Lewis Hamilton is a phenomenal driver, and among a vanishingly small pool of sportspeople in the conversation to be recognised as Britain’s greatest athlete of all time. In all honesty, I don’t have a negative word to say about the six-time Formula One world champion: the Stevenage-born racer is a sensational talent, and always has been.
However, in the conversation about who deserves to be recognised as F1’s GOAT, Michael Schumacher will always be my guy. Allow me to explain why.
Each Sunday, after traipsing around a muddy football pitch, I remember travelling home with my dad and spending hours glued to the TV, watching on as a German man with an incredibly complex name raced fearlessly around a racing track. In my youthful inexperience, I didn’t appreciate Schumacher’s immense talent; nor the way that he had of beating of everyone else on the grid.
Schumacher began his career in 1991, and won his first World Championship just three years later for Benetton. Schumacher’s maiden F1 Championship came amid tragic circumstances in 1994, as the sport mourned the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger – both of whom were lost far too soon at the San Marino Grand Prix.
Schumacher’s recurrent collisions with Damon Hill fuelled the narrative that the Hürth native would do anything to win
Schumacher’s first title, like much of the German’s career, was mired in controversy, as his Benetton team stood accused of breaching F1’s technical regulations. Schumacher’s recurrent collisions with Damon Hill – who Schumacher beat to the title by just one point – fuelled the narrative that the Hürth native would do anything to win.
Of course, onlookers are permitted to take two wildly different readings of Schumacher’s temperament. Cynics would argue that Schumacher repeatedly engaged in the dark arts throughout his career, stopping at nothing to take the chequered flag. Optimists would assert that Schumacher had a propensity to push himself to the very limit, fuelled by his desire to take the chequered flag at every possible opportunity.
Perhaps it would be best to sit on the fence? Michael Schumacher did engage in the dark arts of motorsport, frequently squeezing his opponents beyond the limits of the track. At the same time, however, Schumacher was only ever driven by his desire to win; there was never any malicious content, and it is ridiculous to suggest so.
Schumacher successfully defended his title with Benetton in 1995, and secured a move to Ferrari – the most prestigious name on the grid, but undoubtedly sleeping giant. Before Schumacher’s arrival, Ferrari hadn’t won a Drivers’ Championship since the 1970s, and it had been thirteen years since the Italian stalwarts of F1 had secured the Constructors’ Championship. Joined at Ferrari by Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn, Schumacher transformed the team’s fortunes, winning more races in his debut season in red than Ferrari had won in the previous four years combined.
Schumacher attempted to orchestrate a racing incident with his title rival to avoid defeat
In 1997, Schumacher almost broke Ferrari’s dry spell. Jacques Villeneuve, the beneficiary of driving a much superior Williams, led the Championship for much of the year, but Schumacher remained in contention regardless. The season ended in controversy in Jerez, as Schumacher attempted to orchestrate a racing incident with his title rival to avoid defeat. Schumacher was punished, and Villeneuve took the title.
Schumacher’s F1 career was defined by his ruthlessly competitive streak, and that is why he is the most successful driver of all time. A seven-time World Champion – five of which were won in succession, and the (joint-)record holder for most Grand Prix wins (91), fastest laps (77) and races won in a single season (13), it is hard to dispute Schumacher’s class.
Schumacher transformed Ferrari’s fortunes, ensuring the Italian giants were able to move into the modern era with the capacity to challenge at the front of the grid. Even in defeat, after conceding the 2006 World Championship to Fernando Alonso, Schumacher possessed a grace and poise rarely matched in Formula 1.
Michael Schumacher is the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time
In the final race of the 2006 season, Schumacher dropped to 19th place, 70 seconds behind his teammate, Felipe Massa, as a result of a tyre puncture. Regardless, Schumacher recovered to secure fourth position in what continues to be appreciated as one of the best drives of all time.
I’m not here to expunge some of the less palatable things that Schumacher did throughout his career. I’m here to say that Michael Schumacher is the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, and that I – and a generation of awe-inspired onlookers – miss his presence every race day.
This article was originally published as part of Great Debates, click here to view the original version.