Michael Schumacher, from evil genius to beloved underdog

Michael SchumacherToday Michael Schumacher has his 45th birthday, in a hospital, fighting for his life. After, what should have been, a rather innocent skiing accident.

According to his spokeswoman, Sabine Kehm, Michael crossed a strip of deep snow between a red and a blue slope. He had just helped a friend who had fallen, and now fell himself at modest speed, but landed head first on a rock. Luckily he was wearing a helmet, but the resulting brain damage is life-threatening even so.

Legend

Retired or not, Schumacher is a legend, and much of the media immediately went crazy. A “journalist” dressed as a priest tried to sneak into his room. Publications ran “witness accounts” that he had been skiing at 100 km/h, in deep snow… Pro-skiers can’t even reach that speed in deep snow.

It’s too early to say if and how Michael will come out of this, but I’m hopeful. Of course I’m no doctor, but what I’ve learned from similar cases is that the patient’s physical condition is crucial to the recovery. And they don’t come much more fit than Schumi.

Schumi cockpit 400pxWinner

Schumacher is the most successful F1 driver ever; 7 world titles, 91 victories and a total of 155 podiums out of his 307 starts. Yes, that’s more than half of all F1 races he entered…. Still, he definitely hasn’t been the most beloved driver in history, which comes with the territory of serial winning. But he was often even hated, because he was such a tough competitor.

It’s silly to hate someone for doing what he’s supposed to, namely try to win. I’ve always respected Michael. I remember first seeing him race a kart in the rain; he was brilliant. It looked like sidecar racing, he used his body weight to create extra grip for whichever tire needed it most. It’s the first time I ever used the words “four-wheel-thinking”. I also raced karts, and learned from him; I became a better rain-driver for it. Still, I didn’t become a fan.

Dirty tactics

Michael displayed a “killer mentality” that made him less than lovable. One of the most discussed incidents occurred when he secured his first world title by crashing out with Damon Hill, his only remaining rival in the last race of 1994. His car was damaged, so Hill was about to pass him and win the title as a result. So he used his wounded car to block Hill, and they eventually crashed together and Michael won the title. It wasn’t sportsmanlike, but it was smart and not illegal.

Schumacher in the light blue Benetton vs Damon Hill in the white and blue Williams

There were more incidents, like in Jerez ’97. Again in the last race of the season, he tried to take out Jacques Villeneuve, the only remaining rival. But this time it was clear that he rammed his opponent intentionally and he was taken out of the championship standings for it. These incidents underlined Michael’s reputation for wanting to win at any price.

Schumi in the red Ferrari vs Jacques Villeneuve, Jerez 1997

Of course Michael deserved to be penalized for the Jerez incident, but why “hate” him for it? What’s the difference with a last-minute tackle on a footballer who is about to score and deny your team the world title? You do it, take your red card and if it worked out; you celebrate the title.

Retired

As Michael grew older, he slowly got milder, which should be expected of someone who is achieving his every goal and breaking every F1 record. When he retired in 2006, he was pretty much burnt-out from 15,5 years of F1. Michael had spent 15 years constantly thinking about the car and how to improve it; hundreds of team members depended on him; billions worth of sponsorship deals were made largely based on his results. And always, everywhere there was press, from knowledgeable F1 writers to paparazzi. And don’t forget the haters. Michael was tired of F1.

Schumi many cars 400pxComeback

I’m not a fanboy to start with, but in his first career I wasn’t a fan of some of Michael tactics. When he returned to F1 though in 2010, age 41, I admired him for it. He didn’t care how that might effect his statistics, or that he may be past his prime, or that F1 had changed during his absence; he just wanted to race again.

Michael’s comeback wasn’t a success; he proved that he was still one of the 10 or so best drivers in the world, but his former glory only shone through occasionallyThere are multiple reasons why he didn’t reign like before. The competition was definitely stronger, he frequently had bad luck, he made more mistakes, etc. But for me the main reason is that Michael had always raced in the days of unlimited testing. He would win on Sunday, and be back on the test track on Monday to improve the car. But in modern F1 there is no more in-season testing. So testing needs to be done in simulators, which is fine for the video game generation, but not for Michael who had started karting when he was 4 years old. Michael is a rubber on the road type racer, a four-wheel-thinker, not a virtual driver.

Future?

Around the world, many, many people hope and pray for Michael; the former alpha dog is clearly beloved. And like I said, I’m hopeful, because I’m sure he’s fighting as fiercely as ever to win the race of his life.

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