Editor Mike Fourie revisits some of the high- and low points of Michael Schumacher’s long and succesful career and considers whether F1 will ever produce another superstar of the German’s calibre.
By Mike Fourie – Editor
What will Formula One be like without Michael Schumacher? It’s still hard to imagine. Since late in 1991, the German has been at the forefront of the sport… and when Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994 (it was during the time of South Africa’s first democratic election, you might recall), Schumi instantly became F1’s superstar – the driver by whom all other drivers measured themselves and the man they most wanted to beat.
By the end of 1994, when Schumacher clinched his maiden title by virtue of a collision with rival Damon Hill’s Williams-Renault in Adelaide, the German was branded a villain by his detractors, and incidents such as his deliberate side-swipe on Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams-Renault at Jerez in 1997, pulling rank on team-mate Rubens Barrichello to win at the A1 Ring in 2002, and most recently, suspiciously stalling his car, and effectively blocking the circuit during the dying moments of the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix qualifying session, have somewhat tarnished his brilliant, 91-win F1 career.
Having discussed the impact of Schumacher’s retirement in September, I now look back at his 15 years in F1, which included a record number of victories (one win short of the combined totals of Senna and Alain Prost), 68 pole-positions and seven world championship titles. For me, Schumi’s 1994, 1996/97, 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006 seasons stand out from the rest (his domination in 2002 and 2004 notwithstanding)… Had Senna not perished at Imola, a youthful Schumacher would have pushed the late Brazilian’s dominant Williams Renault all the way to the finish in his unheralded Benetton Ford. Despite incurring a harsh mid-season ban, the German duly made short work of Damon Hill that year and romped to his second title in 1995.
But when Schumacher joined Ferrari, and combined his ability with the tactical genius of technical director Ross Brawn, the shrewdness of team boss Jean Todt, the design expertise of South African Rory Byrne and the (contracted) subservience of team-mate Eddie Irvine in 1996, the German helped to turn a no-hoper team (as Ferrari had been for much of the early ‘90s) into a juggernaut. He drove brilliantly to win a rain-drenched Spanish Grand Prix in a pig of car early in 1996 and subsequently devoted himself with almost religious fervour to push the team’s development forward – so much so, that he almost clinched the driver’s world championship by the end of the following year.
I honestly believe the German owes his huge following to the fact that he was the underdog for at least half of his F1 career. Much of his character, fighting spirit and reputation was established through his rivalries with Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, but to a greater extent, Mika Hakkinen, who clinched the 1998 and 1999 championships and narrowly lost the title to Schumi in 2000. In 2001, Juan-Pablo Montoya burst onto the scene, but the Colombian could not match the German on a regular basis, and Kimi Raikkonen came close to toppling Schumi in 2003, but the young Finn’s challenge was curtailed by ill-timed technical problems. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso steadily rose through the ranks and clinched the title, when Ferrari spectacularly fell out of form, last year.
It’s really a pity that we never got to see a season-long rivalry between Schumi and Alonso. After a dismal 2005, Schumi deftly turned Ferrari’s fortunes around since the United States Grand Prix this year to record seven victories – it was stunning, as if the German master had turned back the clock! Given his somewhat surprising decision to retire, which he announced at Monza, his chances of winning an eighth title in his swansong season effectively evaporated when his Ferrari engine expired at Suzuka, followed by fuel pressure problems and an early puncture at Interlagos.
Still, the German might quietly rue his stubborn driving tactics in Hungary and his