What We Can Learn from Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher is a seven time Formula One World Champion who’s regarded as one of the greatest drivers ever. He immediately made an impact when he arrived and his focus on physical fitness delivered clear benefits during the gruelling races.

He was always a controversial figure though, as his ruthless determination would often push him over the edge of what was considered acceptable.

Schumacher essentially had two careers as well, as he returned to the new Mercedes team in 2010 following his retirement while driving for Ferrari in 2006. It wasn’t as successful the second time around though and he finally retired for good in 2012, without winning a race for the team.

A tragic accident then occurred at the end of 2013 when a freak fall while skiing left him in a coma. While he has since returned to his home, he clearly faces a long recovery and little has been revealed about his condition. 

I’ve chosen to examine him in this series as I have always been a huge fan and have been fortunate enough to meet him on several occasions. I really want to focus on him as a person as well, rather than just his sporting achievements. 

Like the other people I've looked at in this series, I’ll examine the good, and then the bad points before deciding what's important:

The Good

I don’t think anyone can deny that Schumacher was one of the best drivers to race in F1. Direct comparisons with other great drivers throughout the years are hard to make though, considering the changing nature of the sport and the technical differences between the cars.

I think the most significant thing about him was his determination to be physically and mentally superior to his opponents.

He arrived in the sport far fitter than the other drivers and before he arrived, team bosses would often factor in a 20% drop off towards the end of the race due to fatigue. Michael ensured that he was at 100% throughout the race though, and it really made a difference.

You only have to consider the fact that even the great Ayrton Senna would at times collapse after a race, but Michael would look like he’d just got in the car.

He also created his own luck with extensive preparation and intense focus on all aspects of the sport. This meant that even if he ran off the track, he would often find his way back via an alternative route he would have identified in advance.

He also worked very hard and did everything he could to ensure he was ready for any challenges that arose. It wasn’t unusual to find him working late into the evening, and he was even known to personally inspect all the tyres that were available to get an idea of how they would perform on track when they were fitted to the car. 

In short, he never relied on his talent alone and left very little to chance.

His hard work off the track also inspired others and clearly helped him create very effective teams around him. He worked very closely with his personal team and created personal connections with those he worked with. 

He also loved racing, and you could see him cherish every moment of his success.

The Bad

I think it’s fair to say that Schumacher ‘crossed the line’ on more than one occasion. He was involved in two very controversial crashes that decided championships, and he was even retrospectively excluded from the 1997 season following one of them.

His drive and ambition, combined with unwavering self-belief, often pushed him beyond what was not only considered acceptable, but also what was written in the rulebook.

The threat of losing, or not being able to compete effectively, also had a very negative impact on him. We would often see an erratic and emotional response from him in these situations, rather than the cool and calculating approach that was so effective. 

As you'd expect, he didn’t have great relationships with other drivers either, and even those he once considered friends, like David Coulthard, would develop significant animosity towards him as a result of his actions.

This all came to a head in 2006 when there was an incident during qualifying at Monaco, where Schumacher stopped on track and hindered a quick lap by his rival, Fernando Alonso. Although it was not conclusive, the majority of people considered it a deliberate act, largely due to his actions in the past, and he was subsequently penalised for it. 

His skill and ability were never questioned though, until his return in 2010.

He struggled to adapt to the new Mercedes, specifically the tyres, and was often overshadowed by his teammate, Nico Rosberg. This was all very surprising and while it was unlikely he could win that season, I think it’s safe to say that everyone expected a bit more. 

Things didn’t get much better over the next three years and despite some glimpses of his previous form, like at Monaco in 2012, he retired after only one podium finish.

Michael Schumacher at Mercedes

What's Important

I like to focus on the contrasts between his first career and then the return with Mercedes. When he was in his prime, his drive and intensity frequently pushed him over the edge of what we would all consider acceptable, or even healthy. 

The man who returned to F1 in 2010 was different though, as this was someone who was clearly comfortable with his achievements. He also accepted the situation he was faced with and objectively focused on what needed to be done.

The problems seems to arise when his own personal performance was challenged, but the person we saw at Mercedes seemed to have addressed and overcome this serious weakness.

I think it’s safe to say that we saw someone who was happy, grateful and content and on a personal level, I liked this guy a lot more. The most significant thing for me is that he addressed his issues and changed, and life must have been a lot easier for him.

The big question for me is whether he would have achieved his success without his previous approach. The truth is, I don’t know but I think his drive and focus would have clearly been there. I also think it’s safe to say that all of his lowest moments happened after he let his emotions get the better of him, so he could have perhaps found a better balance.

His nationality didn’t help him either, particularly when he was in direct competition with Damon Hill.

I think it’s fair to say he was stereotyped in the UK, and that this clearly lead so some very unfair and unbalanced coverage in the press. 

There was always uncertainty as to whether he was a cold, ruthless individual with little regards for others, or if he really was a nice guy behind the scenes with a close family behind him and a tight circle of friends and colleagues.

I’m happy to say that I know it was the latter. Friends of mine have worked with him and clearly respected him on a personal and professional level. They also confirmed that he really was great at what he did, and he often surprised them with his commitment and ability.

Unlike other drivers, Michael would do his best to make time to sign autographs and meet fans. I remember him walking some distance to sign a cap for me at a test at Silverstone in 1999. He even went out of his way to call his brother Ralf over as well when he saw I had a Williams cap in my bag. 

I’ll never forget the way he made time to meet me during the British Grand Prix weekend in 2010 though after hearing that I was a long time fan. I can honestly tell you that he was a great guy and that he genuinely appreciated the people who had supported him during his career.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but this was clearly the exception to the rule.

His accident was a genuine tragedy and like so many people, I look forward to hearing some positive news in future. I think that his family should be given complete privacy though and that this tragedy should inspire us to make the most of the time we have.

In closing, I think the main thing we can take away from Michael Schumacher is the need to be positive, love what you’re doing and work hard to make it happen. We also need to make sure we celebrate the good times, as they can sometimes be less frequent than the bad ones.

Image: Michael Schumacher 2010 Canada free practice by Mark McArdle licensed under CC BY 2.0