He’s won 91 races, won an outstanding seven world championships, secured a whopping 68 pole positions, led an unimaginable 5096 laps, inspired an entire country to race and starred in ‘Cars’. He broke and re-broke records which may never be equalled. He’s Michael Schumacher and he’s Formula One’s greatest driver.
That’s not just my personal opinion – it’s fact. Schumacher’s 91 race wins are a whopping 40 more than any other driver (Alain Prost takes second in the number of career victories with 51), his seven championships are two more than Juan Manuel Fangio’s five, and his 68 pole positions are three more than Senna (who took 65).
I wonder if Eddie Jordan knew what he had stumbled upon when hiring the young German in 1991. The Jordan team, barely a year old at that stage, was forced to look for a replacement after their regular driver, Bertrand Gachot was locked up for two months for assaulting a London taxi driver. They stuck Schumacher in their car and he immediately showed his worth by qualifying seventh – with Andrea de Cesaris in eleventh in the sister Jordan. Unfortunately, Schumi was denied the chance to fight for the podium when his clutch failed just past Eau Rouge on the first lap. Nonetheless, the twenty-two year old’s talent was realised and by the next race he had broken his contract with Jordan and signed for Benetton. When he returned to Spa a year later, he would take his first win.
As if by design of the racing gods, Schumacher inherited the lead on that tragic day in San Marino, in May, 1994. That’s what the debate always comes down to; Schumacher or Senna? Many will argue that Senna is the better of the two, while others will argue vehemently that Schumacher is the greatest. At the danger of sounding like a parent asked who their favourite child is, both men have their strengths. Both legends will be remembered for their ability to do near supernatural things with the car – that extra tenth in Qualifying, finding that “gap that exists”, the ability to get a team behind them. And, of course, they’ll also be remembered for their controversial moments.
Schumi was never shy when it came to pushing the boundaries. He lost the Championship in 1997 when he tried to cause an accident with rival (and eventual Champion) Jacques Villeneuve at the final round. On the other hand, he won the Championship in the same way when he controversially crashed into Damon Hill at the final round of the 1994 season in Adelaide. He’ll also be remembered for a series of team orders against his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello; Austria 2002, for example, when Rubhino was ordered to move over at the final corner for the sake of Schumi’s fifth title.
I realise that right now I’ve painted the picture of a limit-pushing, team-mate oppressing, lucky Schumacher. The truth is quite the opposite. Schumacher made his own luck. Judging by their success in the twenty-first century it’s hard to believe that Ferrari were mingling in the middle. It wasn’t until Schumacher arrived in 1996, and brought Ross Brawn with him from Benetton, that Ferrari reached the turning point and strived towards the Championship.
Unfortunately, the modern generation and those to come will remember Schumacher for his disappointing comeback with Mercedes. Originally agreeing to replace the injured Massa at Ferrari for six months, a motorbike crash caused to him to cancel. Instead, he waited until 2010 and took up an offer to return to the sport with his former partner-in-crime Ross Brawn, who headed up the new Mercedes team. As it turned out, one third place was the highlight of an otherwise statistical failure during his three-year stint at the team. A mixture of an underperforming car and a helping of bad luck was a sad way to finish an otherwise glittering career.
The name Schumacher will live on forever in Formula One, as Tiger Woods will in Golf and Mohammed Ali will in Boxing. Schumacher’s extensive CV of records, from Championships to wins, from wins in a season to consecutive years with a win, from pole positions to front row starts, and fastest laps to points finishes, Schumacher left his (figurative) dent on the sport as Formula One’s greatest driver.