In at number 3, it’s the most successful F1 driver of all time. By the time I was old enough to really understand Formula One, it was too late for me to appreciate just how good Michael Schumacher was. I’m British, I grew up in a household that supported Damon Hill, of course I was going to have an innate dislike for the man who cheated his way to the 1994 World title.
That is the only mindset I will ever have on Schumacher’s ’94 and ’95 championships. Although I believe if had been able to experience them myself I would be able to understand how he came to be a title challenger in the first place. Amidst all the controversy, the numerous allegations of technical infringements by his Benetton team, the disqualifications and the infamous collisions… there must have been something to set him apart from the rest.
For me, more impressive than his five consecutive championships, were the seasons he spent building a dysfunctional Ferrari team into what was arguably the best Formula One operation the sport had ever seen. Having not won a title – drivers’ or constructors’ – since 1983, the Italian giants were a long way from where they should have been. It was a downward curve that was on the verge of becoming catastrophic, with only two victories since 1990. But then Schumacher came and dragged a disastrous ’96 car to three victories in his first season with the Prancing a Horse. Even though Williams easily took the title, there were signs that the double World Champion really was a special driver.
He built a cohesive team of competent engineers and leaders around him. The Ferrari car of 1997 was a real contender for the Championship and Schumacher led going into the final round. Unfortunately, I was able to witness first hand the undesirable side to Michael’s nature, as he proceeded to drive into yet another title rival. Only this time it backfired, and he received a just punishment for his misdemeanour.
What is most disappointing was the fact that his actions in that moment destroyed my appreciation of his brilliance. In my eyes he would remain the villain of the sport until his retirement in 2006.
It is hard to deny that he was a huge influence on the rising success of Ferrari. He was slowly building an empire that would rule indefinitely for years to come. It was only a matter of time before his hands were back on the Championship trophy. He would be made to wait a little longer however as McLaren dominated in ’98. Then in ’99, Schumacher had what could have been a career defining accident. A huge brake failure at Silverstone sent his car spearing into the tyre barrier. He suffered a broken leg and had to sit out the majority of the season.
Despite this, it was clear the team was improving and Ferrari took their first constructors title for sixteen years. Schumacher was able to return from his injuries and score two podiums in the final races of the year, and he would be ready for another push at the turn of the century.
What followed was to be the single most dominated period in Formula One history. In the first two years, apart from retirements, Schumacher finished on the podium in all but two races. It got worse in 2002 as he proceeded to finish every race on the podium, with eleven victories, five second places and one third. He won the title with six races to go. It was domination on a whole new scale. A harder fought victory followed in 2003, but service was resumed in ’04 as Michael won thirteen Grands Prix and easily took the title.
It was a brutal, unwavering demolition of the competition. Schumacher and Ferrari had become as good as it was possible to be. But it all came back to the work that was done in the years that preceded their dominance. The team that they brought together, and the tireless work ethic that delivered such a huge performance advantage to their car created what was the most successful era for any team in history. When they eventually were beaten, the whole Formula One fraternity let out a sigh of utter relief.
What I found most humbling about Schumacher was that he knew when it was over. He realised when he was done. When he announced his retirement after winning in Monza, I realised then what a great sportsman he was. All those years I had despised him, and loathed his winning, I had never realised how professional, and how intelligent he was. When he called an end to his career, I could finally appreciate what he had done. He had won a race in every single year since 1992. He re-written the record book. He had re-defined what it meant to be a winner.
My appreciation of what he had done led me to become a fan of his when he returned to racing with Mercedes in 2010. And I could not have been happier to see him return to the podium one last time in 2012.
He will always be controversial, and unfortunately his deadly instinct to win at all costs will always be a mark on his record. But the fact is, he didn’t need to do those things. He would have still been the best without them. He was just so much better, and I still rate him as one of my top drivers.