25 Years of the Great Michael Schumacher
He stands alone without equal. Unquestionably the most successful racer in the history of Formula One (F1) – he has virtually rewritten every record within the sport, and then some. His domination embodied by a cornucopia of remarkable numbers – 91 Grand Prix (GP) victories, 68 pole positions, 77 fastest laps, 155 podium finishes, and of course being crowned champion of the world on no less than seven occasions.
However, this statistical immortality reveals just one ancillary of Michael Schumacher’s career – his legacy and later life overshadowed by elements of controversy, veracity and tragedy.
It has been a quarter of a century since the German made his race debut at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. This unveiling was spawn out of a falsification by Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber who assured the Jordan-Ford team that Schumacher was accustomed to the exigent demands of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, although the reality was that the then 22-year-old had only witnessed the course as a spectator.
His first race in Belgium ended abruptly where he retired on the opening lap due to clutch problems – its irony highlighted by the mastery that Schumacher later exhibited on a course renowned for its unpredictable weather conditions.
This unerring ability and instinctive race craft has been the driving force behind some of the most awe-inspiring comeback triumphs and dominant performances in F1 history. From finishing runner-up whilst being jammed in second gear in the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix to emerging victorious in Belgium a year later despite starting from 16th position on the grid, such accomplishments are as much a testament to his self-belief as they are to his natural talent.
But for every masterstroke, there has been a ‘win at all costs’ approach – an individual intent on cheating and playing dirty tricks in order to gain an advantage. Sadly, this extensive catalogue of misdemeanours has become accepted by many as a part of Schumacher’s ineradicable character.
Former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has even labelled his former rival as lacking “class” and “integrity” – an attack instigated by the German’s forceful attempt to drive Villeneuve off the track 19 years ago at the final round in Jerez. Three years prior to this, Schumacher carried out a similar manoeuvre on Damon Hill to ensure victory in the 1994 championship.
Such deceptive tactics were never meticulously planned, but merely intuitive – Schumacher reacting to the pressures he faced in the heat of the moment. His speed of thought akin to the rapid nature in which he could transport his car around a circuit. Such behaviour should never be lauded, but these strategies often salvaged something positive from what appeared at the time a precarious situation.
It is worth remembering that Schumacher was not a one-man machine in his pursuit of glory – in consecutive Austrian Grand Prix’s, team-mate Rubens Barrichello was forced by Ferrari to pull over to let Schumacher through on the last corner.
Whether it’s Rascassegate or failing to take his stop-go penalty, nobody has attracted as much controversy as the man who transformed Ferrari, from an iconic name notorious for disappointment into the most proficient constructor team in F1 history. This represents another astonishing achievement for Schumacher as well as a symbol of his supremacy, even though it does raise significant question marks surrounding the sporting principles and moral values of F1.
It could be argued that the German raced in a weak era and rarely against names that can be considered alongside the likes of Alain Prost and Stirling Moss in the pantheon of F1’s greatest. The ruthless reality is that there was never anybody able to consistently threaten Schumacher’s stranglehold on the prestigious trophy after Mika Häkkinen won back-to-back titles before the turn of the millennium.
However, this shouldn’t detract from the unbreakable winning mentality that Schumacher possessed no matter what obstacles were in his way – as demonstrated by his poignant triumph in the 2003 Sam Marino GP which came less than 24 hours after the death of his mother.
Winning with grace and humility is often seen as more important as than the winning itself, but Schumacher has always pushed himself and his car to their utmost limits – this intrepid ambition is what sets him apart from any other driver to have graced the sport. In the words of Schumacher himself: “People like it or don’t like it – I don’t care. What is allowed, I will go for.”
Love him or loathe him – it is impossible to disregard the sheer magnitude of the numbers that he has ensconced into the annals of F1. Will he be remembered for his virtuoso displays or through the wealth of divisive publicity that he generated? Either way, Michael Schumacher’s legacy in F1 will never be forgotten.