As a human being, I cannot ever discount the “intangibles” when thinking of athletes. That’s why in my eye, Alexander Ovechkin still has ways to go to match JaromirJagr’s legacy. It’s why I’ve always preferred Chris Paul to Stephen Curry as basketball’s premier point guard. Even if we have watched the entirety of Andres Iniesta’s career, there’s still something he doesn’t have that Michel Platini had in spades. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may match Roger Federer’s majors, but they cannot hope to approach Fed’s effect on viewers.
This pull for the humanity of athletes, their imperfection, doesn’t always make for an accurate judgment. There’s no bigger impact of this bias towards who’s more imperfecttowards one’s legacy than on Michael Schumacher. Ayrton Senna made believers out of strangers through sheer force of skill and personality, and even though his rival Alain Prost became more successful than him, Senna is untouchable in the eyes of many. Schumacher, on the other hand, is a driver out of Germany who made middling success before making his F1 debut.
From then on, however, he solidified his status as one of gifted drivers in the circuit. When he finished, his legacy is unquestionable. Arguably, the greatest technical driver in the history of the sport.
Schumacher never had a Monaco moment, an eye-popping stunt that sprung legends. What he had was countless moments that separated him from the great drivers. On the way to his first drivers’ championship, during the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, he held the second place and kept everyone from Barrichello to Coulthard from overtaking, while his underpowered Jordan Benetton car was stuck at fifth. It’s reason enough for drivers today to retire, and the more you think about it, a racing car that’s stuck in a single gear, it becomes more amazing.
Senna was famously better during rainy days, driving one-handed in Monaco of all the tracks. But for however good he was when it’s pouring, God rest his soul, Schumacher was much better. He drove on slicks during wet days, and he was drenched in pouring glory during his 1996 race in Barcelona. While he qualified third, his car was beset of technical difficulties weeks before the race. His three poles, no wins, and no crash gave no signal that Schumacher was about to solidify his status as “regenmeister.” He recovered from a poor start, and won the race by 45 seconds. Then there’s Monaco 1997, Britain 1998
The previous year, during the Spa race, what he did was nothing short of brilliant. Starting from the bottom at 16th, he took the race away from Damon Hill in one of the most crash-ridden days in F1. It was still just his third year being an F1 driver, and these victories before his switch to Ferrari are always the most sumptuous. His battles with Hill, Hakkinen, and other all-time greats, while being situated in an unfancied Benetton car, let his talent shine more.
Then came the days racing with Ferrari, where Michael all but cemented his place at the very top of racing. Before the heady days of winning five straight drivers and constructors’ championships, Michael had to struggle for wins in his Ferrari car (remind you of another particular German racing in red?) But what he lacked in wins, he made up for in spectacular shows of supreme consistency. His three-stop win at Hungary in 1998 stands out as Ferrari was discounted due to the pair of McLarens driven by Hakkinen and David Coulthard. He ran hot lap after hot lap and was so in the zone he didn’t realize he was leading the race by a huge margin. It wasn’t the last time he had one over the Finn, as he also won in Monza on 1999 as he and Hakkinen fought and exchanged places until Schumacher ultimately won.
A year later, Michael started his march to five championships in a perfect symphony of man, machine, and management. Michael was so consistent that during the five-year stretch, he won 48 out of the 80 races. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Lewis Hamilton had a five-year stretch that can rival that of the German. Hamilton still has a few years before he hangs up his steering wheel, and he may yet surpass Schumacher. But winning the two championships needed to match Michael’s record won’t be easy. Next year may, Ferrari may finally get it right and give Sebastian Vettel that will help him compete consistently. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen of Red Bull will also come of age next year, and with Red Bull producing one excellent chassis after another, they won’t make life easy for Hamilton.
Hamilton may have passed his idol, Senna, in terms of accolades. But Schumacher is in a different level, and he’s the only one there.
Wishing for Strength
By the time this article gets published, Michael is probably still recovering from a ski accident that left such a massive damage that years after getting out of surgery, he still can’t walk or even stand. Everyone is wishing him a better recovery, and if his racing history is anything to go by, he will make that recovery.
But Michael is still alive, and there’s better time to express our gratitude for gracing motorsport’s most menacing competition. He remains, to this day, the only driver who has seven drivers’ championship. The man who revived Ferrari’s prestige. The man who made the sport boring for how much he was winning over his opponents. The king of cool. The man in the red racing suit with a Marlboro graphic plastered all over his torso. The German.
All these arguments, and a thousand more, is why there’s Schumacher and Senna and then, everybody else. We remember him as being the best, not in triumphing over errors and imperfections, but best in keeping his eye on the prize. Formula 1 called him, statistically, the greatest ever driver. But beyond the numbers, he was clinical in the face of the competition. He may not have been loud, but that only because the engine at his back was roaring so loud in representing his ruthless racing prowess.