Standing on the edge of Silverstone’s little South Circuit on a Tuesday morning, with little wisps of grass growing between the concrete slabs of the former WW2 bomber base, there was little to indicate to those of us present that we were witnessing the first laps in a Formula One car of a driver who would come to define an era. A driver who would win more than anyone else in the history of the sport, enjoy the highest of praise, suffer deeply felt criticism, and still be scoring records more than two decades later.
That was 25 years ago today, at least in F1-calendar terms, for it was on the Tuesday prior to the Belgian Grand Prix in 1991 that Michael Schumacher stepped on board his Jordan-Ford 191 and began a remarkable journey at the very pinnacle of the sport.
The actual date was August 20th, and within Team 7Up Jordan our thoughts were rather more taken up by the fact that one of our drivers, Bertrand Gachot, had been imprisoned the previous week for using mace spray during an argument with a London taxi driver. Michael Schumacher was simply a stand-in, albeit one who had already proved his worth in Formula 3 and sports car racing. He was also bringing us funding in the shape of USD$150,000 from Mercedes Benz, which gave our boss Eddie Jordan some respite from the creditors already circling our start-up team.
The media attending this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix will comment on the 25 year anniversary, and rightly so. Michael, of course, cannot be there to commemorate that first weekend, incapacitated by the brain injury which he suffered in a skiing accident two and a half years ago. For Michael’s legions of fans there is no doubt that for every mention of his achievements, there will also be a thought for his family, friends and carers for whom he remains a personal focus each and every day.
The record books show that of the 306 Formula One races he started he won 91 of them (30%), stood on the podium 155 times (50%), scored 68 pole positions (22%), 77 fastest laps (25%) and won 7 World Championship titles. His first titles came at Benetton in 1994-95, powered by Ford and Renault engines, but for most people his five consecutive titles at Ferrari between 2000 and 2004 stand out. He completely dominated Formula One in a way we have not seen before or since, for he was Ferrari’s number one driver and, whoever his team mate happened to be, they simply played a supporting role. The intra-team rivalry of the Hamilton/Rosberg variety held no interest for Michael; his talent and the wording of his contracts made sure of that.
His success brought him untold wealth, with career earnings reported to be in excess of USD$600m, accompanied by hero status in Germany. A country that for so many years had been decidedly lukewarm about Formula One suddenly found its superstar. To work at the German Grand Prix during the Schumacher era was to witness something remarkable; hundreds of thousands of fans, all clad in Ferrari red, and all there to see one man lead the world.
His career was also littered with controversy, and often it seems impossible to have a conversation with anyone in Formula One about Michael without them mentioning the professional fouls, political machinations, alleged technical advantages or ruthless mentality with which he became associated. I know people for whom his collision with Damon Hill in Australia in 1994 negated all subsequent achievements. Similarly his decision to drive into Jacques Villeneuve in Spain 1997, or block the track in Monaco 2006 in order to prevent Fernando Alonso from securing pole position, are inevitably given an airing whenever his name comes up.
Fortunately, though, if you were lucky enough to work with him, or take the time to talk to people who did, you get a rather different view. Of the born leader who knew how to inspire those around him. Of the work ethic which meant hours spent working through the technical details with his engineers, pouring over data, looking for the marginal gains. Of the application which magnified his raw talent and career potential, whether in the gym where he took F1 driver fitness onto another level, or in his professionalism in dealing with customers (sponsors) who enjoyed the commercial benefits of being associated with a sporting superstar who delivered for them on and off track.
They will tell you about his unnerving ability to produce the optimal lap when needed, of his agility in changing tactics mid-race in order to counter a threat, and of his relentless, consistent, metronome like speed, lap after lap, race after race.
And they’ll also tell you about the man. The family man, the supporter of charitable causes, a UNESCO ambassador, the largest private donor after the Asian tsunami, the builder of children’s schools, hospitals and homeless shelters from Senegal to Sarajevo. The horse rider, football player and, yes, keen skier. And a man who, within his role as a Formula One driver, recognised that to stand on the top step of the podium required team work and collaboration between hundreds of staff and dozens of companies in order to produce a world class car which he was fortunate enough to drive. In simple terms, when it came to understanding what it took to be a winner, he’d got it.
He first retired from Formula One at the end of 2006, but then made a three-season comeback for Mercedes-Benz starting in 2010. It was not judged a success, partly because he made unforced errors, partly because his car was not a winner and partly because some folks were relishing the opportunity to write him off. Schadenfreude is seldom far from the surface when a talent wanes.
He didn’t score a win, but in the same period his highly rated young team mate Nico Rosberg only took one, and Michael helped the team take important steps towards the force it is today. In his final season he not only scored a podium at the age of 43 years and 173 days, but scored his 77th fastest lap and became only the second driver in the history of the sport to compete in over 300 Grands Prix.
When he finally hung up his racing helmet at the end of 2012, and subsequently celebrated his 44th birthday in January 2013, Michael Schumacher can only have reflected on a remarkable, record breaking career. That less than 12 months later his life was turned upside down by a minor incident on a ski slope remains one of the greatest human tragedies in recent sporting history. A living testimony to the fact that, whatever our achievements in life, and no matter how well we may manage the rewards and the risks in our chosen sport or business, none of us knows what tomorrow may bring.
Bruce McLaren once said ‘Life is Measured in Achievement, not in Years Alone’. One must hope that in the years ahead Michael Schumacher enjoys as good a quality of life as is possible, and that both he and those closest to him can gain much strength from reflecting on a sporting life of such unprecedented success.