Saturday, 24 November 2012

Michael Schumacher - The Greatest of All Time

Red is the Colour

Most F1 driver championships – 7

Most consecutive titles – 5
Most race victories – 91
Most consecutive wins – 7 (2004)
Most pole positions – 68
Most podiums – 155
Most consecutive podium finishes – 19
Most races won in a single season – 13 (2004)

Michael Schumacher has obliterated every single record in Formula 1. To list them here would fry your mind although they make staggering reading. And most of the records will probably stand forever. It is very un-British to say winning is everything but by and large in the world of sport, it is everything.

For me, the career and perhaps the-man-behind-the-helmet defining moment in Schumacher’s career was when he walked out of a crushingly dominant Benetton team in 1995 (they won 9 out of 17 races and finished on the podium 11 times) and jumped ship to Ferrari. A team so hopeless that its drivers had labelled the cars variously as a truck, a pig and an accident waiting to happen. Schumacher’s brilliance, dedication and passion was absolutely pivotal in resurrecting Ferrari’s fortunes and transforming them over time into an all-conquering winning machine.

Schumacher clinching his first title for Ferrari in 2000

Perhaps the pinnacle of Schumacher’s brilliant career was achieving the Holy Grail of winning Ferrari’s first driver championship in twenty-one years. That title was the culmination of five long years of blood, sweat and tears for all at Maranello but most of all for Schumacher who had broken his leg the previous season; driven on the ragged edge and beyond to extract almost supernatural performances from a car inferior to his title rivals; and showed raw emotion when breaking down in tears after Monza in 2000 after equalling Senna’s number of race wins.

In the face of intense pressure (both personally and that heaped on him by the expectant and long-suffering Tifosi), he never wavered in his belief that one day he would bring glory back to the Scuderia Ferrari marque. Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne comprised the Ferrari dream team who played a major role in facilitating the rebirth of Ferrari. But quite simply, without Michael Schumacher, Ferrari would not have had that period of unparalleled success that turned them into one the most dominant teams in world sport.

Schumi and Brawn

So much has been written about Schumacher that I struggled at length to think of how best to approach this blog. Then it came to me. At the end of the day, sport is nothing without emotions and the human story. You can objectively admire the brilliance of Barcelona’s football and the beauty of Federer’s imperious shot-making but unless you are a Barcelona fan or a Federer fan (and by no means is that confined to having the same nationality), you cannot feel the true intensity of the highs and lows (and the lows are just are important in defining a fan). Its not the most eloquent expression but you really need to be tangled up emotionally to get it.

On paper, I am not a logical Schumacher fan. The husband will proceed to laugh himself senseless now and will mention my…ahem…uber-organised Germanic approach to life, list-making and general giving of instructions. But back when it all began (the early 1990s) it wasn’t the done thing or indeed the cool thing to support Michael Schumacher. At that time, I was a die-hard Damon Hill fan. Actually I’m still a big Damon Hill fan and when I met him at Brands Hatch in May, he was just as incredibly nice in person as I’d hoped. However, I did actually have to heavily coach the 4 year old while queuing not to tell Damon that Michael Schumacher was his favourite driver. Instead the 4 year old told Damon he’d drawn a picture of him earlier (true) and babbled on about art. As you do to a former F1 world champion. Bless him.

Taken on 26.05.2012, the day Schuey got his last pole at Monaco

Anyhow, we all know about Damon, Schuey and Adelaide and having blogged about it the other day, I’m not going there again (or divorce will be on the cards in the House of Power). It all ended happily and Damon got his title in the end. By the by, a great did-you-know is when Damon Hill at his own title-winning celebrations in 1996 was singing “who do you think you are kidding Michael Schumacher?”, the dude partying away next to him was none other than Michael!

I have seen Michael race twice - in the flesh. I wish it was more (but spent most of my 20s working ballistic hours including weekends and then hit 30 and had kids!) but at least I have been able to tell my 5 year old that I saw The Great Michael Schumacher race.

Me at Silverstone (13 years ago).

The first ever Grand Prix I went to was at Silverstone in the 1990s. For my birthday, my Dad had got us a pair of tickets in the Woodcote grandstand. His own petrolhead pedigree is pretty good – he used to race rally cars and went to dozens of races in the 50s and 60s when you could apparently just wander along the pitlane and take photos of Stirling Moss stood about 1 metre away. He didn’t really share the Schumacher/Ferrari love but I think he was quite pleased (if a bit surprised) to have a petrolhead daughter. I was excited beyond measure at the prospect of seeing my idol, Schuey, race in the flesh. However, this was the British Grand Prix of 1999.

Michael Schumacher at Silverstone in 1999

On the opening lap, Schumacher’s brakes failed, his car smashed into a tyre barrier and he broke his leg. We first knew there was a problem when the cars all passed in front of Woodcote and they were one Ferrari down. Then images flashed up on the big screen of the crumpled Ferrari with the dreaded white screens surrounding it. So reminiscent of the final Senna images at Imola and utterly terrifying. Contrary to reports I’ve seen since, there was shocked silence among the crowd and genuine relief from fans of all nationalities and allegiances when we heard that Michael was going to be ok. I was practically heartbroken but, like I say, you need the lows in sport to appreciate the highs.

And so to my second race – Monaco, 2001. The then boyfriend (now husband) and me coached it down to the South of France with a whole load of other random petrolheads. After the ferry crossing, we were in slightly exuberant spirits. Ahem. To this day, I have no idea why saying ‘Norbert Dendressangle my friend’ reduced us both to convulsions of laughter while motoring down through Northern France. Maybe you had to be there. One thing’s for sure, the other passengers (and god were they ever a serious bunch) didn’t quite share our humour.

After qualifying (and a carafe or two of rose in one of Monaco’s chic bars...those were the days my friend) we piled onto the Coach of Fun and I may have vented my spleen about Coulthard snatching pole from Schumacher at the death. Only on getting a big Warning Look from the husband did I turn round to see most of the coach bedecked in Scottish Saltire flags and draped head to toe in McLaren merchandise and giving me Death Stares. Awkward. But come race day, the joy was all mine. Michael Schumacher stormed his way to victory and sealed an awesome Ferrari 1-2 with Rubens. It was beautiful.

Michael Schumacher storming to victory in Monaco, 2001

One of the bravest things I have ever seen in sport was when Michael took to the race-track and won the San Marino Grand Prix in 2003, only hours after learning that his mother had died. After qualifying, both Michael and Ralf flew to Germany to pay their final respects at her bedside before returning to Italy. Michael said later that taking part in the race was what she would have wanted. Three years later, I lost my Mum and one of her dying wishes was for me to read a poem at her funeral. I honestly did not know how I would find the strength to do this without breaking down but I really took inspiration from Michael’s immense courage and fortitude that day in Imola. I managed to do the reading and stay composed and help give her the wonderful send off she deserved.

Tomorrow, I hope that Michael gets the send off he deserves. Thank you, Michael, for 20 years of magic. 

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