Michael Schumacher is regarded widely as one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The most successful driver in the history of the sport, the German holds numerous records such as most Grand Prix wins (91), most World Championship wins (7), and most fastest laps (77). He is also currently the joint record holder for most wins in a single season (13) with compatriot Sebastian Vettel. Known as the Red Baron, Schumacher dominated the sport for close to 11 years. So why is he falling out of collective memory after contributing so greatly to the world’s premium motorsport?
Born to a modest family in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1969, Schumacher began his karting career aged 12, having driven various karts since the age of four. Regulations in Germany at the time required drivers to be at least 14 years old to obtain a cart licence, so Schumacher received his in Luxembourg. In 1988, he progressed to single-seat car racing in the Formula Ford and Formula König series. By 1991, he had graduated to Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport, by making his debut for Jordan Racing. He was replacing the imprisoned Bertrand Gachot in the Belgian Grand Prix and managed to qualify 7th, matching the team’s season-best grid position and out-qualifying his veteran teammate, Andreas de Cesaris.
“As glittering as Schumacher’s career has been, it also had its fair share of controversy.”
Having impressed for Jordan, Schumacher was signed by Benetton for the rest of that season and won his first two World Championships there in 1994 and 1995. He joined Ferrari in 1996, a team that had not won the Drivers’ Championship in 17 years. Schumacher proved his worth, winning the World Championship five times in a row between 2000 and 2004, making him the most decorated driver in the sport’s history. He retired in 2006 having been twice beaten by Renault’s Fernando Alonso to the World Championship, following regulation changes that seriously damaged Ferrari’s competitiveness.
He came out of retirement in 2010 to join the newly reformed Mercedes GP team alongside fellow German, Nico Rosberg. Schumacher struggled to return to the sport in his three years with the Silver Arrows, being beaten regularly by his younger teammate Rosberg. While Mercedes were themselves struggling to put together a competitive package, and with Schumacher unable to get the most out of it, it is clear that the German contributed substantially to the development of the team that went on to win the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship five years in a row from 2014 to 2018.
As glittering as Schumacher’s career has been, it also had its fair share of controversy. In the 1994 season, while driving for Benetton, Schumacher went into the final race of the season in Australia one point ahead of Damon Hill in the championship standings. The German led the race from the beginning but went off-track on lap 35. He managed to return to the track still leading the race, but with some car damage. At the next corner, Hill made an attempt to pass on the inside but Schumacher decisively shut the door, colliding with Hill and causing both to retire, which meant Schumacher won his first Championship. While the race steward judged the collision to be a racing incident, and took no action against the German, he was vilified by the British media, and public opinion on the incident remains split to this day.
“Schumacher is held in the highest regard by both his contemporaries and today’s drivers as one of the greatest to ever grace the sport.”
Of course, team orders have historically been an accepted part of Formula 1. Ferrari, in particular, were infamous for using them to try and gain an advantage over their rivals. In 2002, Rubens Barrichello, who was Schumacher’s teammate at the time, was ordered to slow down in the final metres of the Austrian Grand Prix in order to let Schumacher pass and win the race. This proved to be a hugely controversial incident, as most fans thought there was no need for the German to be given wins so early in the season. On the podium, Schumacher pushed his Brazilian teammate onto the top step, a disturbance that ended up costing Ferrari $1 million. Later in the season, Schumacher slowed down at the end of the US Grand Prix and allowed Barrichello to take the win, “returning the favour” in his own words. Schumacher has also been on the end of grid penalties for dangerous driving, most infamously in Hungary in 2010 when he squeezed his ex-teammate Barrichello against a concrete wall.
Despite all of these controversies, Schumacher is held in the highest regard, by both his contemporaries and today’s drivers, as one of the greatest to ever grace the sport. Sebastian Vettel, himself a four-time World Champion, has said that Schumacher continues to be his idol in F1, an attitude that may have inspired the young German to drive for Ferrari. He remains an inspiration to all young German drivers and has massively improved the stock of the sport in Germany, where before it was very much seen as a fringe sport. Often, it is forgotten just how much Schumacher served to raise the profile of the motorsport.
“It should not be forgotten that Michael Schumacher propagated Formula 1 to new heights and set the world alight with his speed and inner fire.”
Recently, Schumacher’s story took a tragic turn. In December 2013, Schumacher was involved in a skiing accident while crossing an unsecured off-piste area in the French Alps. He sustained a serious head injury which, according to physicians, would have killed him had he not been wearing a helmet. He was airlifted to Grenoble Hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma due to brain trauma. In April 2014, Schumacher’s agent reported that he was slowly being withdrawn from the coma and showing moments of consciousness. Not until September of that year was Schumacher released from rehab to return home to his wife and two children. According to his manager Sabine Kehm, Schumacher’s condition is slowly improving, but as of 2016, he could not walk. The German always valued his family’s privacy and so, not much has been released about his current condition.
Rarely is Schumacher now remembered or mentioned in television coverage of F1, or indeed within the vast F1 community. The sports community should not be so quick to forget a living legend of the racing world – someone who pushed humanity’s desire for speed to the limit, and who captivated motorsports fans the world over with his courage and his immense desire to win. It should not be forgotten that Schumacher propagated Formula 1 to new heights and set the world alight with his speed and inner fire. As one of the great sportsmen of recent times, it would be criminal to consign him to the dustbin of history.