The greatest driver of the modern age and perhaps the most complete off all-time he rewrote all the conceivable records in such a dominant fashion that it’s doubtless that the right circumstances will allow another driver to match his winning record.
“There are two things that set Michael apart from the rest of the drivers in Formula One – his sheer talent and his attitude. I am full of admiration for the former, but the latter leaves me cold,” said Damon Hill.
There are reasons for that. And he used them both in his Ferrari reign. His ruthless and cynical approach, taking over Senna’s mantle not only as the best in the sport, but as the unfair one when the odds were against him, made the brilliant German a man not loved but appreciated by everyone in the paddock. But from 1996 to 2006 the Tifossi adopted him as their most adored driver since Villeneuve. And he gave them plenty of reasons for that.
When he signed that mega-contract with the Scuderia in august 1995 he instantly became the highest earning driver in the history. But above that, Schumi assumed the greatest task in ages: to make Ferrari a force once again. The 1996 car, F310 was embarrassing in every aspect. Yet, he took it to 3 extraordinary wins, the first one, in Spain, being among the greatest wet-weather display in racing history.
“It turned out everyone else was right and we were wrong. It was the second worst car ( After the Jaguar R2 ) that ever sat on a racetrack. It was madness, the exact opposite of what Ross brought to the team. It was all inspiration and no measurement,” said his team-mate Eddie Irvine. “How Michael drove that car , I’ll never know , It really impressed me. I was scared to turn the steering wheel because you didn’t know if it was going to turn immediately, in half a second or in a second, you had no idea what it would do. He drove it on every millimeter of the road. I couldn’t stand getting into it. He won three races, which is one of the greatest achievements in motor racing history. He had four pole positions with it and I stood there in awe of his performances that year. That was the year that Michael really earned his money.”
The next year car, F310B, was more friendly, but was surpassed in pure speed and efficiency by Williams, Mclaren and Benetton. Again the German showed them all who was the master, leading the championship by mid season, with 5 wins in the process and taking the fight with Jacques Villeneuve (in a vastly superior car) right to the last race, in Jerez. There, with his Ferrari in not perfect condition and the oil pressure dropping he made his second infamous move. This time he lost it, the son of the great Gilles escaping from the accident and taking the crown. But the sheer brilliance of Schumi, almost every time flattering the F310B capacities remains unaltered. As in 1998 and 1999 too, again not in the best car, but always battling at the front, only Coulthard’s misjudgment at Spa depriving him from the crown in 1998.
Finally, in 2000 Rory Byrne made a car that was just a shy slower than the Mclaren MP4-15 of Mika Hakkinen, and Schumi dully delivered, with a record 9 wins, bringing the title to Maranello after a 21-year wait. From that year on he continued almost undisturbed, winning another 4 consecutive world championships, despite not having the best car all the time.
In 2005 the new regulations shot Ferrari and Bridgestone in the legs, but the next year we noticed another virtuoso from him and only a rare engine failure at Suzuka denied him an unprecedented 8th crown. He waved to the Tifossi for the last time by winning on home soil at Monza and announced his retirement from the sport that he dominated for over a decade.
In that period he outdrove and outsmarted all his team-mates, by adopting a very specific driver style/set-up. So what does it entail? Where does he win those vital tenths?
Jos Verstappne explains: “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 than 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 – he’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 tire 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 inexperienced 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 not much of their typical character left”.
Writing about him in this period, the authoritative journalist Mark Hughes captured very well the essence of a truly great driver: “In an era of Formula One more than ever orientated towards sprints, and with a car that’s usually not quite the best, Schumacher pushes and sometimes crosses the physical boundaries more frequently than anyone since Gilles Villeneuve. It’s an ability supremely adaptable and as multi-faceted as Stewart’s. His wet weather virtuosity recalls Caracciola, his opportunism in battle is Jones-like and his work rate away from the track, applying himself to the details, may even surpass that of Prost”.
NikiLauda is less subtle: “He is the greatest of them all. No one will ever surpasse him in our lifetime”.