F1 - The Story so Far: Michael Schumacher
Part X of the series look back at the the legend who took the sport to unprecedented heights.
Michael Schumacher is one of the titans of Formula 1 history. This is his story.
Born in Hürth, North Rhine-Westphalia on the third of January 1969 to Rolf and Elisabeth Schumacher, Michael enjoyed playing on a pedal kart from the age of four. Rolf was a bricklayer who also ran the local kart track – Elisabeth operated the canteen there. Seeing how much enjoyment Michael got out of the pedal kart, Rolf fitted it with a small motorcycle engine. The future King of F1 proceeded to crash it into a lamppost. But it wasn’t long before Michael got the hang of karting and he won his first club championship at the age of six. To support his son’s racing, Rolf took on a second job renting and repairing karts. Even when his parents couldn’t afford to give Michael a new engine, local businessmen supported him so that he could keep racing.
Karting regulations in Germany require a driver to be at least fourteen to get a karting licence. So, in order to bypass this and continue to do what he loved, Michael simply went to Luxembourg at the age of twelve and obtained a licence there. In 1983, he got his German licence and won the German Junior Kart Championship in ’84. Then, after winning several German and European Kart Championships, Michael made his first step into single-seat car racing by participating in the German Formula Ford and Formula König Series, winning the latter.
In 1989, Schumacher signed with Willi Weber’s WTS Formula Three team and competed in the German Formula Three series, winning the title in 1990. At the end of that year, he joined the Mercedes junior racing programme in the World Sports-Prototype Championship. Michael had decided to do this after being wisely advised by Weber that exposure to professional press conferences and driving powerful cars over long distance races would benefit his career. Michael won the season finale race in a Sauber-Mercedes C11 and finished fifth in the drivers’ championship – despite only participating in three of the nine races that year. He continued at the team in 1991 and competed at Le Mans, finishing fifth. He also competed in a single Formula 3000 race in Japan where he came second.
Part IX of the series takes a look back at the original flying Finn.
Michael Schumacher made his Formula 1 debut with the Jordan-Ford team at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix – as a replacement for the imprisoned Bertrand Gachot. He was still a contracted Mercedes driver but the team paid Eddie Jordan $150,000 for his debut. During the Grand Prix weekend, Schumacher was left to his own devices a lot so had to learn the track himself, which he did by cycling around it on a fold up bike. He stayed at a Youth Hostel over the course of the weekend too. In Qualifying, he equalled the team’s best performance of the season with seventh place but unfortunately retired on the first lap of the race with clutch problems.
Despite an agreement that he would race with Jordan for the rest of the season, Michael ended up racing for Benetton instead and finished the season with four championship points gained over six races. His best finish had come at the Italian Grand Prix where he came fifth, ahead of his teammate and three-time World Champion, Nelson Piquet.
Sauber with Mercedes backing were planning on stealing Michael back for their 1992 debut in the sport but again, it was eventually agreed that he would stay with Benetton. In 1992, Michael achieved his first podium in F1 by coming third at the Mexican Grand Prix. Michael went on to take his maiden victory at a wet Belgian Grand Prix. He would also finish the season third in the Drivers’ Standings, just three points behind Riccardo Patrese. In 1993, he won the Portuguese Grand Prix and finished fourth overall in the hunt for the world championship.
1994 saw the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger (the former witnessed by Schumacher who had been driving directly behind Senna in second place during the race). Benetton were also accused of breaking the sport’s technical regulations, but ultimately, after various investigations, e.g. at the San Marino Grand Prix, nothing came of this. Schumacher won six of the first seven races and was leading the Spanish Grand Prix when a gearbox failure left him stuck in fifth gear. He drove on, finishing second. At the British Grand Prix, Schumacher was penalised for overtaking on the formation lap but ignored the penalty and the subsequent black flag which led to his disqualification and a two race ban. He was also disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix after his car was found to have illegal wear on its skidblock – a measure introduced after Imola to limit downforce and hence cornering speed. Benetton protested but the FIA rejected the appeal.
As a result, Damon Hill closed the gap for the championship to a single point as they went into the final race in Australia. On lap thirty six of the race, Schumacher hit the guardrail on the outside of the track whilst leading. Hill attempted to pass him but as Schumacher returned to the track, the two collided, causing them both to retire. Schumacher had won his first World Championship – albeit in slightly controversial circumstances. He was the first German to win the title and at the FIA press conference after the race, he dedicated the title to Senna.
In 1995, Michael was able to successfully defend his title with Benetton, becoming the youngest two-time World Champion in F1 history. The car had the same Renault engine as Williams and he had Johnny Herbert as his teammate. Together, they took Benetton to their first Constructor’s Championship. The season featured several collisions with Hill – notably at the British and Italian Grands Prix. He won nine races out of seventeen and finished on the podium eleven times – including the Belgian Grand Prix where he qualified sixteenth but still went on to win the race.
In 1996, Michael moved to Ferrari for a salary of $60 million over two years. He went there to help transform the team and was joined there a year later by ex-Benetton employees Rory Byrne (designer) and Ross Brawn (technical director). Ferrari were at a low point, having won their last championship way back in 1979. During winter testing, the first signs of a rebirth occurred when Michael drove the 1995 Ferrari 412 T2 – he was two seconds quicker than previous drivers had been and said it was good enough to win the championship. Eddie Irvine joined the team as his new team mate, moving over from Jordan. The most memorable part of the 1996 season was when Schumacher lapped the entire field up to third place at the Spanish Grand Prix – in the wet. Naturally he won the race, the first of three that season. It brought Ferrari to second in the Constructor’s Championship and he himself finished third in the Drivers’ Standings.
The 1997 season would have been Michael’s, had it not been for his car developing a coolant leak towards the end of the final Grand Prix. Jacques Villeneuve – his main championship rival – went to overtake him and Schumacher attempted to provoke an incident, connecting with the Williams. An accident did occur, but it saw only Schumacher retire and Villeneuve went on to win the race and the championship. Two weeks after the race, Schumacher was disqualified from the entire season because of the deliberate nature in which he made contact with the Williams. He is currently the only driver to have been disqualified from a Drivers’ World Championship.
The next two years were taken over by Mika Häkkinen at McLaren, but Schumacher and Ferrari still managed to win a number of races and stay competitive. One of the most entertaining moments – from a fan perspective – came at the ’98 Belgian Grand Prix (a race that was already exciting enough before the following happened). Michael had been leading the race by forty seconds when he encountered David Coulthard who was a lap down. The Scot slowed down due to poor visibility to ‘let Schumacher past’ but Michael crashed into the back of him, resulting in both cars retiring and a furious Schumacher storming over to the McLaren garage to confront Coulthard for ‘trying to kill him’. Some years later, Coulthard admitted that the accident had been his mistake.
In 1999, Michael broke his leg (the only injury in his racing career) but his efforts that season did help Ferrari win the Constructor’s title for the year. He returned from sabbatical ninety eight days later at the Malaysian Grand Prix where he qualified on pole by almost a second – showing he still very much had what it took to win.
In 2000, Schumacher won five of the first eight races and equalled the number of Grand Prix wins that Senna had (forty one) at the Italian Grand Prix. Upon learning this, he broke down in tears. Once again – as seems to be a pattern in Formula 1 – the championship was to be decided at the Japanese Grand Prix. Michael was on pole but lost the lead to Mika. However, after his second pit stop, Michael came out ahead and went on to win both the race and the title – now his third World Championship.
In 2001, Michael stepped into a world of his own as he won nine races and clinched his fourth World Championship with four races to spare, ending the season fifty eight points ahead of David Coulthard in second place. At the Canadian Grand Prix, he and his brother Ralf made history by becoming the first brothers to secure a one-two finish in F1. Michael also broke Prost’s record of most career wins with his fifty second win.
In 2002, Schumacher and Barrichello worked together to bring the bacon home for Ferrari, driving the Ferrari F2002. At the Austrian Grand Prix, Rubens slowed down under team orders to give Michael the win which angered the crowd. To try and appease them, Michael brought Rubens up onto the top step during the trophy giving ceremony. When Schumacher won the Drivers’ Championship in 2002, he equalled the record set by Juan Manuel Fangio which had been set over forty years earlier. That year, Ferrari had won fifteen of the seventeen races in an unprecedented show of dominance. Michael even managed to beat his record for the previous year as he won the title with six races to spare. He won eleven times and was on the podium at every race. He and Rubens shared nine one-two finishes and Michael ended the season a whopping sixty seven points ahead of his teammate.
For the 2003 season, Michael’s new main rival for the championship was none other than the iceman himself, Kimi Raikkonen. The lead in the championship swapped between them but once again, it came down to the Japanese Grand Prix – there’s something about that place apparently. Kimi needed to win the race if he wanted the title whereas Michael only needed a single championship point to win the title. Tyre changes for McLaren due to new FIA regulations had allowed the gap between Michael and Kimi to close up (McLaren used Michelin tyres, Ferrari used Bridgestone). Schumacher finished the race in eighth place, securing his sixth Drivers’ Championship, just two points ahead of Kimi. Michael was now the most successful F1 driver of all time, having now beaten Fangio’s long standing record.
As we endure the winter break, let's look back at the flagship moments and people of Formula 1. Who better to start with then Fangio?
In 2004, Michael won a record twelve of the first thirteen races of the season, only failing to finish at Monaco after an accident with Juan Pablo Montoya. At the Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher secured his seventh World Championship, finishing the season thirty four points ahead of Barrichello. He’d even beaten his own record of most race wins in a season from 2002 (winning thirteen of eighteen races). Schumacher was now in a league of his own and seemed undefeatable. Enter Fernando Alonso.
2005 saw the Spaniard challenge Schumacher, taking advantage of the new tyre regulations that stated tyres now had to last an entire race. Schumacher retired from six of the nineteen races and was unable to mount a sufficient enough defence to keep Alonso at bay. Schumacher’s only win that year came at the disastrous U.S Grand Prix. Before the race, Michelin tyres were found to have significant safety issues due to the particular surface of the Brickyard based circuit. As a result, all but six drivers retired from the race after the formation lap, leaving only those on track who used Bridgestone tyres. Fans were deeply unhappy and threw beer cans and rubbish at passing cars on track. Schumacher finished the season in third place with less than half the points of the new World Champion, Alonso.
After the first three races of the 2006 season, Michael was already seventeen points behind Alonso. He did however win the next two races and took pole at San Marino – his sixty sixth, beating Senna’s twelve year old record. Schumacher was able to claw his way back however and after winning the Italian and Chinese Grands Prix, he was leading the championship for the first time – only there because he had more wins than Alonso, they shared the same number of points. At the Japanese Grand Prix, Schumacher’s car suffered an engine failure – his first since the French Grand Prix back in 2000. At the Brazilian Grand Prix, Schumacher had to start the race from tenth due to fuel pressure problem in qualifying. He picked up a puncture during the race that dropped his down to nineteenth on the grid, seventy seconds behind Massa in first place. He managed to recover to an impressive fourth place in a drive that the press said summed up his career. At this race, he also conceded the title to Alonso.
At the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari and Schumacher announced that he would be retiring from racing at the end of the season but would continue to work with Ferrari – he would go to help develop the 2007 and 2008 cars for Ferrari, test driving them in pre-season testing. Upon hearing of his retirement, Niki Lauda and David Coulthard, amongst others, hailed Schumacher as the greatest all round racing driver in the history of Formula 1.
Michael was meant to return to drive for Ferrari in 2009 when Felipe Massa was badly injured at the Hungarian Grand Prix. But a combination of a neck injury he’d sustained in a motorbike accident earlier in the year and lack of testing opportunities with the car prevented this from happening.
But the possibility of returning led to a renewed interest for Schumacher in the sport. In December 2009, it was announced that he would partner Nico Rosberg at the new Mercedes GP team for the 2010 season. He signed a three year contract which the BBC reported was worth £20 million. He finished sixth at the first race of the season in Bahrain. As the season went on, it seemed that the narrow front tyres didn’t suit his driving style, giving too much understeer. He finished fourth at the Spanish Grand Prix and was penalised by twenty seconds at Monaco after overtaking Alonso as the safety car entered the pit lane. The FIA later clarified this regulation which is why cars now only start to race again once they are over the start line. In Valencia, he finished in fifteenth place – the lowest finish of his entire career and received a ten place grid penalty for dangerous driving at the Hungarian Grand Prix. The penalty was enforced at Spa where he started twenty first but managed to finish in seventh place – he hadn’t lost his mojo just yet. Overall however, he finished the season in ninth place and it was the only time since his F1 debut that he ended a season without a win, pole position or fastest lap.
In 2011, Schumacher was able to have some fun on track battles with the likes of Hamilton in Italy and Rosberg in Abu Dhabi. He finished fourth in Canada and fifth in India. In Japan, he led three laps of the race, the first time since 2006, and became the oldest driver to lead a race since Jack Brabham back in 1970. Schumacher finished the season eighth overall.
Part II of the series takes a look back at another iconic figure of Formula 1 who took the possibilities of the sport to another level.
Schumacher and Rosberg teamed up once more in 2012 where Michael was able to qualify on pole at Monaco. Unfortunately, he had received a five place grid penalty for colliding with Bruno Senna in Spain so was demoted to sixth. Still, the performance shows that Michael was still not one to dismiss. Michael finished third at the European Grand Prix – his only podium finish during his second stint in F1. He became the oldest driver to achieve a podium since Brabham’s second place finish in Britain back in 1970 at the age of forty three years and one hundred and seventy three days. He also set the fastest lap for the seventy seventh time in his career in Germany.
In October 2012, Michael announced he would be retiring for good at the end of the season – he was to be replaced by Lewis Hamilton. His twenty one year F1 career came to a conclusion at the Brazilian Grand Prix where he finished in seventh place – thirteenth overall in the 2012 Drivers’ Championship.
Michael received many awards over his career, including the FIA Gold Medal for Motor Sport, the Millennium Trophy at the Bambi Awards and the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award in 2002 and 2004. Furthermore, in conjunction with Schuberth, he helped to develop the first lightweight carbon race helmet. It was publicly tested in 2004 by having a tank drive over it – it survived intact. In 2007, the Nürburgring renamed turns eight and nine the ‘Schumacher S’ in his honour.
He is also known to have supported a number of charities and whilst it is difficult to put an exact figure on his donations, it is known that in his last four years as a driver, he donated at least $50 million. After Schumacher's bodyguard Burkhard Cramer and Cramer's two sons were killed in the tsunami following the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake, Michael personally donated $10 million for aid to the region, his donation surpassed that of many worldwide corporations and even some countries.
Schumacher also appeared on some old car show called “Top Gear” where he was disguised as The Stig (because Ferrari didn’t trust anyone else to drive the unique black Ferrari FXX).
In December 2013, whilst skiing with his son, Michael fell and hit his head on a rock sustaining a serious head injury despite wearing a ski helmet. According to his doctors he would most likely have died had he not been wearing his helmet. There have been many “reports” on Michael’s health since his accident (usually little more than click bait) and, in December 2016 Schumacher's manager, Sabine Kehm, stated that "Michael's health is not a public issue, and so we will continue to make no comment in that regard". As fans of the sport and the man, we can only hope that his recovery continues – Keep Fighting Michael.
Michael Schumacher then is undoubtedly one of – if not the best – Formula 1 driver of all time. With seven world titles to his name, ninety one wins, one hundred and fifty five podiums, sixty eight pole positions and seventy seven fastest laps from three hundred and six Grands Prix, there’s quite simply little arguing to be done over that fact.
What do you think of Michael Schumacher? Is he the greatest driver of all time? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.