? Maybe that's what being a racing driver is all about. What we all thought would be Schumacher's last race, in Brazil 2006, seemed to display the best of the retiring Red Baron. He needed to win the race and have Alonso finish out of the points to win the title. But by qualifying in 10th because of fuel pressure problems and then suffering a puncture during the race, which dropped him to the back of the field, things did not look good.

Alonso, as it turned out, took second place and the title. Yet, Schumacher never really gave up the fight and stormed through most of the field to bag fourth place, saying after the race, "All in all, I'd have to say it was a class finale."


© AP Photo/Dave Caulkin
The question of who is the greatest, in any sport, can become rather tiresome. How do you even begin to make such a judgement? Yes, statistically speaking, Schumacher is the most successful driver in Formula 1, but if you're going to talk about greatness, then wouldn't you rely on something more than just statistics?

Ascari, Fangio, Lauda, Senna, Prost - these are all valid names to put forth for consideration. Schumacher's too? In his glory days he was certainly controversial, brash and utterly self-confident, something that could be expected in such an adrenaline-fuelled sport that is the domain of men.

It is a common opinion to class Ayrton Senna as the greatest of all time. And it is noteworthy that when Schumacher equalled Senna's tally of 41 wins he broke down in tears; he certainly held the Brazilian in the highest regard. Who is the greatest? We offer you no answers; it's up to you.


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