THE CHAMPIONS / Michael Schumacher
The sprint meister
- Mattijs Diepraam
- May 1, 2004
- Martin Brundle - The best number two in the business, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Riccardo Patrese - The 250+ Club's single member, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Ayrton Senna - A carefully planned agenda to inspiration, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Jos Verstappen - Dutch courage: the unfulfilled promise of Jos Verstappen, by Dan Moakes
1991 Belgian GP (August 25, 1991)
He got in and suddenly everyone took notice - especially Mr Flavio Briatore. But what is it with modern F1 driver management? Is the Mercedes-supported, Briatore-signed driver raking in the wins for McLaren or Renault?
In the refuelling era of Grand Prix racing, from the mid-nineties onwards upto today, there's been one man who's consistently beaten allcomers to accumulate previously unseen levels of glory - and income! His name is Michael Schumacher, and his style and character have proved to be a perfect match for the pitstop-to-pitstop sprints that add up to a Grand Prix distance these days.
There are many factors contributing to Michael Schumacher being the best World Championship Grand Prix driver ever - on paper, at least. Apart from Fangio's 2:1 starts-to-wins ratio and Ayrton Senna's pole tally Schumacher's beaten almost every conceivable World Championship record - and Senna's only remaining record looks to be beaten too before the German puts an end to his career.
Part of the reason for his impressive statistics is due to the durability of his career, as Schumacher is now closing in on his 200th Grand Prix start, and the fact that lately F1 racing has turned into a reliability contest, making his Ferrari a bullet-proof proposition for wins - or podiums at the least - every time he takes the start of a Grand Prix. Another part is his carefully planned career path, which got him into a winning position in the first place. The most controversial contributing part is his reputation for being ruthless, for some to a degree of being unsportsmanlike. But it's not all down to circumstance. His driving style and set-up needs are so far out compared to those of his rivals that they go very far in explaining his continuing superiority. We look at all the factors that make up the man who has won more Grands Prix, has taken more fastest laps, and won more titles than anyone else in the history of World Championship F1 racing.
His career path
The F1 world was in shock when Michael Schumacher put his Jordan 191 7th on the grid of the 1991 Belgian GP. Where did this guy come from? Yes, he'd been a German F3 champion some years before, but only after having been beaten by the men that in his championship year would become his team mates in the Mercedes-Benz sportscar outfit - Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen - and nicking the latter's girlfriend in the process. But somehow, being a Mercedes Junior driver lost in the old men's category of sportscar racing and not even racing in F3000 in an age it was unusual to skip a step on the ladder to F1, his bursting-on-the-scene at Spa still came as a surprise to many. In reality, the support of Mercedes-Benz and Willi Weber throughout his formative years should have meant that everyone could have seen it coming.
A former karting star, Schumacher started his car-racing career in 1988, racing in Formula Ford 1600 and Formula König. Not yet singled out as an exceptional talent, he was signed by the OTS German F3 team in a support role to title challenger Heinz-Harald Frentzen. In one of the closest German F3 seasons ever, Schumacher ended up equal on points with his more highly touted team mate while both came one point short of champion Wendlinger's tally. The three were then snapped up by Jochen Neerpasch, the Mercedes sporting director who devised his Junior scheme for this unparalleled flurry of Germanic motor-racing talent. For 1990 the trio was paired to veteran Jochen Mass, who tought them the ropes of handling big, powerful and highly technical racing machines in a car-friendly manner, as the Group C machines were getting close to their zenith of innovation. In the three races Schumacher teamed up with Mass he finished second each time, although in the race last at Mexico City their runner-up position was promoted to a race win after the sister car of Schlesser and Baldi was disqualified.
In parallel, Michael teamed up with Willi Weber's WTS team for a repeat assault on the German F3 championship. This time he took the title comfortably. He also ventured to the East to take in the two unofficial F3 "World Championship" races at Fuji and Macau in November - he won both, the race in the Portuguese colony after a fierce battle with later rival Mika Häkkinen. In hindsight, 1990 would prove to be a crucial year in his short pre-F1 career: first he confirmed the faith Mercedes-Benz put in him, and he also struck up a decisive relationship with his team manager Weber, who turned out to be a genius deal broker.
Schumacher and Wendlinger teamed up in the second Mercedes sportscar in 1991, choosing to stick with three-pointed star, while Frentzen made the fateful decision to do F3000 with Eddie Jordan. While the Mönchengladbach-born racer got stuck in the category for three years, being upstaged by Eddie Irvine in the process, his Kerpen-born countryman honed his skills in the ultraprofessional Mercedes environment, his and Wendlinger's efforts culminating in a victory at Autopolis. In the summer Neerpasch and Weber arranged a one-off appearance in the Japanese F3000 championship, away from all the media attention. Racing at Sugo he finished a confident second, showing he was ready for F1.
Then came Bertrand Gachot's contretemps with a London cabbie. Suddenly Eddie Jordan was without a driver. Willi Weber put forward a young man hailing from nearby Kerpen who "of course" could rely on ample experience of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit - sure enough, on a bike! And so Jordan didn't opt for people such as F3000 driver Frentzen, who had seriously disappointed in his 1990 season for EJR. Young Schumacher got the drive instead.
Although he as well as Ferrari have a massive fan base, Michael Schumacher is hardly the enthusiast or the professional's favourite. There are some obvious reasons, of course. Adelaide 1994 and Jerez 1997 are the culminating events of a ruthless, win-at-any-cost mentality that doesn't sit well with many, also because his faits accomplis almost single-handedly sparked off the "one-move" rule which other drivers are now unhesitant to use in the same fashion. He's admitted to his Jerez gaffe, citing it as a pressure-cooker mistake. And while that's undoubtedly true - crumbling under pressure is his only flaw, remember stalling on the grid in Japan in 1998 - his bow-crossing startline moves are all about ruthlessness, much in the same way Senna used to exercise his right to the line or bully his way past backmarkers. Psychologically it's all too easy to state that Senna was an inspiration and opened the floodgates of dangerous driving - Schumacher is too strong a character to have someone else, even one with Senna's stature, to have such an influence on him. It's more likely that their competitive spirits are simply from the same mould - people as good as them and as convinced about their talent as them will all have the same character trait.
So the truth about Adelaide 1994 is probably somewhere in the middle. On the one hand the pressure-cooker situation sparked his initial mistake while the realization of risking to lose it all set off the stern line of defense. He could feel justified by keeping his line while still being in the lead but the other unwritten law of motor racing - allowing your opponent some working space - crucially didn't enter his mind on the supreme moment. His panic reaction is the win-at-all-cost reaction instead of the win-but-only-in-a-sporting-way reaction. In the olden days this would have spelled danger in capital letters, as death would be waiting around the corner. It's likely that in the fifties, where Dr. Farina was the only driver that would occasionally pull off similar stunts, Schumacher would never have grown to accumulate the statistics that the relatively safe cars of today have allowed him to, notwithstanding his leg-breaking Silverstone 1999 accident - which was preceded by another win-at-all-cost move anyway...
This is the dark side of his character that in recent years seemed to have mellowed. Michael certainly likes his role as the sport's ambassador - he's relaxed in his contacts with the press, he's become more accessible to fans and he became the natural front man for the Grand Prix Drivers Association. It's even led to some former critics toning down their previous judgements, as they found him to be a pleasant man to be around, capable of engaging in conversation on all sorts of topics. His team members are all raving about his team-playing qualities, as the attention he pays to keeping his engineers and mechanics happy are without equal. But when he feels a challenge to his on-track authority he is quick to allow the Schumacher panic reaction to reassert itself, as Fernando Alonso found out in the opening lap of the 2003 British GP. Ruthlessness will almost certainly remain a key part of Schumacher's driver make-up until he retires.
There is another side to Michael's ruthlessness, though - it's his stamina. In the period of his rule, now spanning over a decade, he's had several worthy opponents: Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Häkkinen, while lately the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, his brother Ralf, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso were snapping at his heels. But where Schumacher never let off, his rivals quit, either mentally exhausted or trying to recharge themselves by making a career change that would prove hurtful to their title challenge. Even today, Michael is as pumped up as any young charger, seriously happy with every new victory, not showing the slightest intention to let his effort slack, even though he must have seen it all by now. But apparently he hasn't - and at the age of 35 he is still outdoing his younger competitors in sheer motivation, followed by the same outburst of pleasure that he showed after his first win at Spa in 1992 and that so many found so refreshing after countless blasé victory ceremonies that featured the stars of the eighties. You can't help being in awe at the man thriving on the same psyched-up attitude for some 15 years.
Still, that's all very easy being in the best car, developed and run by the best team, isn't it? Yes, that's true - but he built it in the first place. In 1996, Schumacher did the "recharging" move himself. As with Jacques Villeneuve's move to BAR, it was seen as a sell-out at first, big money being seen at the root of the deal. Remember that Ferrari had won but two Grands Prix in the five previous seasons, while the new 1996 car was soon established to be a dog of a car. And yet, Schumacher took it to three wins while he became a title challenger in the following season. That's much quicker than any "four-year plan to become World Champion" or any other PR-inspired intention. Michael Schumacher not only did the talk, he plainly did the walk as well, in the process walking the opposition in his supreme seasons of 2001 and 2002.
There are many who say that Michael Schumacher has been incredibly lucky. And there is no doubt that he has. His first F1 car was probably the easiest and nimblest car in the field, a car that allowed Andrea De Cesaris to regain his credibility and lead Grands Prix. The Swap with Moreno paired him with Nelson Piquet, a veteran who had lost his ultimate speed but was relying on his cunning to still do the business. His next team mate Martin Brundle could reasonably keep up but was unlucky, allowing Schumacher to shine, especially in a season dominated by another constructor. Patrese was another veteran who helped to carve out a niche for the German. And then just as they were heading towards to head-to-head contest, Senna was taken away from us.
From that very moment his luck came in various guises - his mistakes frequently go unpunished, as do his mechanical failures and, as is often claimed, his foul play. If Schumacher is forced into an off-track excursion he usually finds a way back and doesn't even lose a lot of time. If his car fails, it's usually in practice. And if he pulls a stunt, it's usually "perfectly legal", or so the FIA claims. Lately, even race-day weather seems to play into the hands of the champion. On other occasions, he has been known to create his own luck, like through heading into the pits to collect his stop-and-go penalty after crossing the finish line, presenting the stewards with a fait accompli for which there was no rule to consider. There's been a lot of self-created luck in Schumacher's career, but mostly it's been of another kind. We all remember the race in which his gearbox got stuck in 5th many laps before the end, which didn't stop him from finishing second. On a bad day in recent seasons, he would still finish on the podium.
A part of his luck will always be contributed to supposed Ferrari favouritism with the powers-that-be. And while there are many fine arguments against the rulings post-Jerez '97 or, for example, post-Malaysia '99, you can't help but notice a certain amount of extrapolation going on when judging Schumacher and Ferrari's deeds, usually going along the lines of "He's been the villain in that case, so he must be the bad guy in this one too". For instance, when his anger at David Coulthard at Spa in 1998 was condemned it was all too easy to blame him for the accident in the first place as well. But if someone else had been driving the car in the lead, the blame would have been put squarely at DC's feet for going off the throttle on the racing line, as a backmarker, in zero visibility, not having let the leader past in three more obvious locations on the track before. It could even be argued that Schumacher's outburst had been understandable in the situation, even though it lacked professionalism.
The case of Spa '98 did further to enhance Schumacher's reputation as a holier-than-thou driver, which has played a large part in his not often being mentioned in the same breath as Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss or Clark. Yet he has been the yardstick of F1 racing for over a decade now. If there's a driver wanting to gauge his talent today, he'll want to compare his to Schumacher's. Starting from World War II, there's only a dozen drivers in that particular category: Wimille, Fangio, Ascari, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Peterson, Lauda, Villeneuve, Prost, Senna and Schumacher. And Schumacher's reign has been longer than any of the others.
His winning style
In 1994, the season in which Schumacher seemed to romp to a virtually unchallenged first title, his team-mate was a young Jos Verstappen. Though very inexperienced, here was a man who had just waltzed the German F3 championship, had set some blistering test times for Footwork, and had to fight off McLaren's interest before signing as a test driver for Benetton. His meteoric rise to F1 is only comparable to that of Jarno Trulli and Kimi Räikkönen, his wet-weather performances have always been awesome - so he would be a man to understand all about cars. And yet, when quizzed in 1994 about his lack of qualifying speed and race pace compared to Schumacher, he is quoted as saying that he found Michael's set-up undriveable.
So with both men being experienced kart drivers, what sets them apart? How come that while today's F1 cars are often described as "high-grip shifter karts" one driver has very different set-up needs from the other? The explanation lies in the "high-grip" part rather than the "shifter kart" part. Whereas Jos Verstappen and many other drivers use the traditional rear-wheel drive cornering technique, Michael Schumacher and a few others too - his brother Ralf, Jarno Trulli and Nick Heidfeld among them - use the huge grip of a modern F1 front tyre to do something that amounts to the complete opposite. It's a technique that's even further to their advantage because of traction control and paddle gear shifting.
The traditional rear-wheel drive cornering style involves braking in a straight line towards the corner, turn in to the apex and then steer the car through the corner on the throttle, picking up speed all the time. It's Jochen Rindt spectacle pur sang, and it requires big balls on exit. Now factor in the traction control curbing the power of a 900bhp engine. Where's the rear-wheel powerslide? It's gone. You may have to need double the amount of power to beat the TC system. Instead you need the TC to allow you to pick up any pace you might have lost into the corner. That is, if you did lose any pace. Remember Jos Verstappen's comments about Schumacher's Benetton - he described the B194 as ultimately twitchy at the rear, its wings, tyres, and suspension set-up all working towards huge front-end grip and a comparatively loose rear end. It caused Verstappen to lose lots of time on the entry, as he applied the traditional braking routine, and on exit too, as he grappled with the lack of rear-end grip which forbade him to steer his car on the throttle.
Looking back, Verstappen's comments make clear that Schumacher already perfected his style in 1994. He's capitalized on it ever since. So what does it entail? Where does he win those vital tenths? It's all about maximum speed into the corner, really. Instead of braking in a straight line Schumacher will turn a tighter line into the corner, carrying his straight-line speed up to the apex while braking later then usual. Now, if he would continue from there using the traditional exiting technique, he would run out of corner very quickly, as his speed would simply be too high to get around the corner. Which is where the most important ingredient of the Schumacher cornering style comes in - it's using the brakes and the front-end grip to have the car's rear end slide to the outside, making it shift into the correct exiting direction. Having paddle shifts and two-pedal foot control will allow him to keep the foot on the throttle to keep the speed alive while braking gently enough to force the rear end's change of direction.
What if it goes wrong? What if the braking is done a touch too gently? Others would simply run wide - the most common mistake in modern F1 racing. Not in the case of Michael Schumacher, as he uses two tricks that would hurt any other driver's speed - either locking up a tyre or standing on the throttle, or both if necessary. The lock-up is not just about taking out the excess speed, that's just a pleasant side-effect, it's also about what happens next: it's the sudden release of the brakes following the lock-up that forces another means of rear-end direction change - lift-off oversteer. Usually a very dangerous phenomenon for the unexperienced road-car driver, it becomes a vital part of Schumacher's damage-limitation process. A stab of throttle goes into helping the direction change go full-circle. Doesn't the TC cut in then? Yes, but it's set with a slight delay, giving him some slack to create some more rear-end movement. It's the last remaining part of the traditional technique that's left in Schumacher's paradigm of cornering instruments. So yes, F1 cars are rear-wheel drive, but in the hands of the best there's is not much of their typical character left.
FORIX: Michael Schumacher's F1 career