News and views on motorsports

Friday, October 27, 2006

On Michael Schumacher

Statistically the greatest but I think one of Michael Schumacher's greatest achievement was to stick around for as long as he has. I watched his debut at Spa in 1991 and now thankfully, he has safely left the sport with his life intact after 15 and a bit seasons. If I think about it, I've only watched 8 full seasons without him being present in the world championship. In the time that he's been in Formula 1, I graduated from university, completed my professional exams and have gone through some pretty interesting times in my life. All the while, the spectre of Michael Schumacher has been ever present. When Michael announced his departure, I looked back at his career and how far it has come and because of the sheer length of time he's been around, I couldn't help but look back at my own. Unfortunately, it has not been anywhere near his level of success but this article is about him and thankfully, not about me.

For sure, I'm not a fan of his by any means. But then he's quite a paradox, this German. On one hand we see the charitable and great human being who was kind enough to donate 20 of his untold millions in aid of anonymous victims of the tsunami. And yet, on the other hand, he has in him the demon who has stooped down to the base level of a cheat. A wonderful family man and father and yet within him lies a certain ruthlessness and selfishness that has characterised his time in the sport.

I like him not for his on track cheating and self centeredness but there's the thing isn't it? Would it better for him to be like Alain Prost, ever the gentleman on the track (barring Suzuka 1989) but faced with an absolute horror of a private life? I am sure to Corinna and his kids Michael is perfect as he is. An angel in his personal life but ruthless and deadly to his rivals.

Nevertheless, those on "his" side, his family and his team, notably Ferrari, receive unquestionably good treatment. Other drivers have been seen thanking the team after victory and even in defeat but never a bad word from Michael about his team even going through some pretty rough times in 1996 and 2005. Other drivers would have no hesitation slagging off but Michael maintains infinite patience with his squad. At least in public. I'm sure at the factory he can be (and by some accounts is) as demanding as the rest of them.

One could say that as far as determination and focus on winning, there hasn't been anyone to match him and thats probably why he wins as often as he does. In order to win, Michael understands that all the conditions have to be right. The team needs motivating and at the same time forgiveness and understanding when things do not go as planned. Ferrari have always had the best of resources to go for the championship but this needs to be shaped and moulded in a proper manner to extract the very best. Add a touch of technical savvy to the mix and the resulting cocktail is a military elite squad designed to win world championships. Sure, I would say that Alonso, Senna, Hakkinen, Raikkonen and maybe Prost are a match for him for blinding speed on the circuit but at the factory I think no one works harder and smarter than Michael. And that really is the key to all his successes.

Of course Michael does not stop at the factory for the work on Sunday rests firmly on his shoulders. After all the development, the practice, the strategies, the driving too must be impeccable. Like Martin Brundle, I too have a hard time recalling Michael's greatest overtaking moves. I'm sure die hard fans will want to fill me in on that but I have a much easier time recalling overtaking moves done upon him. Villeneuve's move on the outside at Estoril in 1996, Hakkinen's excellent move at Spa in 2000 and of course Alonso's ballsy and sheer brilliance at Suzuka last year rates as the best. But you see, the way Michael works he doesn't need to pull off these sorts of moves.

I don't recall many great overtaking moves but I'm sure we all remember Michael's ruthless and inexorable drives prior to pitstops. His fitness ensures that he is able to deliver quick lap after quick lap race after race. And at no point during the race is this better demonstrated than prior to the round of stops. Michael more often than not was fuelled heavier and ran longer than his rivals and yet all the while keeping apace with them. When they dive in, he turns up the wick and goes on a charge leaving those behind him in the dirt and pass those in front of him. In short, he relies on consistently blinding speed and avoids the need for risking a potentially hazardous move on the track.

Michael does make mistakes. This was usually so when he is put under pressure. But more often than not, he is never under pressure thanks to having a brilliant car underneath him. But even with superb machinery he can wilt under pressure and it usually happens when he's chasing someone in front of him.

So indeed, Michael is a true professional. Perhaps the most professional driver I have borne witness to. But is he too professional? After great success with Benetton, his decision to move to Ferrari was questionable to many people, not least to me. Some say, he needed a new challenge. Some might say he wanted to leave his mark with Maranello. Could it be simply for the money? No doubt Maranello was prepared to and could afford to pay far more for his services than Enstone. And of course, the slimy Willi Webber no doubt had a hand in convincing him that Ferrari would be a good move (especially for Willi himself). But once in Ferrari, Michael began to forge a team around him. No big deal, its been done before in the past. But what I was so against was the fact that his teammate would have to be a subordinate to him.

Consider some comparisons. Ayrton Senna comes to mind. I know the English never forgave Senna for vetoing the choice of Derek Warwick as his teammate at Lotus. Because of Senna, the choice instead went to the Earl of Dumfries, a bloke named Johnny. But to my mind this was only because Senna knew that Lotus did not have the resources to devote to two equal drivers. Even back in 1986, Lotus was not the team it was in the early seventies. Knowing this, Senna made the choice to be clear number one. When Lotus could not deliver a championship winning car, Senna had no reservations about moving to McLaren, even if a certain Alain Prost was incumbent and de facto number one at Woking. Senna knew he would beat the Frenchman or anybody else for that matter and he wasn't afraid to take up the challenge.

But Ferrari is no Lotus. For ages now and even today, the team with the best and most resources, Ferrari did not and doesn't need to resort to such clear distinction in the status of its drivers. And yet, this was their modus operandi throughout the entire reign of Michael at the team. And if anyone thinks that this has always been Ferrari's standard practice, I beg to differ, for in the past old man Enzo had no reservations in letting his drivers battle it out so long as they brought home the constructors trophy.

But as I said earlier, Michael is a professional winning machine. Driving is a means but driving alone isn't enough for him. He enjoys the driving and probably would love to drive some more. But the man needs to win. And why risk having an equal teammate who could potentially take race wins away from himself? Even if he were 100% certain he could beat his teammate, why risk it?

Its not sporting but Michael is designed to win. Being a sportsman is secondary and as some cases in his career have demonstrated, entirely optional. Adelaide in 1994, Jerez in 1997 and Monaco this year are some instances that come to mind. In addition, I've always found his angled starts pretty distasteful as well. I agree that Ayrton Senna was also guilty of argy bargy. But as Martin Brundle so nicely put it, Ayrton was in most times caught up with emotion, a product of what he saw as blatant biasness and unfairness in certain decisions made by the governing body. At Suzuka, he lashed out against decisions made against him at the same venue the previous year and by the stewards' decision to inexplicably switch the starting positions of the grid. A decision he thought unfairly put him at a disadvantage and many sympathized his plight. Being of fiery latin temprament, Ayrton lashed out. He would tell all that he would do it, he then did it and once done, he would admit to it.

Not so Michael. Neither Damon Hill (in 1994) nor Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 had done anything to him to justify barging them off the track (or at least attempt to do so). There were no unfair stewards decisions that worked against him. It was simply cold and calculating. But as I say, Michael is a professional winner. Sportsmanship is optional. Taking out his rivals is simply the professional thing to do. All in the name of winning. See the difference? Ayrton was being emotional not professional. Michael was simply being a professional. The world cup winning Argentinian captain Daniel Pasarella used to say that given the choice of going for the ball or Maradona, he would simply go for Maradona every single time. And why shouldn't he, argued the great man. There's no chance of taking the ball away from Maradona so simply take him out. That attitude wins matches. And when the occassion called for it, it was something Michael Schumacher had no reservations in employing.

To this I would add the ocassional screwing your team mate events that crop up time and again. As happened to Rubens Barrichello in Austria 2002. Rubens was clearly faster all weekend. It doesn't happen very often but on that occassion Michael had no answers to Rubens pace. The best man deserved to win but Michael thought otherwise. Had the crowd not voiced their displeasure at the result you can bet that Michael would happily accept the result as graciously as with any of his other victories.

Then of course, there's the outright cheating. Monaco this year being the classic example and has already been thoroughly discussed. But I would like to touch upon the Benetton years. In 1994, many observers and even fellow drivers commented on how they felt that illegal traction control devices were being employed on the Benettons. In fact traction control was found by the FIA the following year but no action was taken. The official explanation given by Benetton was that whilst the software codes for traction control were contained in the black boxes, they were not used during the race. They remained in the ECU because it was too difficult to remove. I'll bet. Whilst some may use this as evidence against Michael but I think that would be unfair. It was the team that placed the traction control. It was the entire team that cheated and I would bet that it is something any team would do if they knew they could get away with it. Promptly after being found, the Benetton team removed the traction control codes immediately. So much for being difficult to remove.

Outright cheating is difficult to prove especially if you only read the mainstream press. Even then there are only hints and innuendos to the point. But nevertheless, the rumours and Michael's own gamesmanship taints the otherwise his otherwise proud and unbeatable achievements. I would like to recall Silverstone in 1998 as one example. Michael had to serve a stop and go penalty. This he did on the very final lap of the race. On that lap he entered the pits and in doing so had already crossed the line and taken the flag. He stopped and then drove off again for what was the warming down lap.

Is Michael the most talented driver in history? I have my doubts. Jochen Mass, the senior driver at the Sauber Mercedes team that Michael once drove for, once said that he thought that Heinz Harald Frentzen was the more talented of his two best known junior drivers. Of course that is not to deny Michael's talent but he simply is not the most talented. Ayrton Senna is thought by many to be the most talented of all and I agree. But talent only gets you so far. Physical fitness is supremely important in grand prix racing and Michael rewrote the rule book in that department. With physical fitness, Michael is able to go flat out all the time instead of merely some of the time. As Ayrton used to say, any guy can go fast on a single lap but champions can do it for lap after lap for the entire race. This Michael was able to do better than anyone. I still think that as far as fitness is concerned, even at this advanced age his is in better shape than the rest of the field.

The other question that is often asked is whether or not Michael is the fastest one of all? No, I don't think so. So why does he win so often? Well, Michael is the most complete driver of all time. Whatever he lacks in natural talent or speed (and this is all relative, any difference in speed between Michael and say, Hakkinen, being absolutely microscopic), he more than makes up for with fitness, attention to detail, tchnical ability and knowledge and the fact that the team not only rallies with him through his motivation but designs whole cars to suit him. All these factors combine together to make up his 91 grand prix victories.

But racing being a team sport, Michael has as much to thank Ferrari for all his successes as the other way around. Specifically, Michael has behind him, two men who have been there throughout all his championships. Namely, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. Both were with him during the Benetton years and they were right there for all of Michael's five titles with Ferrari. The professional winning machine you see could not have done it without these men. Every win Michael has had save 3 can be attributed to them. No other driver has managed to have such great rapport with the technical director and chief designer. And that is why the cars are always built to his specifications and requirements further guaranteeing success. And quite clearly another factor that makes up for any weaknesses that Michael may have.

The German football team may not always be the most talented of individuals but bloody hell, they do not lack for any fighting spirit. How many times have we seen the Germans behind but fighting their way back to level the score? It must be sequenced in their genetic codes or something. And so it is with Michael. His drive in Brazil was characterized by that never say die attitude that has been ever present throughout his entire career. I think if he has many fans it must be because of this factor alone. Michael is similar to Mansell in that sense. While he lacks the Englishman's flair for overtaking, he matches him in fighting spirit. Its like watching an inevitable heat seeking missile. It cannot be stopped.

I still think that Michael's best years were during his time at Benetton. I think his best championship was in fact 1995 for Benetton Renault. On the surface, some would say that he did not have the best car, that advantage belonging to Williams Renault and Damon Hill. The car was undrivable to all but Michael. The back end it was said was too eager to step out. But I would say that it was exactly how Michael liked it although we have not seen many wild Ferraris. But sometimes I think that his driving was more exciting to watch during his Benetton years. Recall how he would lock up at least on wheel going into a turn lap after lap. Whilst this does not adhere to the smooth is best school of driving but even Jackie Stewart, who along with Prost must rate as the smoothest drivers ever, had to admit that those lockups meant speed for it ensured a greater overall stopping power. And somehow I have to agree with Michael on one aspect of driving. Michael used to say that he didn't really care what the car did when he turned the wheel but he certainly was concerned about its braking and what it would do in that state. And somehow I think he also likes a car with fantastically quick turn in. Just like the Benetton B195.

Especially after the events in Suzuka and Interlagos this year, I cannot for the life of me recall the details but the fates have mostly seemed to be on Michael's side. Not for nothing was he once been deemed by Martin Brundle to be the luckiest grand prix driver ever. How many times have we seen a blown engine from his rivals hand him the victory? How many times have conditions simply favoured him? And lets not forget the FIA who are always behind the team he drives for, namely Ferrari.

But to Michael, the manner of victory is secondary. The win is all that counts. But there are plenty who do care about the means to victory and I am one of them. Michael has had plenty of great moments. And I will admit, he is the most complete of all drivers and therefore deserves his success. He's just a little too cold and calculating for comfort and there's just one too many cases of crafty and underhanded gamesmanship for my liking. Added to the fact that for some reason (and I think its also due to Michael himself) the two teams he has had his successes with (Benetton under Briatore and Ferrari and Todt), are also the most political in the sport, I will continue to admire him but like him I do not. He shall not be missed the way Ayrton Senna is.


patrick said...

Great Schumacher overtaking manouvres? Not easy is it. When I think of Schumacher's greatest drives, I inevitably come back to Spain '96, in the wet in the awful early 96 Ferrari, Belgium in 2002 where he just drove away into the distance, a minute ahead of his team mate, or Hungary 98, where he just kept driving at qualifying lap pace in order to nail the Mclarens on an unlikely strategy. Or howabout Spain 94, where he finished 2nd while spending much of the race stuck in 5th gear?

But overtaking manouvres? Well, there was a pretty good one on Raikkonen last week, but there's not many I remember. Maybe its just that he's been around so long that the highlights don't really stick in the mind in the same way. Maybe its just that people tend to be remembered chiefly for passing Michael - something which Michael himself can't do. Or maybe it was a weakness all along.

Its certainly been an incredibly long career. Like you, I started following F1 in the mid-eighties as a kid, so I remember more years with Schumacher competiing that without. With him gone, I'm looking forward to seeing a new generation fighting it out - all else aside, I want to see whether any of the really young guys have what it takes to beat Alonso and Raikkonen.

Naveen Chinthakunta said...

Good one there! That was pretty comprehensive. On the note of overtaking, I think the move on Kimi in his last race was absolutely superb. Ya I agree, the Mika move at Spa was excellent. Read more here

Anonymous said...

well, the truth is that Benetton in 1994 never used illegal traction controls.
FIA investigated this, and they only find a launch control system, only for the starting of the race, but there were no proofs that were used in any race. FIA did not find any proof in that. In adition, Schumacher started badly in Brazil, started well in Aida and started as any other in Imola, until the FIA investigation was done, so, it seems there were "not many advantages" in starting...
In the other hand, FIA did not find any traction control system.
Probably, the greatness of Schumacher made the other teams jealous and suspicious but illegal controls did not exist