It is Formula One legend Michael Schumacher’s 50th birthday today but it will be an occasion tinged with great sadness. The German continues to recover at home from the life-changing skiing accident that left him in a coma for a number of months, five years ago, writes Niamh O'Mahony.
Schumacher hasn’t been seen in public since. Updates on his health are irregular, usually amplified and rehashed for effect as his legions of supporters wait on any grain of positive news. In this sad context, it’s easy to forget that very few men have had a greater impact on a sport that is better known today for its technology than its human talent.
Introduced to motorsport’s elite category by Eddie Jordan, Schumacher’s traits — speed, intelligence, physical strength, determination, and ruthlessness — saw him dominate Formula One in a way that would eventually bring a raft of changes, including a new points-scoring system and qualifying format, in an attempt to prevent future runaway championship leaders. Dominance tends to be bad for business.
Battles were firmly drawn in one of F1’s most fascinating rivalries in 1994. Damon Hill, son of former champion Graham, was helping his Williams team recover from the devastating loss of Ayrton Senna at Monza months earlier. Hill forced his way back into title contention only to be barged off the track by Schumacher at the final round in Australia. The Briton lost out by a single point and his counterpart was crowned first-time champion.
Much of the pit lane would never forgive or forget Schumacher for that incident (or for what seemed an attempted repeat against Jacques Villeneuve in 1997), though true sporting greats often have that dark edge, going where others don’t venture, in the pursuit of victory. This, Schumacher showed time and time again.
However, by the time of his switch to Ferrari in 1996, Schumacher had already changed two norms within the sport. Firstly, it had been common for drivers to be exhausted by the time they reached the chequered flag, even in the early 90s, particularly when racing in warmer climates. Not only was Schumacher unfazed by such challenges, he often hopped out of his car looking fit and ready for another two-hour slugfest. The paddock noticed, and drivers — at least the ambitious ones — duly responded.
Secondly, he mastered the art of organising a team around himself and getting the very best from all departments at every stage of preparation, testing and throughout race weekends. In moving to Ferrari, Schumacher brought discipline, consistency, and a work ethic that the Scuderia hadn’t seen before.
The results were telling, literally record-breaking in most instances. Before he arrived from Benetton, the red Prancing Horses of Italy were also-rans; Schumacher quickly transformed them into winners, winning five consecutive titles from 2000 to 2004. He still holds the record of most career wins in the sport (91), though Lewis Hamilton (73) is closing. Schumacher also holds most podium finishes (155), most races led (142), most fastest laps (77), and most hat-tricks (pole, win, fastest — 22).
The 1996 Spanish Grand Prix is highlighted as a true ‘Schumy’ moment. With rivals sliding off a drenched and desperately slippy Circuit de Catalunya, Schumacher’s wet weather control — in a car teammate Eddie Irvine labeled ‘undriveable’ — shone through as a red haze amidst the thick spray. Schumacher lapped every car aside from Jean Alesi (2nd) and Villeneuve (3rd) — and was 45 seconds clear by the finish line.
Rivalries, particularly those that fizzle up and down the pit lane, drive Formula One viewership figures. Schumacher was supreme in 2004, winning 12 of the first 13 races of the season in what looked to be a bulletproof car. His French Grand Prix win was a spectacle to behold though, and very much about the ability of the man behind the wheel.
Renault worked hard to get Fernando Alonso on pole in front of their home crowd. Magny-Cours is a notoriously difficult track for overtaking, so once the Spaniard maintained his lead off the starting grid, he was heavy favourite for the win. Schumacher and his team had other ideas though.
Anxious to avoid their man being stuck behind Alonso, Ross Brawn and Luca Baldisserri switched Schumacher to a four-stop strategy which required the world champion to find clean air and empty track, and record near-qualifying lap times on a series of low fuel runs in order to pass his rival in the pit lane.
At first, the early pit stop was the subject of speculation: has the Ferrari man a technical issue? When the strategy in-play became clear, the feat still seemed impossible. However, as Schumacher recorded flying lap after flying lap, Alonso and the rest could do nothing to stop a man as relentless and inevitable as a machine.
The ‘terminator’ analogy followed Schumacher throughout his career. The sport did see flashes of anger and selfishness, most notably regarding team orders, but the world was also stunned in 2000 when the unflappable star from Hürth, near Cologne, sobbed openly after matching Senna’s career wins tally at Monza. A private man, Schumacher had become an enigma as well as a hero to his fans, and the sudden display of emotion was surprising.
In the aftermath of Senna’s death in 1994, Schumacher and his peers re-founded the Grand Prix Drivers Association and pushed for improvements around health and safety in the sport. The man that changed Formula One on the track would also help to do so off it, serving as the GPDA’s first chairman from 1994 until 2005.
As a motor racing and Schumacher fan, I sent him a card following the crash that broke his leg at the British Grand Prix in 1999. A couple of weeks later, a letter postmarked Monaco arrived with a signed note of thanks enclosed. Later, working for Setanta Sports as part of their F1 coverage in Ireland, I would spend hours talking about, watching and dissecting the performances of Michael Schumacher the driver and the colleagues around him.
I was fortunate enough to see him win a Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, taking the opportunity to walk the famous Eau Rouge corner afterwards. Schumacher was one of a very select group known to take the corner flat out and when you get to appreciate the drive down, dip at the bottom and rise up to the Kemmel straight in person, it’s an even more impressive feat.
TV coverage shows us every angle, slow-mo replays and gives us immediate access to technical information and timings; however, there is nothing like hearing the noise of an F1 car start up, hearing the rumble of one approaching long before you see it and the pure adrenaline rush at two gladiators racing toe-to-toe as they flash by in front of you.
Schumacher was always keen to maintain his privacy away from F1, so the silence now around his health is no change, despite the ongoing interest. The situation is just so incredibly sad, especially for his family and friends.
His son, Mick, is forging a name for himself in the lower grades, but it is hard to think that anyone could ever have such an impact on F1 again. Schumacher Sr had such presence anywhere you’d know he was nearby because of the shouts of ‘Schumi, Schumi’ and the scuffle of fanatical supporters.
It’s that excitement, along with his achievements and the moments when he showed he was human too, that the world needs to remember as he reaches a special personal milestone of his own.