F1 » Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher existed as motor racing's best-kept secret prior to his explosive debut season in 1991. Since then he has seldom been away from the front of the grid, displaying fantastic car control and electrifying speed. A quiet man away from the track, Michael has been involved in more than his fair share of controversy on it, but remains among the best exponents of wet-weather driving.
After a successful karting career - aided by the fact that the Schumacher family operated the local Kerpen circuit - Michael moved into the German Formula Konig series. En route to securing the 1988 title, Schumacher also dabbled with the national and European Formula Ford championships. He finished 6th in his homeland, but one win and a string of solid finishes allowed him to take 2nd overall behind Mika Salo in the Euro series.
The success of his first season in cars allowed Schumacher to move up to Formula Three in 1989, finishing runner-up in the German series, with two wins. He also took a heat win in Macau but, in spite of opportunities to progress, Michael decided to make a second attempt on the German F3 championship. He took the crown courtesy of five wins, and the Macau title also came his way, following a heated battle with Mika Hakkinen.
Instead of graduating to the F3000 series, Michael opted for a second season of World Sports Cars in 1991. Along with 1989 F3 rivals Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger, Schumacher had been selected to represent the Mercedes Junior Team in the 1990 WSC series, and rewarded his employers with victory in Mexico. The second year in the championship was equally successful with a win at the Autopolis circuit in Japan en route to ninth place in the standings.
Whilst in Japan, Schumacher took advantage of the chance to sample F3000. Racing in the Japanese national series, he finished second in his sole outing, but this, combined with his sportscar performances, was enough to convince Eddie Jordan that Schumacher was worth a run in Formula One.
The German's incredible 1991 season culminated in six F1 races - but with two teams. After his Belgian debut, in which he qualified seventh but retired on the opening lap, Schumacher was poached from under Jordan's nose by the Benetton team. Five races with the Anglo-Italian squad resulted in three points finishes and began a relationship, which would put Schumacher on top of the world.
Exactly one year after his F1 debut, Schumacher topped the podium, winning the 1992 Belgian GP, en route to third in the championship. A second victory took slightly longer to arrive, however, coming in Portugal the following year, as Schumacher finished the season fourth overall.
Benetton were looking increasingly stronger, however, and the pairing eventually won a championship in 1994. Nevertheless, several controversial incidents prevented Michael from clinching the crown until the final race. A two-race ban for overtaking on the warm-up lap at the British GP, and disqualification from the Belgian race, saw Schumacher's series lead eroded by Damon Hill and the pair arrived in Australia separated by a single point. In the first of their celebrated collisions, Schumacher and Hill were both forced out of the race, handing the title to the German.
A second title the following year was slightly easier to come by, as Schumacher equalled Nigel Mansell's record tally of nine wins in a season and dominated proceedings. He did not have things all his own way, however, and two further collisions with Hill (at Silverstone and Monza) tainted the celebrations.
A massive salary rise and the chance to put Ferrari back on the map enticed Schumacher to Maranello for the 1996 season. Although the car he was given was both unreliable and ill-handling, Schumacher wrestled it to three wins and third place overall.
The following year saw him improve to second in the championship as he took the title fight to favourite Jacques Villeneuve. Five wins with the inconsistent F310B allowed Michael to remain in the championship hunt until the final round at Jerez, but another contentious collision, this time with Villeneuve himself, saw the Ferrari retire, handing the title to the Canadian. Schumacher was later removed from the championship standings for his part in the incident.
The German remained at Ferrari for 1998 but, despite confident predictions that the team would be ready to win the title, Schumacher once again lost out, this time to the markedly improved McLarens. Nevertheless, he remained the only real challenger to their supremacy and race wins in the latter half of the season continued to push the title race all the way to the final round.
Controversy once again came Michael's way as he collided with McLaren's David Coulthard in Belgium despite seemingly having the race in his pocket. The German returned to the pits on three wheels before storming into the McLaren pit and accusing Coulthard of trying to kill him.
Having learned the lessons of previous seasons, Schumacher began 1999 by refusing to say that Ferrari would win the title. He was, however, quietly optimistic that this may have, indeed, been the year of the Prancing Horse but was ultimately frustrated by a leg-breaking shunt at the British GP. Returning for the season's final two races in order to lend a hand to team-mate Irvine's title challenge, Schumacher promptly took pole and dominated the race in Malaysia.
The 2000 campaign saw the German partnered by Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari, and was the year in which it all went right for the Scuderia. A record-equaling nine wins, including three straight at the beginning of the year and another four in a row at the end, clinched Ferrari's first drivers' title since 1979, and Schumacher's third since his impactful entry to F1. In all, the German scored 108 points to nearest challenger Mika Hakkinen's 89 and, had it not been for two successive mid-season accidents - on the startline in both Germany and Austria - the gap could have been even greater.
For 2001, Ferrari managed to retain the line-up that brought it that success. Despite rumours that several key technical members may have been tempted to pastures new, Ross Brawn, Jean Todt, Paolo Martinelli and Rory Byrne all remained on board, determined to give Schumacher a fourth crown and Ferrari back-to-back triumphs.
Their decision paid off and Schumacher dominated the season. The new F2001 looked full of potential right from Melbourne onwards and, as his challengers self-destructed, Schumacher was again the man to beat.
Nine wins in the season equalled the record the German already shared with Nigel Mansell, but the title was sewn up by Hungary mid-summer and further successes saw the now four-time champion surpass Alain Prost's records for career wins and total points.
Sadly for the rest of the field, much the same occurred in 2002. Indeed, 2002 was the year Michael romped to his fifth world title, equally the record set by Juan Manuel Fangio, who also won five world titles, in 1951, '54, '55, '56, and '57.
Schumacher won the title in record breaking time, clinching the crown at the French GP on July 21st. Indeed the German would win on 11 occasions - a new record for the most in a season - and just for good measure he also finished second five times and third once. In total he scored 144 points, compared to the 77 notched up by his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello and, yes, you guessed it, this was another record. Not only for the number of points scored but also his winning margin was the greatest to date.
Granted the relationship with Bridgestone gave Ferrari a massive advantage, but the Scuderia used this to full effect, and Michael did the rest on the track, and even starting with the revamped 2001 car didn’t slow him down.
It wasn’t all good though, the 'Austria-gate' affair was a big blemish on his year. The decision by Ferrari to order Rubens Barrichello to give Michael the win went down like a lead balloon. The crowd reacted angrily and booed him on the podium. The media also went mad and this was without a doubt one of the most difficult moments of his career. Indeed it went down so badly that the FIA later introduced a rule banning team orders. Whether this will stop them is highly unlikely, but it will stop such blatant use, such as that seen at the A1-Ring. Something the fans didn’t like one little bit.
A similar situation occurred at the US GP, this time Michael tried for a formation finish, unfortunately it back-fired and his team-mate, Barrichello took the win. It may not have been as controversial as Austria, but again it was disappointing after such a good 'race'.
2003 was another Michael-Ferrari-Bridgestone year, although only just, with all three parties having to fight every step of the way. Schumacher though eventually triumphed, winning a record breaking sixth drivers' title at the final race of the season. It was by no means an easy year though, and despite scooping six more wins, the new points system meant that Kimi Raikkonen was in with a chance right to the death. Michael though eventually took the title with 93 points, two more than his Finnish rival.
At the end of 2003, there was much speculation that Michael might retire, however this proved to be wide of the mark.
2004 was again all about Michael and Ferrari - no surprise there - and in many ways it was similar to 2002, in that the German and his team stormed to both titles, with little or no opposition. Michael eventually took his seventh title at Spa at the end of August, and in total he won 13 of the 18 races, scoring 148 points. Only on two occasions did he fail to finish in the points, retiring at Monte Carlo and having a rare off day in Shanghai.
As the benchmark by which the rest of the F1 field was judged, many expected Schumacher to continue his domination of the sport into 2005, but anyone taking that view couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Starting the season with a modified version of the F2004 that had carried him to his seventh title, it soon became apparent that Ferrari had been left behind by rivals Renault and McLaren as Schumacher only picked up two points from the opening two races before the F2005 was rushed out early for Bahrain. The new car helped him qualify on the front row in the Middle East before a retirement but it was in San Marino where Schumcher really shone – only missing out on victory thanks to an inspired drive by Fernando Alonso who did all he could to keep the Ferrari behind despite intense pressure in the closing laps of the race.
Having taken 13 wins during 2004, it was a bizarre sight to see Schumacher struggling to make it on the podium on a regular basis, with only four more top-three finishes over the course of the year and a solitary win in America – although that win was down more to the fact that only six cars took the start of the race rather than the speed of the Ferrari.
After a tough finish to the year, when he scored just seven points in the final six races, Schumacher was be keen to try and regain in his title in 2006, however ultimately it wasn’t to be.
At the start of the season, he lost out to Fernando Alonso and while the Spaniard built-up a sizeable advantage, Michael managed only 11 points in the first three events. Although he fought back as the season went on, winning seven races and taking the battle for the title all the way to the wire, drawing level on points going into the penultimate round in Japan, unfortunately for the German he was unable to recover. He finished the year with 121 points – 13 behind Alonso, who took his second drivers' crown.
Prior to the final three races of the year, Schumacher announced that he would retire from the sport at the end of the season, a decision that was finally made public, after months and months of speculation at Monza. Fittingly he did it after winning the race and while he only took fourth in the season finale at Interlagos, he managed to charge back up the pack after a puncture and overtake his successor at Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen, right at the end.
Just as he had blasted onto the F1 scene with Jordan back in 1991, 15 years later, he went out still at the top of his game and with every record in the book in his pocket.
End of an era – or so the F1 world thought.
Schumacher spent three years on the F1 sidelines, literally, as he maintained an ambassadorial role with Fiat and an advisory position at Ferrari that saw him on the pitwall at the majority of grands prix. He also refused to entirely let go of the need for speed that had sustained him through his illustrious career, dabbling in motorcycle racing as well as regular kart outings.
Ironically, it was an accident on two wheels, which resulted in neck fractures after cartwheeling at Cartagena, that prevented him from making a return to the F1 arena in 2009. Having seen former team-mate Felipe Massa hospitalised after a freak accident in qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the German was tempted to test his mettle as a potential substitute, only to find that the strain on his injured neck – as well, no doubt, as a recalcitrant 2009 car – persuaded him otherwise. His appetite whetted, however, it was always likely that Michael would be back sooner than later
With no room at the Ferrari inn for 2010, however, he was forced to listen to offers from other sections of the pit-lane, and it was no surprise that Mercedes – the marque that gave him the leg-up into F1 – came calling, having established its own ‘factory’ team at 2009 champions Brawn GP
Confirmed shortly after Christmas, Schumacher would partner countryman Nico Rosberg in what was quickly termed ‘Team Germany’ and, despite Mercedes’ first modern-era F1 car not dominating pre-season testing, there are few who doubted that Michael would add to his already illustrious record.
As it turned out, however, the Schumacher backers would have a little longer to wait, as the veteran struggled to come to terms with returning to a new-look F1, and with a car that did not suit his preferred driving style. Despite rumours that, with Rosberg comprehensively out-performing his countryman at the start of the season, Mercedes was designing a new car specifically for Schumacher, the 41-year old had to soldier on, gradually finding his feet. Two early fourth places, in Spain and Turkey, proved to be false dawns but, by the end of the year, he was more of a match for his young team-mate, although it took a dismal Singapore GP to finally get the best from Schumacher, who appeared more his old self over the final four races, including another fourth in Korea.
Without a podium to his name - Rosberg took three in 19 races - there was constant speculation that Schumacher's return may only last a year, but the German always insisted he would return in 2011, as part of an unchanged line-up, but with more time having been devoted to the WO1's successor. Again, the pressure to return to the form of his younger days remained, but Schumacher at least appeared to be enjoying his track time more than at any point in his previous career.
He would need that enjoyment in 2011 as the second Mercedes proved to be no better than its predecessor, keeping both drivers off the podium, while remnaining fourth in the constructors' pecking order. Although Schumacher again trailed team-mate Rosberg in the individual standings, his personal results were better than in 2010, with eighth overall and 76 points including the team's best result of fourth in Canada. There were still some silly incidents, notably with Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi, often while attempting to make up for poor qualifying results, but Schumacher showed that there was still life in the old dog.
He also confirmed that he would be back for a third stint in the Mercedes in 2012, fulfilling his current contract and hoping to once again get to taste the champagne. Ironically, the year was probably his best since returning from retirement, but also saw Mercedes produce probably its least competitive car in that period. Despite team-mate Rosberg winning from pole in China, the W03’s innovative front wing stalling device eventually proved obstructive in terms of development, and both Silver Arrows faded badly in the second half of the year.
Schumacher was also blighted by DNFs, the result of both his own errors and the car’s unreliability, but he bounced back from three straight retirements to claim the first podium of his comeback in Valencia. That was to be the high point of his year, unless you count the Monaco pole that was denied him by a grid penalty hanging over from a Barcelona shunt with Bruno Senna. Given the confines of the Principality, could win number 92 have been a possibility?
Stalling of another sort ultimately proved Schumacher’s undoing, as waiting on a contract extension mid-season gave Mercedes the opportunity to chase Lewis Hamilton and, when the Briton agreed terms, the sport’s most successful driver again found himself out of a job. Although he won the end-of-season Race of Champions' Nations Cup with Sebastian Vettel for a sixth straight year, Schumacher insists that he will not be seen in any other form of racing now his F1 career is over.