Simply the best?

Greatest Of All Time – question is one which rears its head in every discussion about Michael Schumacher. Debate will undoubtedly continue for many years to come, but the facts and figures, and the records the seven-times world champion holds, are there for all to see…

An exclusive piece extracted from the The  Official Formula One Opus.

November 2002, and the president of Formula One’s regulatory body Max Mosley is a guest on the BBC’s Breakfast with Frost programme. Formula One was reeling from another Michael Schumacher drubbing, so much so that Mosley introduced a raft of changes for the 2003 season, including single-lap qualifying and a new scoring system. Sir David probed Mosley about all these things and other aspects of F1 housekeeping before rolling out the eternal question: “Is Michael Schumacher the greatest racing driver ever? Or is the Ferrari the greatest ever racing car, or both, or neither?”

Frost was playing the same parlour game that erupts regularly around paddock dinner tables. The debate ricochets around the greats of this sport starting, of course, with Juan Manuel Fangio and, without exception, taking in Stirling Moss, Jim Clarke, Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost,

Ayrton Senna and Schumacher. After a few bottles of house red, the conversation usually polarises around Senna and Schumacher: Senna’s mystic conviction that he was doing

God’s work at the wheel versus the greatest accumulator of statistics that the sport has ever known, including seven world championships, 91 race victories, 68 poles, 76 fastest laps. Records, all of them. Schumacher has even won a race while stationary in the pits, at Silverstone in 1998, where he was serving a time penalty.

For the record, Mosley answered, as many do, in the affirmative. “Well I think Michael Schumacher is probably the greatest racing driver ever, when you compare all the others and all the things he’s done. The car is certainly absolutely outstanding, but of course it’s a combination of the two. Michael works seven days a week and all the hours. He goes back after dinner, into the garage, in the evening –other drivers don’t do that.”

Schumacher’s career has been characterised by an almost pathologic need to win. Most well-adjusted individuals shed that skin in adolescence. Schumacher is a controlled ball of fi re behind the wheel of a car, smoking anything that stands before him. Ralf Schumacher labelled his brother a madman at Monaco in 2005 when on the final lap Michael almost pushed his younger sibling into the wall as they raced towards the finish line. At stake was seventh place. Schumacher had already bloodied the nose of Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello, cutting past him as they flew through the chicane at the exit of the tunnel. Barrichello was not expecting a hostile greeting on the final lap with so little at stake. That was the reasonable position to take. Schumacher does not think like that. For him the race is never over.

Some argue that Schumacher’s genius is not necessarily at the wheel but in building a team around him, in arranging the organisational blocks in the right order to maximize his chances of winning. The negative spin on this argument points to the signing of team-mates that are chosen for their compliance in accepting unequal status. This Schumacher has always denied. “People outside always want to see it as though I slow my team-mates down. I don’t know why they see it that way. Believe me, neither Ferrari nor Benetton have tried to make my team-mates slower. They want to have the two best cars at the end of the day. Naturally there are differences in human abilities.”

‘Some argue that Schumacher’s genius is not necessarily at the wheel but in building a team around him, in arranging the organisational blocks in the right order to maximize his chances of winning’

His critics also argue that Schumacher is weak under pressure. Let’s put that one to bed here and now. In April 2003 Schumacher arrived at the San Marino Grand Prix labouring through his worst start to a season in his seven years as a Ferrari driver. The tifosi were in uproar. The Imola circuit in the pretty hillside country of Emilia Romagna is only an hour’s drive from Ferrari headquarters at Maranello. The great stepped bank at Ravazza was a riot of red. The fans had not come to see Ferrari finish second, yet expectancy was way ahead of performance on the evidence of the opening races. Professional concerns were overlaid with personal anguish. Schumacher’s mother, Elizabeth, who with father Rolf ran the Kerpen kart track that fostered his stellar talent as a youth, lay terminally ill in a German hospital. Schumacher learned on the morning of qualifying that his mother was not expected to survive the day. The load he was carrying was of the crushing variety. All indices of human behaviour said he could not possibly compete in these circumstances. Schumacher put on pole a Ferrari that had been nowhere. He took no questions and disappeared out the back of the Ferrari motorhome to board a private flight to say goodbye to his mother. Schumacher returned late on

Saturday night and rose on race day to be told of his mother’s passing away. He must have been in bits as he made his way to the grid, but betrayed nothing of his inner turmoil. This was a man under extreme professional pressure to deliver in Ferrari’s heartland a performance to lift the spirits of the team and its supporters. Grief was an equally potent force eating deep into his capacity to perform. One hour and forty minutes after the lights went out Schumacher had posted Ferrari’s first win of the season. Not bad for a driver who who was meant to make mistakes under the cosh. None in the history of the sport has had to contend with the burden that Schumacher bore that day.

The scale of Schumacher’s talent was evident on his debut in 1991 at Spa when he was plucked from sports cars and Mercedes’ young driver programme and parachuted into a modest Jordan. Though his race finished at the second corner due to mechanical failure, Schumacher had already lit fl ares in the imagination by posting a qualifying time seconds quicker than his experienced team-mate

Andrea de Cesaris to claim seventh place on the starting grid. Schumacher was quicker than De Cesaris on the first day of practice, as he had been at a pre-Spa test at Silverstone five days before. Team owner Eddie Jordan swiftly instructed his lawyers to prepare a contract for the young German’s signature.

Unfortunately for Jordan, his were not the only eyes opened that weekend. Following a typically complex bit of paddock chicanery, Flavio Briatore found a loophole and yanked Schumacher from Jordan’s clutches and into his Benetton team. Schumacher knew the power lay with a Benetton outfit supplied with Ford engines whereas Jordan was heading for a season with Yamaha units – great on bikes, but nowhere near the grunt of Ford in cars. A deal was done. Jordan screamed blue murder, but Schumacher was gone and drove for Benetton at the next race. Three years later he was a world champion for the first time, making not only his own name but enhancing also the profiles of team principal Briatore, pit wall guru Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne.

Brawn and Byrne relocated with him to Ferrari in 1996 to begin a reign of terror under the aegis of Jean Todt that would yield five successive world drivers’ championships and six constructors’ titles on the bounce. Eddie Irvine, his team-mate at Ferrari during his first four years, learned to accept his place in the order of things. There are racing drivers, he said, and there is Michael Schumacher. “I went there to try to beat him. I wasn’t there to be his no.2. The guy blows everyone away. Michael has always made his team-mates mistakes very visible. Johnny Herbert [Benetton] was good in all formulas and was quicker than Mika Hakkinen when they were at Lotus. Martin Brundle did a fantastic job at Jordan, but those guys were nowhere compared with Michael.”

Schumacher, a working-class boy from the Rhineland region of West Germany, was always a reluctant superstar. He does not enjoy the forensic scrutiny of the media.

He runs for cover when newspapers send out their psychological profilers to deconstruct the Schumacher myth and lay bare his sporting soul. It is in a sense unfair to ask him to articulate his gifts since he has neither the vocabulary nor the technical insight to set out a psychological theory. The explanation is in there somewhere, but until he is minded to let it out under expert guidance, we are left with crude interpretations. These lead inevitably to a consideration of the bad as well as the good.

This, in his own words, is perhaps the closest we have to a definition of what he does: “The most important thing for me is that feeling of being on the limit, of pushing myself and always pushing the boundaries. For example, during qualifying at Suzuka in 2001 I did a lap which was eight tenths faster than the computer said was possible with our car. That was a feeling of surpassing yourself, which is totally regenerative. It was such a powerful affirmation for me. A logical driver always tries to run on the limit. I try in every corner to find the limit, it’s something I just feel, and to find that limit I have to come in faster to the corner than seems possible. Only by doing that can I find the point I need to get to and confirm that I wasn’t previously at the limit. Of course, I’m interested in my survival. I have no interest at all in ignoring the limit of the car and risking my life. What I want is to get the maximum out of the car.

“The most important thing for me is that feeling of being on the limit, of pushing myself and always pushing the boundaries”

“I am a man who reacts to what he comes up against. I generally have a feeling for how fast I can drive. I find the limit quickly, I drive on it and then, at that moment, I decide either I can push harder or not, that’s as good as it is going to get. I don’t need to feel my way slowly. Through the seat of my pants to my shoulders, I feel what the car is doing. I make myself as one with the car. Sometimes I feel that it is just as human as I am. Sometimes during a race I have talked to the car. ‘Stay with me, please’, or ‘go on, you can do it’. I have to build a relationship with it. To me being on the limit is very much the satisfaction of knowing that I have left nothing out which I could have done better.”

Those inclined to demonise Schumacher point to the controversial episodes that signpost his career, particularly the collision with Jacques Villeneuve in the championship decider at Jerez in 1997.

“I am a man who reacts to what he comes up against. I generally have a feeling for how fast I can drive. I find the limit quickly, I drive on it then decide either I can push harder or not. I don’t need to feel my way slowly”

Schumacher held a one-point lead coming into the race and, slowed by a mechanical problem, appeared to turn into his title rival as Villeneuve bolted down the inside. Schumacher ended in the gravel and Villeneuve survived to finish third and take the title. Schumacher’s results were expunged from the record. There was the Austrian tap dance in 2002 when Barrichello moved aside in sight of the line to hand the victory to Schumacher. This was indeed a cynical piece of race manipulation – Ferrari might have circumvented the awkward issue of team orders by switching positions through their pit stop strategy, but they badly misread the mood of the public by obviously dictating the move.

At the same time, however, it was nothing new in the sport of F1. Schumacher was going for the championship, Barrichello was not. And then there was Rascasse in 2006 when Schumacher parked his Ferrari at the penultimate corner during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, wrecking the flying lap of his title rival Fernando Alonso. Schumacher claimed human error was responsible. Others saw the eruption of a deeply cynical trait that stains his career. The stewards certainly saw it that way, dismissing his explanation and sending him to the back of the grid. Schumacher, backed to the hilt by Todt, stuck to his story.

‘Schumacher’s character remains locked in the mists of half-truths and denials, claims and counter-claims. The result is a polarisation of opinion…’

Schumacher’s character remains locked in the mists of half-truths and denials, claims and counter-claims. The result is a polarisation of opinion with his detractors crying foul and his supporters pointing out that he is no different from many others, including Senna, to have crossed an ethical line in pursuit of world championship points. Perhaps one of his best drives was his least heralded – in Brazil in 2006. It was, at the time, his F1 swan song.

Schumacher had announced his retirement during an emotional address two months earlier in Monza. He said he had made up his mind in June at Indianapolis. Having blown his engine at the previous Grand Prix in Japan, Schumacher arrived in Brazil needing to win the race and have Alonso finish pointless to win the championship an eighth time.

What were always long odds lengthened considerably when a puncture early in the race sent him back to the pits and the rear of the fi eld. What happened next was breathtaking by any standards as Schumacher ripped through the field in a blaze of overtaking to finish fourth. What a way to say goodbye, driving like the wind just a few miles from the final resting place of Ayrton Senna, the driver who immediately predated him in the chronology of racing icons. That was supposed to be it. The wheel had turned, and a new generation of drivers – led by Britain’s Lewis Hamilton and another young German from the same karting stable,

Sebastien Vettel – were on the march. Schumacher was three years into his retirement when I caught up with him in May 2009 at the Ascari circuit in Andalucia, where he was engaged in a driver day on behalf of a sponsor. After a couple of dizzying laps in a Maserati, Schumacher was a picture of contentment as he spoke about life after racing. “I have no regrets. I’m not the sort of person who looks back. I got out at the right time for me. I was tired. I did not want it any more. There was nothing more to achieve. No motivation left. If you want to do what I was doing it needs so much focus, so much attention. I just wanted freedom. I preferred freedom to what was going on in Formula One.”

That was until a damper from Barrichello’s Brawn worked loose at the Hungaroring and smashed into the helmet of Felipe Massa, ending the Ferrari driver’s season. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo picked up the phone to Schumacher to set his brain racing with possibilities. A neck injury forced him to decline the offer of an immediate return, but the idea did not go away. Enter Ross Brawn into the Abu Dhabi paddock. For 2010 Mercedes would be running a team under their own banner for the first time in more than half a century. How could he resist? And so at the age of 39 Schumacher set a course for Bahrain, where the 2010 season would begin, and a new chapter in his extraordinary career. As Max Mosley said, other drivers don’t do that. KG