Pit Stop – F1 Greats Michael Schumacher – By Lewis Brearley

It’s easy for an appraisal of Michael Schumacher to descend into statistics and numbers so overwhelming are they. Seven world championships, 91 wins, 68 poles and 77 fastest laps are all records.

These numbers should be something to be celebrated, but instead they are often used as a weapon to criticise Schumacher for having a superior car and being underhand rather than worthy in his success.

This opinion is backed up by the 1997 clash with Jacques Villeneuve, the infamous 2006 incident at Monaco and the squeeze of Rubens Barrichello towards the concrete wall at the Hungaroring in 2010.

These are unsportsmanlike and dangerous incidents and highlight Schumacher’s dubious morality on the racetrack.

Yet to focus on these negative factors is to ignore the genius of Schumacher: the scintillating speed, unprecedented leadership skills, unrivalled fitness and metronomic consistency which combined to raise standards in the sport.

Schumacher debuted in a Jordan at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991 and instantly caught the attention by qualifying a brilliant seventh.

His race ended with mechanical failure on the first lap but the 22 year old had made his mark and moved to Benetton for the next race. This was a team on the up with a great technical department ran by Ross Brawn with a car designed by the talented South African designer, Rory Byrne.

By his second race with the team, he had already outqualified his triple world champion and team mate Nelson Piquet and continued to frustrate Piquet by consistently doing so.

The next year, with a new team mate in Martin Brundle, Schumacher improved with eight podiums including a win at Spa, and placed third in the championship above Ayrton Senna.

1993 was another step up, every time Schumacher finished a race it was on the podium and he ended the season with more than double the points of his team mate, Riccardo Patrese, another highly respected driver.

It all came together in the next two seasons for the Benetton team, with Schumacher taking eight victories in 1994 and a record equalling nine in 1995, to become the sports youngest ever double world champion.

Yet it was in a red car that Schumacher would become the most successful racing driver ever. The decision to leave the double world championship winning Benetton team to join the struggling Scuderia Ferrari was one of the biggest and bravest decisions in the history of the sport.

Moreover it was a symbol of Schumacher’s huge will and determination, such would be the effort to bring success back to Maranello, who were a shadow of their glorious former selves, having not won a driver’s championship since 1979.

Integral to the revival of the team, Team Principal Jean Todt signed the champion’s technical director Ross Brawn and chief designer Rory Byrne, both acclaimed as the best in the business at what they did.

So the long struggle to the top began, and it was during this period that Schumacher put in some of his classic drives. In an inferior car the German scored four pole positions in 1996 and scored a stunning victory in pouring rain at Barcelona where he lapped all but two of the field and won by 45 seconds, earning him the nickname “Rainmaster”. All this while his team-mate, Eddie Irvine won no races and had no pole positions.

Five wins in another inferior car followed the year after, however 1997 is most remembered for what Schumacher did at the finale at Jerez.

Struggling against the faster Williams cars, while defending an overtaking move from championship rival Jacques Villeneuve, Schumacher deliberately turned into Villeneuve’s car.

It was an action for which he was disqualified from the championship, but anyone who thought this would change his ways were entirely mistaken.

Schumacher continued to divide opinion, but as he continued to mould his Ferrari team to his desires, having the no-expense-spared car designed to suit his style and specially designed “Schumi” tyres came from Bridgestone success arrived en masse.

Five successive championships came his way between 2000 and 2004 and almost every record tumbled, the peak being 2004 where the German took 13 victories.

It was such a blur of success that the highlights are mostly forgotten.
Yet every streak must end and it soon did. He was replaced as champion by Fernando Alonso and failed in a titanic tussle to regain his championship before his first retirement in 2006.

In 2010 he decided to return aged 40 for Mercedes and to put it bluntly, he failed. His blinding speed had been stunted and his awareness seemed dimmed. He battled on for three seasons and ironically he gained affection for his effort.

Yet this silver epilogue may be soon forgotten, but the majestic memories bathed in red will live on.

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