Saturday, July 18, 2009
Michael Schumacher: The Technical Champion
Despite the occasional intrigued photographer, an undisturbed red prancing horse rests patiently amidst the pandemonium of victory and the all-too familiar “leap”. Lost in all the records Michael Schumacher has amassed is either a red horse or a flashy blue dresser. While the records point to Schumacher, the dominance they relate point to the chariots that carried the man to fame, fortune, as well as, the records. But this is the one thing all the records make clear—Michael was probably the best at getting the most out of a car and letting it do the work for him. Michael Schumacher is the greatest technical driver of all-time. With Michael’s retirement there will be, undoubtedly, many articles written concerning his accomplishments and records. The truth is that over the past 30 years there hasn’t been anyone as successful or as dominant. In fact, no other driver in the history of Formula One has been as successful, period! In Michael’s hands a great car would be untouchable, a good car would be a contender to win, and a poor car would be a good test bed to make the next car better. More a product of his other racing experiences than one found from racing in Formula One, Michael used his racing history to write a whole new one for Formula One. Surely Michael Schumacher was the right person for Formula One’s time. And, as a result of Formula One’s changes in focus, Schumacher may have reset the bar of success so high it may not be reached by another. This is a testament to Michael’s talents for sure but also to the technological regulations and cars that have perfectly suit Michael’s ability and style. Michael’s real competition had never been the other cars and drivers on the track. This has been evidenced by the apparent panic induced controversial tactics he has employed when challenged by another driver. Michael’s real competition is whether every muscle of the car is operating at its peak. It is that mechanical sense about him. Michael is not the racer that drags the car around behind him. He is the coach guiding the car to be its most efficient and fastest, without undue or erratic over-controlling. Therefore, the real competition for Schumacher, lap after lap, is the clock and the car. This is the reason why there is little difference between testing and racing for him. And this style of racing is more a product of his past than that formulated upon racing in F1. Born near Cologne, Germany in 1969, Michael soon took to racing. At the age of four Schumacher began racing a homemade kart provided by his father, who also managed a kart track in Michael’s hometown. By the age of twelve, Schumacher was racing competitively. Undoubtedly, these years and many laps proved crucial in his development as a driver. Schumacher shone brilliantly between 1984 and 1987 winning many German and European karting championships. Michael then made the move into the Formula Ford series in 1988 and then went on to race in the German Formula 3 series between 1989 and 1990. However, a case could be made that it was his time while driving in the World Endurance Championship that Michael blossomed into the technical driver that would lead to such success. In 1991, Schumacher drove for Team Sauber Mercedes in the WEC. Though these cars were technologically advanced, success hinged more upon reliability than raw speed. The long endurance races, such as the 24 hours of Le Mans, undoubtedly honed his stamina and focus. This training ground did pay dividends as Michael would go on to take the pole at Mexico City, score a win at Autopolis, and chief of all…make his first start in Formula One. Whether the goal was always to compete in Formula One or not, the fact was that Michael applied himself in whatever stage of racing he was involved in. Never did it seem that these other racing forums were merely steps to take to reach Formula One. But again, Schumacher’s competition was the challenge presented him at that particular time. Michael focused well on the racing at hand; he never seemed to look back or forward. Immediately the technical driver he was paid off. In August of 1991 Michael debuted in Formula One with the Jordan-Ford team at the Belgian Grand Prix. Schumacher was given the ride based upon his experience (he said) of the Spa circuit though apparently he had never even driven it with a car. However, Michael’s technical ability allowed him to shine. He qualified seventh in his first ever grand prix, out-qualifying the 11-year experience of his teammate. The success was short-lived though as the car retired on the first lap with clutch problems. The poor start, however, was quickly overlooked and the Benetton team immediately signed Schumacher, and thus, prompted controversy from Eddie Jordan (Jordan-Ford) as he believed Benetton stole his driver. But like another famed technical driver (Alain Prost), the controversy cloud was only beginning to gather around Michael’s head. In 1992, he would claim his first victory at the very place his F1 career began—the Belgian Grand Prix. Benetton was proving to be a team on the rise. And though not enough for Nigel Mansell and the powerhouse Williams team, Michael was able to finish the championship in third place. This result bettered the legend Ayrton Senna. The finish was great momentum for 1993 but Benetton, like the other teams, failed to come up with an answer for Williams who would go on to win the driver’s championship again with Alain Prost. However, some mid-season updates allowed Michael to escape with one win and poised him for a break-out year in 1994. 1994 proved to be a season full of bright and dark clouds for both Formula One and Schumacher. No cloud was darker than that which enveloped the San Marino Grand Prix. Michael would go on to win the race and the championship but Formula One had lost its greatest star—Ayrton Senna. This loss cut so deep it caused rifts among teams and among teams and the FIA. But the season would also see the reincarnation of a tactic that already cut deep into the heart of Senna fans and would now cut deep into the heart of Damon Hill fans. Alain Prost, “Le Professuer” as he was called, established the mark for the most wins in Formula One and was very much a technical driver. In 1989 Prost; in essence, took out Senna in a collision thereby assuring his crown as champion. In a similarly eerie way, Schumacher assured his first ever driver’s championship. After a mistake and touching the wall Michael had lost his momentum and had Damon Hill, his championship rival, bearing quickly down on him. Damon took the inside line to the next corner to pass but was squeezed into contact by Michael. The subsequent contact took both drivers out and secured Michael his championship. This would prove to be one of a number of controversial run-ins Michael and Damon Hill would have over the next couple of years. In 1995, in only his third season with Benetton, Michael went on to successfully defend his title and join a select company of double world champions. By then, Benetton had switched to the dominant and reliable Renault engine. This package proved too much for the Williams team who also ran with Renault engines. Schumacher’s nine wins, combined with good results from Johnny Herbert, assured Benetton its first ever constructors championship. 1994-95 were dominant years for Michael. He would go on to win 17 of 31 races and finished on the podium 21 times. The 1996 season saw Schumacher make a surprising move to Ferrari. While this would prove an incredible relationship, at the time he moved Ferrari was struggling. And while the team had a rich history it had been in a driver’s championship drought for over 16 years up to that point; its last title being in 1979. Prior to 1996 Ferrari had come close, especially in 1990 with Alain Prost, but it had not been able to break through. While the records would show that nothing spectacular happened for Ferrari, the fact is that something indeed had happened that promised of a brighter future. That year Michael was able to finish third in the championship behind the again dominant Williams team. He would go on to win three races that season, though not without some help. The first victory was his first one he would achieve in the wet. Signs of brightness, however, were also met with darkness at times and no more so then in France. Schumacher took the pole but would suffer an engine failure even before the lights would go out to start the race. Though Michael would suffer five retirements in 1996 alone, the winds of change were beginning to blow at Ferrari. In fact, over the next three seasons Michael would only suffer nine DNFs. Time, money, and testing were being poured in by Ferrari and they had the perfect racer/test-driver in Schumacher. Many of the people he worked with at Benetton came with him to Ferrari and these relationships were also starting to pay dividends. Building upon this greater reliability, Michael was able to challenge for the world championship in only his second season with Ferrari. 1997 proved to be an exciting battle all season long and went down to the final race. It would also prove to be the return of one of those championship deciding run-ins. With only a handful of laps remaining, and the heat building from a charging Jacques Villeneuve, Michael inexplicably hit Villeneuve in the side. This action would stir the controversy pot once again. Memories of Adelaide 1994 and Damon Hill came flooding back into the picture. As a result of the move Michael was stripped of his final standing in the world championship but not of any results or points. After his actions at Jerez involving Villeneuve some questioned Schumacher’s ability and sportsmanship. But what was misconstrued for arrogance was the struggle within Michael to drive as he knows; not how he is forced. To the technical driver, who races the clock more than the other drivers and cars on the track, the prospect of having to race for a win can seem daunting, and thus, lead to such on-track incidents. Sometimes paybacks are hard to take. So is trying so hard but coming up short. This is the way 1998 could have been summed up for Schumacher. In the end, there would be fans screaming for David Coulthard’s head, while there would be others screaming just as loud, “You get what you deserve!” Though somewhat inferior to the McLaren that year, Schumacher would fight hard all season. He would create some memorable moments for Formula One fans. At Silverstone, England Michael would go on to win from the pit lane; the first ever to do so. Then in Hungary Formula One fans would see Michael at his technical best. Relying on his experience in endurance races Schumacher would stand the Ferrari on the edge and do a whole stint between pit stops at qualifying speeds, over a second faster than anybody else, just to catch up and win. Then the storm let loose again. At the Belgian Grand Prix, David Coulthard would run into Michael, though a lap behind. This cost the German valuable points. And, in fact, Mika Hakkinen would go on to take the championship for McLaren-Mercedes. This would ensure that Ferrari’s drought for a driver’s world championship would go on another year longer. The drought wouldn’t end in 1999 either as Michael would break his leg at the British Grand Prix. As the new millennium dawned so too did a new era of dominance in Formula One; an era never seen before. At the age of thirty-one, Michael would claim his third world championship title thereby ending Ferrari’s famine that lingered for twenty-one years. While the early part of the season went extremely well there was a string of bad finishes in the middle of the season that allowed other contenders to catch up. The championship would eventually go down to the final race of the season once again but this time without incident. Michael’s ability to race the clock and rely on his pit crew to effectively pass with fast pit work ensured Schumacher’s return to championship form and an unforeseen dominance. By the end of the 2000 season all that was left ahead of Schumacher in career wins was Alain Prost, but that record was soon to fall. Regulations favored a driver that relied upon his car instead of his own ability and this fell right into Michael’s hands. Given this emphasis on technology, and given the technical driver Michael was, records were destined to fall and fall fast. Michael would string together five consecutive championships. In 2001, he would pass Alain Prost for the all-time lead in victories and would clinch the championship with four races still to be run. However, 2002 got even better. Schumacher would claim his fifth title, tying the record set by Juan Manuel Fangio. Better yet, Michael would finish every race of the season on the podium, scoring 11 victories in the process. 2003 proved to be a hick-up in the rout but only in a mathematical sense. Despite winning six races to Kimi Raikkonen’s one, there was still a mathematical possibility that the title could go to Kimi. Nonetheless, with a victory in the second to last race at Indianapolis and a safe finish in Japan Michael was guaranteed the all time record for driver’s championships. 2004 was again a year of dominance for Ferrari and Michael. He would end up winning 12 of the first 13 races. Michael would go on to set a record for points in a season with 148, and this was out of a maximum of 180. Eventually Michael would go on to claim his seventh driver’s title and with still three races left in the season. When the topic is dominance, Ferrari and Schumacher did their part to write the definition. In 2000 Michael would suffer four retirements, and yet, would go on to take Ferrari first driver’s title in 21 years. From 2001-2004, the next four seasons…Michael would suffer only four DNFs. 2005 was a different story for Michael considering the previous years. Run-ins on the track, coupled with a car that was no longer solely dominant, meant Schumacher had to fight and make up the difference at every race. For the past few years Ferrari had made a living by making up ground on the track by doing so with quick pit stops. Changing tires was banned in 2005; and was believed to have changed Ferrari’s fortunes. Eventually Schumacher would have to relinquish his crown as champion, a string of five in a row. While it is believed that the current era of Formula One is passing into extinction, it has been a joy to see its past, especially its greatest champion, not go quietly into the night. Battling with Renault and BAR, Schumacher re-emerged from the disappointment of last year to take one last stab at the title. The old master still had fight and forced the championship down to the last race. And while it would have been a sight to behold, it is rather fitting that the future of Formula One was able to hold off the great Schumacher. Perhaps Formula One can now move on and rise above Michael’s reputation and record and prove itself to continue to have the best cars, drivers, and racing. There always have been some dark clouds over Schumacher’s career and image as a driver and sportsman. Though there will be people sad to see Michael’s career come to an end, there are many that would have been happy if it happened years ago. The infamous collisions with Hill and Villeneuve, his chopping technique at the start of races, the lack of competition from teammates, whether ordered or not, and not to mention what some believe to be an apparent double standard when it comes to applying the rules to Michael have not endeared him to thousands. But it is not the opinion or the testimony of fans that is the measuring stick of greatness. So, where does Michael stand in relation to the greats of Formula One? Well obviously the records speak for themselves, and that is where many people would stop the comparisons. It is a hard debate when the subject is the “Greatest of all Time”. The records make it hard not to give him the title but there is room for debate…not so much about Michael records but that of others. There have been drivers, like Senna, who have been killed while still in their prime. In fact, there were those who died that were able to shine even when they did not have the best car on the track. Other drivers, like Jackie Stewart, merely left while in the midst of their prime. For sure, timing had everything to do with the success Michael enjoyed; it always does. The move to Benetton when it was on the rise and the ability to go to Ferrari and bring key people along to help facilitate its reemergence speaks volumes about his ability to be a great facilitator. Key people and his experience in endurance racing all helped in the development and testing of the Benetton, and especially the Ferrari machines that he rode to victory. But if there was one thing that’s for certain about Schmacher’s performances as a driver it was that his ability to stay consistent lap after lap meant that teams like Ferrari could build reliable cars that could perform and be driven hard because the car would not be driven erratically . The result depended more upon the car’s willingness to go to the front than Michael forcing the issue. But it is at this very point there exists debate about Schumacher’s greatness, not as a driver but as a racer. When behind the wheel of the most dominant car his technical skill allows the car to disappear into the distance. With an equal, or slightly inferior, car Michael can be forced to make mistakes. At times Michael has tried to force things and usually to a bad end. Four times he would have collisions during the 2005 season. With a car equal to or inferior to the competition, Michael has had a tendency to try and be what he isn’t. Quite often, the technical driver; when faced with the task of having to either pass or hold off a challenger, will have the tendency to try and take control, man-handling the car when their strength is relying on the car. While the racer makes the daring pass, the technical driver will lie in wait, stalking the opposition until they make the mistake. Schumacher is the same. When able to focus on the clock and all his car was giving, instead of other drivers, Michael was able to display his speed and dominance. And much of the greatness attributed to Schumacher came from these types of races. Michael’s racing ability lied in his patience and consistent pressure that would force a mistake from the other drivers. For all who have been fortunate to have seen any races for the past 15 years they have been given the opportunity to watch one of the greats of Formula One history. Undoubtedly each person has an image from memory that defined, for them, Schumacher’s greatness and astounding record as a driver. Yet, while all the memories, images, and records stand for greatness and are undeniable, moments like Adelaide ’94, Jerez ’97, and the 2005 season will always serve as reminders of Michael’s humanity and of there being others worthy of discussion as Formula One’s “greatest”.