Michael Schumacher won more world championship and races than any other driver in a career which spanned 19 seasons.
At times his unparalleled success raised questions over how it had been achieved.
He first retired from the sport in 2006 while driving for Ferrari. He
returned four years later with Mercedes, only to retire again at the
end of 2012.
His debut drive for Jordan at Spa in 1991 rocked the F1
establishment. Here was a little-known driver from the Mercedes sports
car team qualifying seventh on the grid at one of the most respected
circuits on the calendar.
We quickly learned that Schumacher’s driving genius and controversy
were never far apart. Flavio Briatore pounced to prise Schumacher out of
his Jordan deal and got him into a Benetton for the next race.
The following year Schumacher successfully interrupted the dominant Williams
team’s stranglehold on success with an opportunistic win at the track
where he made his debut. An off-track excursion gave him the opportunity
to observe the state of his team mate’s tyres as the damp track dried.
Schumacher made a plucky call to switch to slick tyres earlier than his
rivals, and his driving skill took care of the rest.
That was the first of what would eventually be a record-smashing 91
wins. A further win followed in 1993, again snatched from the Williams
juggernaut, this time thwarting Alain Prost at Portugal.
But in 1994 the way became clear for Schumacher to lay waste to the
F1 history books. Most of the recent champions had retired or were
retiring. Three races into the season Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola. By the end of the year Schumacher had won nine of the 16 races.
But his Benetton team were repeatedly accused of cheating. The FIA
found evidence of an illegal traction control system on the car. After
Schumacher’s team mate Jos Verstappen suffered an horrendous fire during
the German Grand Prix an investigation discovered a filter had been
removed from the fuel rig. Years later, Verstappen insisted Schumacher’s
car had not been legal.
Schumacher was disqualified from the British Grand Prix after overtaking Damon Hill
on the formation lap, and was banned from a further two races for
failing to heed the black flag to begin with. And at Spa he was stripped
of a win for a technical infringement.
This left him with a scant one-point lead heading into the season
finale at Adelaide. Under intense pressure from Hill, Schumacher went
off and damaged his car. Seeing his promised title slip into away he
swung into the side of Hill’s car as the Williams driver moved to pass
him, taking both out and securing the title for himself.
His second title in 1995 was achieved with less controversy and more
displays of driving greatness. The season got off to a slow start but
once Schumacher got into his stride the wins came thick and fast,
Hill was simply out-classed – the pair clashed twice on-track at
Silverstone and Monza. In wet conditions at Spa and the Nurburgring
Schumacher produced virtuouso drivers, leading many to conclude that in
Schumacher a new F1 great had been found.
Having conquered F1 with Benetton, Schumacher resolved to do it all over again with Ferrari. It took five years to bring the drivers’ title home to the Scuderia, with a few near-misses on the way.
It was clear from the outset that little would be achieved with the
F310. But when the teams assembled at a near-flooded Catalunya circuit
for the seventh round of the season, Schumacher battled through the
field and disappeared off to a dominant victory. He added two more by
the end of the year, at Belgium and Italy.
With Benetton ally Ross Brawn rejoining him for 1997 Schumacher was
ready for another crack at the title. He persistently took points off
rival Jacques Villeneuve
despite his Williams often enjoying a considerable performance
advantage. When rain fell at Monaco and Spa Schumacher was untouchable.
The season took a controversial twist at the penultimate race in
Suzuka, where Villeneuve collected a hefty penalty for going too quickly
through a yellow flag zone. Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine
– who’d grown used to the idea that he was expected to support rather
than rival his team mate – was deployed to help Schumacher win the race,
and go into the season finale with a one-point lead.
At Jerez events took a familiar turn. Villeneuve reeled Schumacher in
and pounced – only to find the Ferrari swerving unavoidably into his
path. This time the contact proved terminal only for Schumacher –
Villeneuve was able to limp to the flag and claim the championship.
Schumacher was vilified but the sport’s governing body stayed its
hand. It handed down a token punishment of exclusion from the 1997
championship (not that second place mattered much to Schumacher) and
required him to participate in a road safety initiative.
In 1998 Schumacher faced a stronger opponent in the form of his old F3 rival Mika Hakkinen. Equipped with a fearsomely fast McLaren, Hakkinen began the year with a pair of wins.
Schumacher hit back and the two pushed each other hard all season.
The championship went down to the wire at Suzuka where Schumacher
started from pole position – only to face demotion to the back of the
grid after his car overheated on the line and wouldn’t start. Schumacher
battled his way through the field but a puncture finally ended his
hopes and confirmed Hakkinen as the champion.
Schumacher’s 1999 championship bud ended when his right-rear brake
failed on the Hangar straight at Silverstone on the first lap of the
race. His car hurtled off the track at Stowe, plunging head-on into the
barrier. He suffered a broken leg.
The year had begun well with victories in San Marino and Monaco. At the British Grand Prix McLaren
and Hakkinen hit back, and given how Hakkinen’s title bid went off the
rails in Schumacher’s absence it’s possible he might have won the
championship had he not been injured.
Schumacher returned to the cockpit at Sepang for the penultimate
race, now expected to support Irvine’s bid for the championship. This he
did in a crushing display of superiority, first disappearing off into
the distance, then holding rivlas up while letting Irvine through to
win. But at the season finale in Japan Schumacher had no reply for
Hakkinen, who wrapped up his second title.
Ferrari’s wait for their next drivers’ champion finally ended in 2000. Now partnered by Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher won the first three races of the year leaving Hakkinen with a lot of catching-up to do.
At the middle part of the season it looked as though Schumacher was
going to be denied again. First-lap crashes in Austria and Germany
handed golden opportunities to McLaren. And at Spa Hakkinen triumphed in
gripping battle with his Ferrari nemesis. Schumacher’s attempts to fend
off Hakkinen’s attacks by pushing him onto the grass at 200mph drew
fierce criticism from many – not least his rival.
But that race marked a turning point in the season. Schumacher came
back stronger and won the final four races, putting the title beyond
Hakkinen’s grasp. He wouldn’t let go of the trophy for five years.
The first half of the 2000s in Formula 1 was the story of total
dominance by Ferrari and Schumacher – whether in terms of driving
brilliance, technical innovation, reliability – or politics.
Schumacher redefined the terms of domination in Formula 1. He won
nine races in 2001, then 11 in 2002. No cars were able to rival the
Ferraris – and it was clear from events at Austria in 2001 and 2002 –
where Barrichello was twice ordered to pull over and let Schumacher past
– that Ferrari were not interested in pairing him with any kind of
By 2002 the pairing of Schumacher with a fast, reliable Ferrari with
its powerful engine and near-bespoke Bridgestone tyres combined to
produce one of the most dominant seasons the sport has ever seen. The
F2002 never let Schumacher down once, he finished every race on the
podium, and set a new record by winning the world championship with six
races to spare.
The 2003 season proved much more closely matched as Schumacher came under pressure from the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya.
But late in the season a controversial change in the rules forced
Michelin – rival to Ferrari’s tyre supplier Bridgestone – to change the
construction of their tyres. After that decision Ferrari won the next
eight races in a row, and Schumacher collected title number six.
In 2004 Schumacher pushed Ferrari’s devastation of the F1 competition
to new heights. He won 12 of the first 13 races, and might have won the
one that got away in Monaco but for a collision with Montoya.
Once his seventh championship title was wrapped up Schumacher had an
oddly uneven end to the season. He suffered a serious crash in testing
at Monza, was all at sea at the new Shanghai circuit, and had a grid
penalty in Brazil after crashing in practice and damaging his engine.
This proved a foretate of a difficult 2005.
What finally brought the Schumacher domination of F1 to an end was
not the arrival of a new opponent but a change in the technical rules.
In 2005 tyre changes during the race were banned, forcing both tyre
companies to build harder compounds. Michelin mastered the technology
while Bridgestone struggled.
Schumacher won just once all year, the farcical United States Grand
Prix where only the six Bridgestone-shod runners competed – those being
the Ferraris plus the throroughly uncompetitive Jordans and Minardis.
The tyre rules were changed back for 2006 and Ferrari were back on
form. But Schumacher faced a tough rival in the shape of new world
champion Fernando Alonso.
This was as closely-matched a championship battle as has ever been
fought. While Alonso managed four wins on the trot Schumacher hit back
with a hat-trick of victories in the middle of the season.
It brought out the best and worst in Schumacher once again. His final
victory in the rain Shanghai was up there with his very best – but
parking his car during qualifying at Monaco to try to have the session
stopped while he was on pole position was a crass stunt that fooled
no-one – even the stewards couldn’t let that one go unpunished, sending
Schumacher to the back of the grid.
At a crucial point Ferrari’s usually exceptional reliabilit failed
them. Schumacher’s engine blew while he was leading from Alonso at
He narrowly lost the championship but signed off with a majestic
drive against the odds to finish fourth at Interlagos after a puncture.
It seemed a fitting conclusion to a great career – but it turned out
this was not the end.
In 2009 it briefly looked as though Schumacher was going to make a surprise comeback after Felipe Massa
was injured at the Hungaroring. But Schumacher had damaged his neck in a
motor cycle racing accident earlier in the year, and after testing an
F1 car discovered he could not return to the cockpit after all.
Having whetted his appetite for a comeback, Schumacher later
confirmed he would be racing in F1 again – but not for Ferrari. Instead
he joined the new Mercedes team in 2010.
Three years away from the cockpit seemed to have dulled Schumacher’s
edge on his return. Throughout the season he was comfortably handled by
team mate Nico Rosberg.
At times his driving looked distinctly desperate, particularly at the Hungaroring, where he was censured for almost pushing Rubens Barrichello into the pit wall as the pair battled for position.
Schumacher stuck with it and the situation seemed to be improving
towards the end of the season, achieving fourth place in the rain at
Schumacher’s second season with Mercedes was a mixed bag – glimpses
of his old form, albeit compromised by consistently poor qualifying and a
string of race collisions, mostly involving Vitaly Petrov.
When Schumacher had the car at the front of the field he was at his
best, scrapping with the Red Bulls and McLarens in Canada, and resisting
Lewis Hamilton for lap after lap at Monza.
He ended the year behind Rosberg again, but much closer than he had been in 2010.
The third year of Schumacher’s comeback got off to a promising start
as the W03 proved immediately competitive. But he retired while running
in a strong position in the first race and an error by his team in the
pits ended his race in China, while Rosberg headed to victory.
Unreliability cost Schumacher on several other occasions, mostly in
the early part of the season when the car was at its best. But he also
made mistakes, such as when he drove into the rear of Bruno Senna’s car during the Spanish Grand Prix.
His grid penalty for the collision cost him what would have been pole
position in Monaco. However in Valencia it finally came right and
Schumacher finally returned to the podium, finishing third.
That would be his final visit. Unsure whether he wished to continue in F1, Mercedes moved to sign Lewis Hamilton
for 2013 leaving Schumacher to make a widely-anticipated return to
retirement. He signed off with a final points finish in Brazil,
symbolically pulling over for Sebastian Vettel as his countryman and
successor headed to his third world championship.