~ Michael Schumacher ~

Friend or Foe?

Michael Schumacher is widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers to have graced the Formula One circuits in its history. But he is, some would say very much like marmite. He is adored by loyal fans across the world and stirs almost hatred in others, seemingly in equal measure. The years have been kind to him and one things for sure, his legacy will survive and speak volumes to future generations.


Being crowned World Champion on several occasions is one of the many accolades Michael has ammassed over the course of his career. Many driver records belong to him, including the most championships, most consecutive podium finishes, race victories, fastest laps, pole positions, points scored and races won in a single season. Add to that  being the only driver in Formula One history to finish in the top three in every race of a season.

Lest we forget the sheer volume of his achievement’s caused a series of rule changes in an attempt to make the sport more competative and curb his dominance.

A driver of such calibre should be showered with praises, should he not? According to a large portion of the fans, not. I have heard many opinions of Michael over the years and few of them ever seemed to be positive. Fans and critics will argue to the death for and against him. The emotion he stirs is unparallelled as is the captivation his career holds.

‘He would rather take off another competitor off the track than lose.’ A sentiment echoed by many. This may well be the mindset of the champion, only he knows for sure but perhaps the reason he has been so succesful is due to an altered perception of racing. Is he a tactical driver or is it purely instinctual?  Are mind games and presssure  what he lives for or is it a constant battle for improvement? He rarely leaves a tactical opportunity left intentionally unturned. Right or wrong, formula one is an ever evolving sport. He was the first in a new breed of F1 drivers and that is why his success has yet to be equalled. His public persona can often be a cold one and he can be accused of cutting a lone figure. The manner in which he chooses to present himself may have helped to shape the negative perception of him. In his recent years at Merecedes, it would appear that he has mellowed or at least his public persona has. Appearing more aproachable than ever and humour and good cheer eminate from him. We have been afforded occasional flashes of the old Michael and I feel that 2012 will be the year he stakes his claim as a challenger once again. Though he looks to have taken a step back from the raw drive, I feel it is simply a case of harnessing the agression to fulfil a larger purpose.

The other side of the coin…..

Much of the dislike for Michael stems from the controvsery he stirs. He was vilified by the British media for his part in the collision with Damon Hill at The 1994 Australian Grand Prix. Although both cars were eliminated from the race and neither driver scored, as Michael had gone into the final race leading him with a single point, he took the title. Public opinion has and always will remain divided. Schumacher however fanned the flames further when in 1997, he was disqualified for the entire season following what some will liken to a similar move on Jacques Villeneuve.

 

"The manoeuvre was an instinctive reaction and although deliberate not made with malice or premeditation. It was a serious error." -FIA Ruling

The following season saw yet more controversy from the German driver when he was accused of dangerous driving at the Canadian Grand Prix. His pit exit forced another driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen off the track and he was forced to retire from the race.  Schumacher received a 10 second penalty but still finished the race as the winner. His on track battle with Damon Hill entered a public domain when he accused the Briton of dangerous driving and weaving. 

 

"If you want to kill me, find some other way" – Michael Schumacher

Whether a ploy to distract from his own recklessness or a true indication that he felt him to be poorly penalised in comparison, it’s a statement which is widely catergorised as hypocritical and only sought to fuel the fire burning within the fans.

The British Grand Prix harboured yet more penalities for him after he lapped another car  in the early moments of the safety car. He received a 10 second penalty from The Stewards which needed to be served within three laps of the issue. He duly served the penalty on the last lap but the location of the Ferrari pit box (after start/finish line) meant that he had infact finished the race without serving the penalty. The Stewards added the 10 seconds to the final race time but it was later rescinded althogether.

The Belgian Grand Prix indicated that whilst Schumacher had publicly put his issues with Hill to rest, a new fire ignited with Scottish driver David Coulthard. Michael had attempted to lap Coulthard in heavy spray and both had been involved in a collision which ended his race. Post race he stormed into the garage harbouring Coulthard and accused him of trying to endanger his life. Mechanics and engineers from both teams were forced to intervene and separate the drivers. David would later make the admission years after, that he felt he had been to blame. The manner in which Schumacher reacted and served to challenge Coulthard did little to recover his fledging public persona.

 

Then came the incident which I feel was the final nail in Schumacher’s already closed coffin with regards to public popularity. It was hammered in during the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002 when his team mate Rubens Barichello slowed to allow him to pass and take the victory under instructions from Ferarri.

  The fans were outraged at the lack of sportsmans ship and displaying an over whelming sympathy for Rubens, Ferarri and Michael again fell out of favour. Although they had not broken any technical regulation, the backlash from the angered fans was enough for a $1 million fine to be distributed to the team. The unmistakable and immediate unrest prompted Michael to push Rubens onto the top step at the podium ceremony. Once his Drivers title was secure, he slowed the car with the finish line in sight, allowing second place Barichello to pass him for the victory.

Schumacher's explanation varied from an attempt to engineer a dead-heat to a technical issue. The general consencous was that it had been an attempt to even the scales and show the public that he too was capable of being influenced by team orders. Whatever the true explanation, the FIA subsequently banned "Team orders which interfere with the race result"

The 2006 season saw another potential flash of Schumacher’s tactical approach to racing when he was forced to start the Monaco Grand Prix at the back of the grid after being stripped of his pole position. During qualifying his car stopped in the corner on the racing line just as Fernando Alonso, who was the main contender to swipe the Championship was completing his final lap. The corner was blocked and left Alonso at a hunderance to improve on his time. Fernando believed pole position was attainable had it not been for the incident, the Stewards seemed to agree. In the same session David Coulthard had been similary blocked by Fisichella who received a five place grid penalty.

As the final curtain called on the season, with it, Schumacher’s career as he confirmed reports that he would retire. The announcement seemed to soothe the distaste felt by fans and as the controversy he continually courted disapated, his position in history was validated.

                                       Gone but not for long…..

2010 saw the return of the German to the grid with Mercedes Petronas. For the first time we were afforded a more mellow Michael. He was focused on the car development, the building of a team. The results appeared to be secondary for the first time in his career. For many his return and the new laid back approach presented a far more palatable Schumacher. Suddenly those who had grown tired of seeing his name at P1 three years or so ago were feeling a pang of disapointment that he was no longer leading the grid.

Those fans who were desperate to see the spark reignited were, for want of a better word, rewarded with some too close for comfort wheel to wheel action at the Hungarian Grand Prix. The unrelenting Scumacher left only a marginal gap for Rubens as he attempted to pass down the inside on the main straight. Despite the close promimity of a concrete wall, Barrichello was unrelenting as Schumacher closed the inside line.

The incident brought a flash of the olf Scumacher back to the fore of our memory. It also undoubtably stirred old feelings of resentment as the driver in question was Rubens Barichello.

‘Obviously there was space enough to go through. We didn't touch, so I guess I just left enough space for him to come through.’ – Michael Schumacher

Ross Brawn defended his driver against a flurry of critism from former drivers, fans and commentators alike.

‘..At the end of the day he gave him enough space. You can argue that it was marginal, but it was just tough – tough racing.’

Ross Brawn

 

The incident, although not resulting in accident was deemed dangerous and Michael was penalised with a grid penalty of 10 places for the next race.

During the Grand Prix at Monaco, an accident triggered the deployment of the safety car. Schumacher passed Fernando Alonso before the finish line as the safety car pulled into the pits. A majoirity of the teams holding the positions at the front of the grid also gave instructions to their drivers to race to the finish line. Schumacher was found guilty of breaching Safety Car regulations and awarded a 20 second penalty following an investigation by the FIA at a cost of six places.

It was the first time since his debut in '91 that he wrapped up a season without a single win, pole position, podium or fastest lap. However considering the career span he has had that is still an impressive feat. With 72 points, he finished 9th in the Driver Championship.

The 2011 season saw the ban on team orders previously enforced as a result of Michael’s dominance in the Ferrari, lifted after difficulties enforcing it. The season also saw an improvement for him with a jump in position to 8th in the Drivers Championship and 76 points. The highlight of the season and possibly his return was at the Canadian Grand Prix where he crossed the finish line in fourth position.

So now I ask that you consider where you stand on the topic and why? Consider if the stats and actions were the same but the driver were different, would you be so quick to disregard an achievement or chalk it up to unfair advantage?

Recently Lewis Hamilton has come under the spotlight and debate has stirred as to whether his behaviour on track is fitting and acceptable. The majority of responces from fans is that when Hamilton is penalised, it’s unfair or unduly harsh. In comparison when Schumacher is penalised, it wasn’t harsh enough. Now, Michael has contributed himself more than anyone else to this perception but is it truly a fair one? Will we be discussing a similar issue with Hamilton in years to come?

Is it coincidence that an eerily similar fate seems to have befallen Ferrari’s current number one driver Fernando Alonso, who too has been the benfiting party of an alleged team order controversy? Both he and Michael have been the favored within Ferarri to the point where another driver has been forced to sacrifice position and post pone victory for them.

Its certainly no secret that Michael Schumacher has previously and will continue to push to the very limit of acceptable racing and it could also be argued that he has been fortunate to this point to avoid serious injury not only to himself but to others. But it also  fair to say that his edge of your seat, know-no-boundries driving style is largely why he has been so successful.

His return to formula one hasn’t yet set the circuits alight as many fans had hoped or expected but it is becoming increasingly clear that is not the primary motivation for his return. He is enjoying his position as a team player and must be allowed a sligh smirk when he is able the give the front runners a run for their money.

Michael Schumacher walks hand in hand with success and controversy in equal measure. Never one to doused the fire, split second decisions, right or wrong he will follow them to their conclusion and that is why he is statisically the best driver in the history of the sport. Removing statsics from the equation and the fans will continue to remain divided.

 

“He will be always super class; if the car is right, he will be a contender that we will fear most”

- Fernando Alonso