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.
The end of 1999’s F1 season saw Schumacher return from a six race absence following his Silverstone brake failure and subsequent collision with the barrier at Stowe corner. Prior to his accident, the Ferrari lead driver stood second in the championship standings and was locked deep into a one-on-one duel with McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen, and Schumacher appeared to be the superior driver.
Schumacher’s accident was widely regarded as being the sole contributor to his loss of a potential third world title; and what would have been his landmark first title for Ferrari.
It was immediately obvious that the man was determined to pick up where he left off. Schumacher returned to the F1 scene at the penultimate round of the 1999 season – the Malaysian Grand Prix. In his absence, Schumacher’s Ferrari team had gradually overtaken McLaren to become the leading team on the grid, which had allowed Eddie Irvine – Ferrari’s number 2 – to challenge Hakkinen for the title. Schumacher’s priority mission in his comeback was, therefore, to aid Irvine’s title charge.
Upon his retun, Schumacher brilliantly took pole position at the final two races and finished second in both – sacrificing his chances of victory in the name of gifting points to his title-hopeful teammate.
Bizarrely, it appeared as if the German’s return to the grid wasn’t a recovery – it was a total resurrection.
Schumacher was from then on, on another level.
As the millennium dawned, Ferrari were running on a high wave of momentum from their first constructors championship since 1983, and more importantly; Schumacher was back.
The German superstar appeared to be invincible at the helm of his brand new F1-2000. Whilst Hakkinen’s McLaren had the edge in terms of raw pace, it was clearly a car that was to suffer woeful reliability. Schumacher was able to take advantage of this; whilst it would be Hakkinen who claimed pole position for the first three races in succession, Schumacher would snatch every one of those three victories from the frustrated Finn, to build an early lead in the championship.
Whilst the highly rated McLaren duo of Hakkinen and Coulthard struggled to tame their McLarens, Schumacher was able to breeze past anyone and everyone whilst smashing out fastest lap after fastest lap as he drove his new scarlet Ferrari with silk smooth perfection.
Schumacher was elated with his new beast.
“It is so bloody fast this car,” the delighted championship leader boasted after winning the season opener in Melbourne.
Schumacher’s run of dominance continues. After his trio of wins at the first three races of the season, he went on to extend his tally to an impressive five wins from the first eight races – including a victory at Canada’s Montreal circuit, whereby Schumacher took the win by just 0.1 seconds in one of Ferrari’s infamous ‘formation finish’ performances.
Following his impressive run of form, Schumacher was leading the championship with an enormous 24 point lead over reigning world champion Mika Hakkinen, and was outclassing Brazillian Ferrari protege Barrichello at every race. It looked as if Schumacher was on course to snap up his third world title with ease and little drama.
However, mid-way through the year, Schumacher’s momentum was stunted. After taking yet another brilliantly dominant pole position at the French Grand Prix, Schumacher had to defend heavily at the start of the race to keep fast starting Coulthard’s superior McLaren in his mirrors. After overcoming tyre wear issues, and fighting off both McLarens, Schumacher was cursed with a catastrophic engine failure with little over a dozen laps remaining.
Michael proved at this moment that he remained a class act as ever, as he responded to the situation with dignity and maturity. After climbing out of his stricken Ferrari, the Scarlet-clad star reassured his devastated team with a symphony of comforting and motivating words.
Schumacher’s luck failed to improve in the following two races. The Austrian Grand Prix and subsequently Schumacher’s home race at the classic Hockenheimring saw Schumacher deprived of a potential twenty points as a result of on-track collisions that were out of his control.
After taking pole position in Hungary, the German struggled to keep pace with Hakkinen – whose McLaren was looking particularly rapid. Hakkinen sailed off into the distance to claim another win and steal the championship lead from Schumacher – who was incredibly able to hold off David Coulthard to deprive McLaren of what would have been their fifth 1-2 finish of their increasingly dominant campaign.
After the bitter disappointment of the Hungarian Grand Prix where they were clearly slower than the McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard, Ferrari desperately needed a win at Spa. Schumacher knew this, and entered the weekend in a state of ultimate focus. Despite his best efforts qualifying still belonged to Hakkinen as McLaren showed no signs of surrendering any of their pace to Ferrari. Schumacher struggled with the F1-2000, and managed fourth on the grid.
Sunday saw the arrival of a torrential downpour. The circuit was soaked, forcing the race to be started under the safety car.
Fortunately for Schumacher – ‘The Rainmeister’ – he excelled in such conditions.
Hakkinen and McLaren exerted their authority in the opening stages, pulling away from the pack, but Schumacher was aided by Jenson Button and Jarno Trulli colliding into La Source, leaving the door open for the German to push up into 2nd as he glided on top of the river that had by this stage engulfed the Spa circuit.
However, as a dry racing line slowly appeared, a tactical error in which McLaren failed to bring Hakkinen, left the door open for Schumacher to close the gap.
Hakkinen once said; “There is nothing more frightening than the site of Michael closing in on your mirrors.”
Hakkinen’s apprehensions were conformed after the Finn spun – perhaps in panic to defend from Schumacher. Nevertheless, the mistake handed Schumacher the lead.
In the final stages of the race, Hakkinen used his faster package to methodically hunt down Schumacher. After catching the Ferrari, Hakkinen aimed a move up the inside of Schumacher up the Kemmel Straight approaching Les Combes.
In typically robust fashion, Schumacher refused to budge, and took to demonstrating his unrivalled defensive ability to almost force Hakkinen onto the grass at over 200 miles an hour.
Hakkinen continued to fight back, though. As he and Schumacher were about to lap Ricardo Zonta, Schumacher went around the BAR driver to the left but Häkkinen went around Zonta’s right and outbraked Schumacher into Les Combes.
To this very day, the manoeuvre is regarded as one of the greatest overtakes in Formula 1 history – a testament to the class and unrivalled skill of both drivers.
Following the Belgian Grand Prix, Hakkinen’s victory saw him extend his championship lead – but Schumacher’s second place finish limited the damage. Eight points separated the two, with just four races remaining, at the faster car leading. It seemed as if all was lost for Michael – who would yet again have ‘almost’ but ‘not quite’ made it as the quality of his car yet again failed to do his own abilities justice.
It was at this point that Schumacher’s legendary resilience began to shine through.
The final four races of the 2000 season would signal the beginning of the Michael Schumacher era, as the German seemingly managed to ‘up a gear’ and went on a spree of victories and pole positions – starting with an emotional win at Monza in front of Ferrari’s adoring Tifosi crowd. The win allowed Schumacher to close the gap to just two points from Hakkinen – and rekindle his and Ferrari’s hopes of a historic World Driver’s Championship triumph.
Two weeks later, the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis saw Schumacher convert another pole position into a victory, whilst Hakkinen’s engine problems and subsequent retirement somewhat repaid the favour for Schumacher’s identical woes earlier that year.
It seemed as if the F1 world had gone full circle by the time the travelling circus arrived at the penultimate Grand Prix at Suzuka in Japan. Schumacher now had an eight point lead, with Hakkinen looking to keep his title fight alive.
Both drivers needed to win.
Schumacher and Hakkinen chased one another; jousting for position – challenging one another to somehow raise their game past the level of inhuman, and to the realm of the immortals such as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna whose championship-deciding playground had also proved to be Suzuka on many occasions before.
Despite the woeful weather conditions, despite McLaren’s relentless pace, despite Hakkinen’s desperation, schumacher took the victory – and a landmark third world title in doing so.
Knowing he had now entered the realms of Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Senna and other legends before him, Schumacher pounded his steering wheel with utter elation as he took the chequered flag.
“A br-r-riliant race for Michael Schumacher, to give Ferrari and Italy their dream,” declared Murray Walker in his famously colourful tone, scarcely able to hide his own pride for the German hyperstar.
Whilst little did we know this particular triumph would lay the foundations for Schumacher’s later success to a truly biblical level, this was inapplicable at the time.
Michael Schumacher had gifted ferrari with their long awaited first Driver’s Championship since Jody Scheckter’s sole triumph in 1979.
At this point, the barrage of numbers, statistics and historical trivia was irrelevant. It was obvious just how phenomenal Schumacher was.
In an interview shortly before his final retirement, Schumacher was asked if he had a favourite ‘moment’ in his career – one that he felt the most emotionally invested in.
His response: “it has to be what is probably the milestone of what I have achieved; and that is obviously moving to Ferrari – a lot of people questioned that move… So my moment is obviously Japan in 2000… Not only because I did win the race and the championship, but how the race was going. I mean that race was probably the best race I ever drove.”