By the age of 22, the young German racing driver Michael Schumacher had already achieved what most young men had only dreamed about. He was a sports car racing driver for Mercedes-Benz, a job he got on the back of his recent German Formula 3 championship title. Many would consider this the pinnacle of any keen racers career, but for Michael this was only the beginning of what would become the most successful Formula One career in the history of the sport, drastically eclipsing everyone else who came before him.
Michael’s life had started in the most humble of conditions. He was born into a modest family near Cologne in Germany on 3 January 1969. His Father Rolf, a bricklayer, also ran the local kart track in Kerpen where his mother Elisabeth also operated a small canteen. Four year old Michael had enjoyed playing on his pedal kart which was later upgraded when his father fitted it with a small motorcycle engine. This would become the pivotal point in his young life and from here his fascination with the sport of racing would begin. At the age of six his father built him a kart from discarded parts and Schumacher won his first club championship and with the help of sponsorship which his parents had orchestrated he made rapid progress in the German karting scene. He honed his raw racing skills on the kart circuits of Germany and by 1987 he would hold German and European karting championships.
The young Michael had left school and started an apprenticeship as a car mechanic but his real talent was in driving the cars rather than fixing them. He was soon employed as a full time racing driver, advancing up the ranks of motorsport and winning the German Formula 3 championship in 1990 at the age of 21 before taking up employment with Mercedes Benz as a Sportscar racing driver behind the wheel of a 900bhp 5-litre turbo V8 Group C monster. His life was about to take another dramatic turn which would ultimately launch him to superstar status.
It was halfway through the 1991 Formula One season with the Belgium Grand Prix fast approaching. Formula One had seen rapid commercial growth through the 1980’s thanks to the shrewd but ambitious Bernie Ecclestone. Drivers were earning salaries never before heard of in the sport, and sponsors were fighting for the chance to have their logos emblazoned on the sides of these mightily fast and loud race cars. This was the highest peak in motorsport the world over and to be a driver here meant certain fame and fortune.
The Jordan racing team had found themselves in a most precarious position before the race at Spa-Francorchamps when one of their drivers: Bertrand Gachot, had landed himself in trouble with the law following an altercation with a London taxi driver, leaving the team scrambling to fill the seat of their Formula One car. Team principal Eddie Jordan favoured Swedish driver Stefan Johansson but when the two disagreed over payment it was 22 year old Mercedes-Benz driver Michael Schumacher who scored the drive.
Eddie Jordan had enquired of Michael’s manager if he was up to the task. “Eddie wanted to know if Michael had ever driven at Spa, so I told him ‘I think about 100 times’, which was a complete lie,” Willi Weber recounted some years later.
“I was concerned enough,” Jordan admitted in his autobiograpy An Independent Man, “to think that I probably would have preferred Stefan to drive the car had I known that Michael had not been there before.”
Michael had to be quickly inducted into driving the Jordan Ford 191 Formula One car and a test session was arranged at Silverstone England only days before the Belgian GP. Jordan’s technical chief Gary Anderson recalled, “Michael only did about 20 laps, but his fastest was as good as we’d ever done at that circuit,”
Schumacher later recounted “I still remember the Jordan team manager Trevor Foster coming to me and saying, ‘Michael, calm down, slow down, this is the car you’re going to race on the weekend, so don’t break it!'”
Michaels more experienced team mate Andrea de Cesaris, a veteran with 165 Grand Prix starts to his credit was given the task of taking the young Schumacher around the Belgian circuit before the race but the tour failed to materialise. Instead Michael pulled out a fold-out bicycle from the boot of his car and proceeded to pedal the circuit. “The bike only had tiny wheels, it must have taken him forever,” Jordan’s head of marketing Mark Gallagher remembers. “But he wanted to learn the circuit in every way that he could.” One thing’s for sure: Schumacher would have been left in no doubt as to the true steepness of Eau Rouge…
Michael’s upbringing had taught him how to survive in meagre circumstances and his accommodations for his first Formula One race were certainly lacking in glamour. Without any hotel booking made for the young driver and his manager, the two found a room to stay in at a local youth hostel. “There were two small beds, and in the middle was a toilet and the basin,” Weber recalled. “I didn’t really mind,” Schumacher said some years later. “For me it didn’t matter too much.”
In his first practice for the Belgian GP Schumacher surprised the Jordan bosses when he finished 11th, only half a second behind the more experienced De Cesaris. After that he was quicker than the Italian, putting himself seventh on the grid for the race behind the mighty McLarens, the two Ferrari’s, the Williams of Mansell and Nelson Piquet’s Benetton.
After a great start Michael looked set for an exciting debut race but after surviving a lock up on cold tyres through La Source and shooting into sixth spot, the bright green Jordan began to slow down at the top of Eau Rouge. Michael had burnt out the fragile clutch on the uphill drag off the line and before the first lap his race was over.
Had Michaels car survived, he might have finished his debut on the podium. The attrition rate that day was high and De Cesaris who was not as quick as the young Schumie had managed to work his way up to second position behind the leader Ayrton Senna, before his engine gave in with three laps to go. “If I had actually done the whole race and finished the race, I certainly would have been on the podium,” Schumacher has said, and it’s a claim that has been backed by team manager Foster who added: “Which step he would have stood on I wouldn’t like to say.”
After so much excitement his debut Formula One race was an inauspicious event, but Schumacher’s incredible F1 journey had begun.
Rather aptly, a year later Schumacher claimed his first F1 win at Spa, and almost exactly 13 years later, at the very same track, the German would seal a record seventh world title.
Two weeks after his debut at the Italian GP, everyone wanted a piece of Schumacher most notably Benetton’s boss Flavio Briatore. Eddie Jordan was confident he had Michael secured to drive his car but after much wrangling and only hours before the start of practice, Benetton had signed the young German protégé.
Amid such a controversy, any another driver might have faltered, but not Schumacher. In his first race for Benetton, the 22-year-old finished fifth, one place ahead of three-time world champion team mate Nelson Piquet, whom he also out-qualified.
One year later, again at Spa-Francorchamps Michael won his first Formula One race. Over the next four seasons he won another 18 races and clinched two world championship titles. His first title came in 1994. The season was marred by the deaths of Ayrton Senna (witnessed by Schumacher, who was directly behind in 2nd position) and Roland Ratzenberger during the San Marino Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher won his first championship amid much controversy when he clashed with the Williams of his closest rival Damon Hill. Some accuse Michael of deliberately taking Damon out but regardless he was champion of Formula One. He dedicated his title to Ayrton Senna.
In 1995 Schumacher successfully defended his title with Benetton. He now had the same Renault engine as the Williams and he accumulated 33 more points than second-placed Damon Hill. With teammate Johnny Herbert, he took Benetton to its first Constructors’ Championship and became the youngest two-time World Champion in Formula One history at the time.
From Benetton he was signed by Ferrari to help the ailing team who had not produced a world champion since South African Jody Scheckter in 1979. Ferrari had signed Schumacher for a record $60 Million for a 2 year contract.
Michael was instrumental in establishing the dream-team that was to elevate Ferrari out of the doldrums. He brought with him Ross Brawn from the Benetton team and together with car designer Rory Byrne also from Benetton the three men once again made Ferrari famous in Formula One.
Schumacher gave Ferrari 3 wins in the 1996 season and five more the following year. But the 1996 season was plagued once again in controversy when at the final race in Spain, Michael tried unsuccessfully to ram the Jaques Villeneuve Williams off the track in an attempt to clinch the title. However the FIA took swift action against Schumacher and his points and second place in the championship were striken from the records.
In 1998, desperately wanting another world championship title his efforts were awarded only with a second place finish and the following year he broke a leg crashing out at the British Grand Prix. The Ferrari tiffosi wondered if Michael would ever bring the Italian team the glory they so badly wanted.
Now in 2000, a more mature and focussed Michael would begin his dominance of the sport. He became the first Ferrari champion in 21 years and for the next four years in succession he was unbeatable.
In 2002 he won 11 times and finished on the podium in all 17 races. In 2003 he broke Fangio’s long standing record by winning his sixth driving title. In 2004 he won 13 of the 18 races to win his seventh championship by a by a massive margin.
Like all the great drivers Schumacher had exceptional ambition, confidence, intelligence, motivation, dedication and determination. What set him apart and helped account for his unprecedented length of time at the top was a pure passion for racing and an endless quest for improvement.
Schumacher was also a generous man and supported various charities and organisations and in 2004 he donated $10 Million to the victims of the Asian Tsunami disaster. His donation surpassed that of any other sports person, most sports leagues, many worldwide corporations and even some countries. Schumacher’s bodyguard Burkhard Cramer and Cramer’s two sons were killed in the tsunami. That same year, Forbes magazine listed him as the second highest paid athlete in the World. His 2004 salary was reported to be around US$80 million. In 2005, Eurobusiness magazine identified Schumacher as the World’s first billionaire athlete. Forbes magazine ranked him 17th in its “The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities” list. A significant share of his income came from advertising. For example, Deutsche Vermögensberatung paid him $8 million over three years from 1999 for wearing a 10 by 8 centimetre advertisement on his post-race cap.
In 2010, his personal fortune was estimated at £515 million. He reportedly received a salary of £21 million each year from the Mercedes team, plus a further £9 million in endorsements.
But staying at the top of his game was proving tiring for the seven times World Champion. His wife Corinna and two children Gina and Mick were seldom at the races and by the end of the 2006 championship where he finished second behind Fernando Alonso, he decided to hang up his helmet.
For the next three years Michael acted as a consultant to Ferrari but in 2010 at the age of 41 the lure of racing a Formula One car again was too great. His long-time friend and ally Ross Brawn was heading up the newly formed Mercedes Formula One team and Michael was signed up.
But for the next three years the seven-time world champion only made it onto the podium once during his come-back. 2012 would be his final year in F1. “I enjoyed most of it,” Michael said of the second part of his career. “It wasn’t as successful as before but I still learned a lot for life. I found that losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning. Now is a good time to go.”
In the most cruel of ironies, after surviving so many seasons in his dangerous profession, Michael Schumacher’s first year in permanent retirement ended with him suffering a very serious head injury incurred when he fell while on a family skiing holiday. Following the accident that left him in a coma for several months his family brought him home where he faced a lengthy period of rehabilitation.
According to the record books, Michael Schumacher is statistically the most successful Formula One driver in the history of the sport.
Most World Championships: 7
Most Grand Prix wins: 91
Most pole positions: 68
Most podium finishes: 155
Most fastest laps: 77
Most races won in a single season: 13 (Sebastien Vettel equalled record)
Most consecutive World Championship titles: 5
Championships won with most races left: 6
Largest points winning margin: 67 points
Most single team wins: 72
Most wins at same GP: 8 (France)
Most pole positions at same GP: 8 (Japan) equalled Senna
Different GP’s won: 22
Most Second place finishes: 43
Most races leading: 142
Most laps leading: 5111
Most total kilometers leading: 24144
Most front row starts: 116
Most race hat-tricks (pole, fastest lap, win): 5 (shared with Alberto Ascari)
Most races with one team: 181