Some Words About Michael

michaelschumacher_ferrari_indianapolis_2002

I now realize how lucky I am to have seen Michael Schumacher race in person.

Me, my father, and my younger brother would travel from Florence, Alabama, to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year between 2003 to 2005 to watch the United States Grand Prix. Schumacher won them all, but I didn’t care much for it at the time. I, like many other F1 fans who weren’t Ferrari or Schumacher fans through and through, just wanted to see someone else on the top step for a change, a new name on the list of champions, a new face leaping for joy on the podium in victory.

And like so many other F1 fans who shared this sentiment, it wasn’t until well after Schumacher’s first retirement in 2006, his comeback in 2010, and his comparatively unsuccessful second career with Mercedes-Benz, that I could take a step back from the whining I did earlier in life as a very young Formula One fan, and appreciate all that Michael Schumacher had accomplished in his career.

Schumacher won his first race in the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, at the age of 23 - one year after making his very first F1 start at the treacherous Belgian circuit.
Schumacher won his first race in the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, at the age of 23 – one year after making his very first F1 start at the treacherous Belgian circuit.

I would think back to the accomplishments of Schumacher’s first decade of competition, but I was too young to be able to comprehend any of it, even if I was able to watch the races on television (understand that my only exposure to Formula One in the 1990s was through video games). So I couldn’t understand what a big deal it was when he won two World Championships in 1994 and 1995 for Benetton – the first German driver to claim those honors, and then moved on to Ferrari for 1996, beginning a partnership that lasted eleven seasons – but more importantly, changed the culture of the team from a squad of stubborn, proud underachievers to the dynasty of the 2000s. I pretty much missed it all. The first start for Jordan at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991, then the first win for a rising Benetton team the very next year. The collisions that decided the title in his favor over Damon Hill in Adelaide in ’94, then the second that gave it to Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez three years later. I missed him skid into the armco in Monaco in ’96 on the first lap, only to respond by decimating the field the very next round in Barcelona under torrential downpour for that saccharine sweet first victory with Ferrari. I missed the cheeky stop-go victory in Silverstone in ’98, shortly thereafter followed by the masterful victory in Hungary, then his frightening crash with David Coulthard in the calamitous ’98 Belgian Grand Prix that could have resulted in fisticuffs. The allegations of using banned traction control, the leg injuries in 1999, and the hard-fought rivalries with Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen – these were things I could only read about in books or watch online, many years after the fact.

Michael Schumacher seen chasing the man he viewed as his greatest rival, Mika Hakkinen, at the 1998 Argentine Grand Prix.

When I was able to finally watch Formula One racing (thank you, Comcast, for finally carrying Speedvision before the 2000 season) it was smack-dab in the middle of the golden years for Michael Schumacher and the Ferrari team, I’d say it was in the middle of 2001. The point in time where he set the records we all know by heart: 91 race victories, 68 pole positions (69 if you count the pole in Monaco two years ago that was instantly stripped due to a pre-race grid penalty), and the seven world championships that, incredibly, could have been eight, nine, even ten had the breaks gone differently in other years – 1997, 1998, and 2006 immediately come to mind as the ones that got away. Principal Jean Todt, Technical Director Ross Brawn, and Lead Designer Rory Byrne were the architects of the revival. The sluggish, fragile designs of the early ’90s like the F92A had thankfully given way to sublimely engineered masterpieces like the F2002 and the F2004 – the two most dominant cars of the “V10 era” of 1995 to 2005. And Schumacher was the main challenger, driving these scarlet rockets to victory almost every round, with a style of maximum-level driving that hadn’t ever really been seen before his arrival. He was the prototypical driver of the refuelling era, he drove races as if they were segmented into three all-out sprints before pitting for fuel and a new set of Bridgestone Potenza tyres, setting fastest lap after fastest lap along the way. Look beyond how boring it was to watch Schumacher and Ferrari dominate all those races as a non-fan of his – that was the pure, flat-out style of driving that many of the same people who had declared Formula One a snoozefest at that time, now admit that they miss as they frequently declare the Formula One of today an artificial shitshow.

And even in those dominant years, there were still moments of vulnerability. Mika Hakkinen could have easily three-peated in 2000, but his undoing was the sinking form and reliability of his once-bulletproof McLaren Mercedes. Schumacher held onto the 2003 World Championship – the one that put him ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio for the all-time lead in Championships won – by only a handful of points over a 24-year-old phenom Kimi Raikkonen. In 2006, his final year with Ferrari, the final year of his first F1 career, he fought tooth and nail with Fernando Alonso, who became the youngest World Champion in F1 history the year before, only to lose out due to an untimely engine failure in Suzuka, the second-to-last race of the season. And then there was that dreadful 2005 season where nothing went right unless over half the field elected not to start the race. And yes, I did see the ridiculous six-car parade that was the United States Grand Prix  that year.

Fernando Alonso (right) was one of the few men who could claim to have beaten a prime Schumacher, which he did in 2005 and again in 2006 – but not without a heavy challenge.

He came back to Formula One with Mercedes-Benz in 2010, but by then he was in his 40s, he’d obviously been out of the cockpit for several years, and while he wasn’t at all as diminished as other sports legends in odd final career stops (think Michael Jordan as a Washington Wizard), he never could accomplish much in the Formula One of the most recent era – save for a pole-winning lap in Monaco, and a final podium in Valencia, both accomplished in 2012. His flat-out style didn’t suit either the softer Pirelli tyres and the cars that chewed through them, nor the non-refuelling races of 2010 and beyond. Pointless crashes with mid-fielders became far too common, and there were races where Schumacher would just sort of float around the track, often outperformed by his younger, hungrier teammate of three years, Nico Rosberg. He hung up the driving helmet after three dismal seasons with the Silver Arrows, at least by the standards of a man who at one point was as close to impervious as one man could be at the wheel of a Formula One car. But it made more fans realize, with time and distance separating the era of Schumacher and Ferrari from the rapidly-moving present timeline, just what the young man from Hürth, Germany was able to accomplish in that first career.

Schumacher on a flying lap in Monaco, 2012. He would win provisional pole, but conceded the 1st place starting spot due to a grid penalty handed down for a collision in the previous race.

Was he ruthless, even unfair to his competitors? Yes, absolutely, and it was a trait he shared with the most common benchmark of his time, the late, great, Ayrton Senna – the man Schumacher should have dueled to a herculean title fight sometime in 1994 or beyond, had tragedy not intervened at Imola that year. Did he benefit from preferential treatment within the team? Yes, but he wasn’t the first, he wasn’t the only one of his time, and he certainly wasn’t the last. It’d be easy to think that Schumacher’s dominant run from 2000 to 2006 was only the product of a superior car, but that would invalidate both the accomplishments before moving to Ferrari, and the years of work and personnel acquisitions that it took to build Ferrari into the juggernaut of that time. He is by no means an emotionless driving machine – we’ve seen fury, overwhelming bittersweetness, and even a genuine sense of humor over the years.

Schumacher celebrates the final victory of his Formula One career in Shanghai, China – 2006.

I’ll admit here what I couldn’t say as a teenager: Michael Schumacher is, hands-down, the best driver of his generation, and there’s a damn good case that he’s the best of all time. He was a leader on and off the track, the catalyst of the best years for two legendary squads – Ferrari and Benetton. I can look now at photos of those bright red Ferrari chassis, crafted in Maranello, plastered in Marlboro and Vodafone stickers, his crash helmet eventually painted from mostly white to a matching “Rosso Scuderia” – and think, “Wow, those are gorgeous.”

And as Schumacher, now 45, fights for his very life in a hospital in Grenoble, France, after suffering severe head injuries in a skiing accident in the French Alps. Ferrari Fans from around the world, past and present, have held a silent vigil already today at the hospital, a gesture that has moved Michael’s family to tears. Everyone from the press, to drivers past and present, and of course the “ordinary” fans worldwide have supported his recovery. When I first heard the news that he was in critical condition (where he still remains as of the time this article was published), I was shaking, I was heartsick, because even though Schumacher was by no means my favorite driver of the time, he was still the dominant figure of my early years of watching Formula One, a sporting legend not just in Germany, but across the entire globe, an ambassador for global motorsport. To see him gone now would be awful, and I am still very aware that his recovery is still a delicate and ongoing process. It was a sickening feeling I felt when sports car racer Allan Simonsen passed away at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this past year, after initially being told that he was okay after a violent crash in the first hour of the race.

A collection of Ferrari flags, left at the concourse of the Grenoble hospital where Michael Schumacher fights for his life on his 45th birthday (January 3rd, 2014).

I was never rooting for Michael Schumacher to win anything during his racing career, but today, I am cheering loud and proud for him to win this – the biggest challenge of his life. And hopefully, as they did those years I saw him claim victory in Indianapolis, our paths can cross again, somehow, but hopefully on this plane of existence.

A message projected onto the walls of the Grenoble hospital for Michael Schumacher.
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