I spent some time yesterday rooting in boxes and cupboards around my house, searching from a letter I received from Monaco about 14 years ago or so. The initials of the logo at the top of the page form the outline of a racing car, it’s addressed to me personally and contains a quick note to thank me for my “good wishes”. It’s signed (or squiggled) by Michael Schumacher.
My interest in Formula 1, and Schumacher in particular, became more than passing phase during the 1995 season when our respective choice of driver left my older brother & I at loggerheads. He supported Damon Hill, I opted for Schumacher – and one of us never looked back!
The British media’s adversity towards Schumacher only helped his cause in my eyes, and it very quickly became apparent that F1’s heir apparent was a very special driver indeed. However impressive his days at Benetton (can we sneak Jordan in there for a mention?!), many of his ultimately supreme days would come in the red of Ferrari – where he brought new meaning to the idea of galvanising a team around their driver.
There were spectacular wins – none more memorable than his win in the rain in Spain in 1996, where he lapped up to three seconds faster than every other car out on track, or the French Grand Prix in 2004 where a daring and high-risk 4 pit stop strategy allowed him outwit and outrace the rest of the grid (a rare enough occurrence even then).
He was no angel – as his clashes with Hill and Jacques Villeneuve demonstrate – but apart from the Fernando Alonso-Lewis Hamilton spat, when was there last a decent rivalry in the sport? Remember (briefly) wondering if Schumacher could finish the race with three wheels after his clash with David Coulthard in 1998? He was THAT good.
And a sport is exactly what Formula 1 is – a point Schumacher, more than any other driver, showed time and time again. It was his approach to fitness and preparation that heralded a huge sea change in the 1990s. It was Schumacher that led a niche group of drivers capable of making up the difference between an average car and a race-winning car for over a decade, and it was Schumacher who brought personality, mental toughness and an edge to a racing discipline that suffers from bouts of blandness on occasion.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Schumacher race on two occasions. First, at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001, where he was beaten into second place by his brother Ralf and then at the Belgian Grand Prix a year later where we had prime seats to view the fantastic run down to Eau Rouge (absolutely awesome and worth every cent!) and see Michael receive his winner’s trophy. I’ve said it often over the years but there really is no comparison to being at the races themselves and hearing, smelling and seeing the racing close up.
I finally got a chance to see the man himself close up and in ‘real’ life at the Race of Champions event in London five years ago. Schumacher joined forces with an up-and-coming starlet by the name of Sebastian Vettel to represent Germany in the team competition – and even though it was just for ‘fun’, the duo were streets ahead of the rest.
What astonished me was the fuss that followed him everywhere he went that day. When Schumacher arrived at the press briefings (I did get to ask a question – very exciting!), a whole gaggle of people would follow and inch closer – eager to get his views on every possible topic. Walking down the corridor, he was greeted by shouts of ‘Schumi’ from anxious autograph hunters, and even the other ‘celebrity’ participants seemed in awe of the man from Kerpen, whose childhood wasn’t a million miles away from normal by anyone else’s standards.
And it was that back story – of knowing Schumacher overcame so many hurdles to get to the pinnacle of motor racing, before going on to rewrite the record books – that led me, following his crash at Silverstone in 1999, to send him a card with a grizzly bear holding his foot (he broke his leg – god, the cheese when I think about it…), and wish him all the best for the future.
I’d like to do so again about now, and just pay my own small tribute to the man that has inspired so many in such different ways. Godspeed a full recovery Michael.