When looking back at Michael Schumacher’s incredible career, I struggled profusely to pick five seasons that stand out ahead of his other performances, not because the German legend excelled so few times – but because Michael Schumacher was exceptional every single time he stepped into a Formula 1 car.
Michael’s Formula 1 career is a story of the antithesis between succeeding in a poor car, and unparalleled domination in a great car. When reflecting upon this, it is difficult to conclude which of these two feats deserves more credit.
Schumacher’s later years, notably 2002 and 2004, demonstrated his ability to win a seemingly infinite string of races when given a superior car. In these two years alone, Schumacher was able to claim 24 victories and stand on 32 podiums from 35 races. Incredible.
To put it into perspective; if Michael Schumacher’s career only ran from 2002 until the end of 2004, he would have stood fourth in the all time win tally, behind only Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell.
However, it is a common misconception that Schumacher benefitted from superior equipment for the majority of his career. In reality, much of Schumacher’s time at the top was spent wrestling sub-standard mechanical beasts. It was during these periods that we saw the great man’s true potential, and one of the most lethal weapons in his arsenal; resilience.
Michael refused to submit to the restrictions of poor machinery.
1994 was a year of almost unprecedented change; it saw the departure of defending world champion Alain Prost – arguably the leading man of that generation. In turn, Prost’s absence signalled what was anticipated to be the biggest move of the decade; Ayrton Senna’s arrival at Williams – who were the undisputed kingpins of F1 at the time, having taken the previous two constructors titles with ease. Additionally, rule changes signalled the end of the short-lived ‘active’ era of Formula 1, meaning electronic aids such as traction control, along with active suspension, had been outlawed.
At that point in 25 year old Michael Schumacher’s career, the German had only contested two full F1 seasons – both with Benetton. The team were far from an established front-runner, with only 6 wins to their name – 2 of which were courtesy of Schumacher.
Whilst his standout performances had already earned him recognition from pundits, fans were hesitant as to whether they could label him with championship-winning credentials.
1994 would prove to be the season this changed.
Ayrton Senna’s partnership with Williams proved to be far less sensational than either side had anticipated. The Brazilian Champion had the fastest car at his disposal, but the package did not appear to suit the driver. Schumacher was able to capitalise on this, taking back-to-back victories at the season opener in Brazil, and at the following Grand Prix in Aida, Japan.
Schumacher’s emergence as a true star appeared to trouble Senna – who struggled to keep pace with the German’s inferior Benetton – even resulting in a rather embarrassing spin at the São Paulo circuit in front of his devastated fans.
Before the third Grand Prix, at Imola, Schumacher had therefore amassed a perfect points tally of 20, with Senna yet to get off the mark. The Brazilian took pole position, with Schumacher alongside him. Whilst Senna’s tragic accident and subsequent death deprived the Motorsport world of one of the most intense rivalries in F1 history, it was soon clear that we had a more than worthy successor in Schumacher.
The young German was still without a championship-worthy car, but refused to accept this as a hindrance. Taking victories at three of the next four races, Schumacher was dominating the championship in a car that simply shouldn’t have been. One of Schumacher’s most incredible races, however, was ironically the only race of the first half of 1994 that he didn’t win; the Spanish Grand Prix proved to any of Schumacher’s remaining doubters just how relentless he was. Despite nursing a catastrophic gearbox fault, the incredible German managed to drag his Benetton across the line in 2nd position after being stuck in fifth gear for two thirds of the race.
From this point, though, Schumacher’s 1994 campaign became increasingly complicated.
At the British Grand Prix – shortly after Benetton had been amongst the teams who were accused of running illegal systems – Schumacher was penalised for overtaking on the formation lap. True to his own determined spirit that made him such an enigma, he went on to ignore the penalty and the subsequent black flag – for which he was disqualified for and later handed a two-race ban.
Benetton blamed the incident on a communication error between the stewards and the team.
Schumacher was also disqualified after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in spectacular style, after his car was found to have illegal wear on its skidblock – a measure used after the accidents at Imola to limit downforce and hence cornering speed. Benetton protested that the skidblock had been damaged when Schumacher spun over a kerb, but the FIA rejected their appeal because of the pattern of wear and damage visible on the block.
Newly appointed lead-Williams-driver Damon Hill was able to capitalise on these incidents and close the points gap by taking a trio of wins in Schumacher’s frustrating absence, and the Benetton star led by a single point going into the final race in Australia.
Then came one of the most infamous moments in Michael Schumacher’s career.
On lap 36, Schumacher – who was leading the race – hit the guardrail on the outside of the track, prompting Hill to attempt a pass. But as Schumacher’s car returned to the track, the two title contenders collided.
Schumacher immediately sprung out of his stricken vehicle, but Hill nursed his Williams back to the pits. As the apprehensive Briton sat in his car, the mechanics helplessly gesticulated at Hill to climb out of his car, citing excessive damage to one of the suspension arms. Hill shook his head in frustration as he came to terms with his agonising loss.
At the very same moment, the noticeably youthful Schumacher could be seen behind a guard rail near the fateful corner of the collision, grinning up at the sky in disbelief.
Schumacher’s actions in Adelaide – premeditated or not – will always strike criticism. There can however be no doubt that Schumacher’s exceptional performances throughout the season signalled the beginning of a new era in Formula 1 – the era of Michael Schumacher.