Much of the reaction and comment over the Spa Grand Prix weekend was about the 20th anniversary of Michael Schumacher’s debut in Formula One, in the beautiful Jordan 191 at Spa. It was interesting reading, and listening, and recently I have been thinking back over his career, and is place in the pantheon of greats.
My assessment of Schumacher is bound around one thing, which has been little explored, and may be a personal peccadillo of mine, but I think is interesting. And it is this: did Schumacher improve the sport by being there? By that I don’t mean being the greatest driver ever, or his strengths or weaknesses, but did he in some way make the sport better by being there? If he had taken up a job as a mechanic in his home town would the sport have improved, or been massively hurt? It is there where things become murky.
Well the first certainty is that we would have been robbed of the early years, the fresh faced young German, in the gorgeous Jordan, and then the rough and ready manual gearboxed Benetton, fizzing and glistening with promise, when anything was possible. Socking it to the greats, racing with and beating Mansell, Senna, and Prost. Destroying Piquet and Patrese, fighting off an exceptional rearguard from the wily Martin Brundle in 1992. Racing, overtaking, smiling on the podium, defending, scrapping, fighting, winning. I must admit at the time, as a younger man myself, I was a TREMENDOUS fan of this vibrant young driver, rocking the established order. I couldn’t imagine him as part of the old generation of drivers, and was so excited about watching him grown, and be a champion, and continuing on....well you though he could be timeless (as it seems to have turned out). No question, the Schumacher of 1991-1993 brought another dimension to the sport, challenging the established order, propelling a Benetton that could quickly, with Ford engines, have run out of steam, and deservedly becoming one of the big beasts himself.
But...did this vibrant young man subsequently add to the sport? Did his being there make a significant contribution, even if you were not a fan of his, similar to, say, Fernando Alonso today? My contention would be that he did not. If you had taken Schumacher away from the late nineties and early noughties era of Formula One it would probably in my eyes have significantly improved the sport. In some ways it would have been lacking, but the sport could have made a virtue of it. There was discernibly a drop in quality of the field post Senna, Prost, Mansell, but sans Schumacher the field could have been flattened out, and the pressure of competition between Messer’s Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Montoya, Hill et al could have been close, competitive, and exciting, a field of equals racing hard. After all, late nineties Champ Car only needed fields headed by Zanardi, Vasser or Montoya to be absolutely riveting. The absence of Schumacher would also have taken away from the feeling that one side (in this case the Schumacher/Ferrari axis) was being unfairly favoured by the FIA. Perhaps we might have had a level playing field...?.... well, probably not, but maybe not quite such a jaundiced one either. All in all, it would have been a fitting response to the state of Formula One, an interim era between the big beats of the eighties and nineties and now. Of course we would have missed Schumacher’s wet weather skills and his ability to prostitute a car to do multiple qualifying laps in a race, flat chat, to pass people ‘at the stops’. Well, for the first, Jean Alesi and others would have provided their moments, and for the second... you can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned! I did not find it monumentally fascinating at the time....
And this is why I have enjoyed Schumacher more in his second incarnation. All the refuelling rubbish has gone, and he actually has to race, and finally I feel there is some sort of connection again with the young Benetton driver in the thick of the pack from all those years ago. His performances have been a lot better this year and he has....mostly....kept it clean, apart from reverting to the revolting old antics with Hamilton at Monza (and I make a distinction between this year and last, just ask a Mr Barrichello about that!). He is even only three points behind Rosberg at the time of asking in the championship. Although he is defiantly still a ‘but...’ driver!
So, I enjoy him more since his comeback. But a lot of that is down to the different Formula he races in. Do I value him as an essential part of making Formula One great? No!