Eras in grand prix racing are demarked by an individual driver’s dominance, described by that champion’s look, that champion’s style. So as the fifties belonged to Fangio, so the sixties did to Jim Clark. Split the 1970s down the middle and give half to Emerson Fittipaldi, half to Niki Lauda and the eighties; well you’re either Prost or Senna, aren’t you? We know which side we’re on.
Roll on then to 1994, and a new era starts. An era created in the vacuum left behind by the death of Ayrton Senna and which quite possibly will only finally come to an end, for good, this Sunday. And, with the potential crowning of a brand new triple world champion, another will officially start.
Michael Schumacher made his debut in F1 in 1991, won his first two world championships in 1994 and 1995, his other five between 2000 and 2004. There have been no more world championships since Schumacher returned from three years’ retirement in 2010, though an eighth title was surely the plan. There have been no more wins. The one pole position Michael scored he wasn’t able to take up. There has been plenty of trouble. There has been an embarrassment of humiliation.
It is so very hard to say whether the comeback was a good thing or not. For Mercedes, certainly, it has been somewhat of a PR disaster in Germany where Michael’s star is untarnish-able. If he wasn’t winning, it must be Mercedes fault, right? Well, quite possibly. Switching Michael for someone with a personality the polar opposite seems a pretty smart move in the circumstances.
But for Michael? Well, had he kept the driving boots in the box under the bed we might by now, have started to forget the elements of ‘bad Michael’ over the years, or at least mellowed on the memory. But because he didn’t, we have been introduced to ‘good Michael’, yet at the same time forced to re-evaluate bad Michael.
We certainly don’t buy the notion that Michael Schumacher ‘introduced’ a level of cynical over-commitment that’s somehow polluted the sport. Ayrton Senna was no less cynical. He just did it with a greater sense of panache, and died young and blameless. That’s not to say ‘bad Michael’ didn’t have his moments: on Damon, on Villeneuve Jnr, since the comeback on Barrichello. Even as recently as last weekend, he didn’t hesitate to steer Jenson Button towards the pit wall. That’s Michael.
But it’s not just the on-track issues that haunt him. There are still lingering suggestions that at Benetton his car was not entirely legal, and at Ferrari he was one player in a team assembled with unusual skill, focus and funding. The Benetton team were found to have used illegal traction control software in its car, but the FIA chose to believe it was not used. As for Ferrari, well you only have to read contemporaneous details of the sheer number of days Ferrari spent testing innumerable and very bespoke Bridgestone compounds to understand something special was going on there. Michael was a big part of it, but he was the only driver on the grid in all those Ferrari championship years getting that level of service. And, frankly, there just weren’t as many quick drivers then either.
Would you take every advantage? Of course you would. Michael, as a born winner, duly did and we don’t blame him for that. We’re just not sure we can bring ourselves to truly laud him quite as much as we can Clark, Emmo’ and Senna.
Schumacher’s time has been marked by a march towards slavish athleticism and corporate professionalism, by the utter dominance of aerodynamics over any other performance measure, by a need to artificially enhance ‘the show’, to massively reduce risk, but also by a steady sleep walk away from the romance of F1. Away from the Spas and the Monzas to the Sepangs and Yas Marinas.
Still, that’s not Michael’s fault, and he’s been a champion in every sense of the word. Michael we salute you. You’ve left big shoes to fill…