Discussing Michael Schumacher’s driving style is challenging, because his career spans 3 decades or, if you prefer, 23 years (including the 2012 season) – 20 years if we take out the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Considering that the official F1 championship started in 1950, this means that Schumacher’s career covers 31.5% of the time that we had a F1 championship. To get a better understanding, Schumacher has raced (and won) against drivers representing many generations of F1 drivers; to name but a few: Stefan Johansson, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel… It’s fair to say that people come and go in Formula 1, but Michael is always there. Which makes the fact that he’s still competitive and he’s still racing at (near) the top, an extraordinary feat, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of the sport. There are F1 drivers that joined the sport as promising rookies when Schumacher was already an established figure, and are now retired old-timers, like Jacque Villeneuve, Olivier Panis, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, Jos Verstappen, Mika Salo, Giancarlo Fisichella, etc… It sometimes hard to understand: no one would consider Jacques Villeneuve, for example, for a race seat in 2012 – it would be a folly. Nevertheless, Jacques joined F1 in 1996, i.e. 5 years later than Michael, and has retired in 2006 (i.e. 6 years ago and long overdue), yet Michael is still racing, which is a testament of a unique combination of sheer talent, determination and love for the sport.
That’s quite a long introduction to the subject of driving styles, but people need to understand that Michael has driven a large variety of F1 cars in his time, and, as we explained in our previous blog, a driver needs to adapt his driving style (sometimes drastically) to suit different cars, tracks and tyres characteristics. It would be silly to suggest that Michael is now using the same “style” as his did when he was racing the 1991 Benetton. However, there are things that never change, and they have to do more with the way a driver deals with the physics involved and his setup preferences. For example, Ralf Schumacher was a late braker; Jarno Trulli was the opposite. Jenson Button brakes earlier than Rubens but he is more progressive. Mika Hakkinen prefered a later turn-in than David Coulthard. Senna blipped the throttle in the middle of the corner, Schumacher was never really off it. Kimi Raikkonen is superb in weight-transfer situations. Ronnie Peterson couldn’t even park a car without power sliding it, etc, etc. The most important thing though that defines a racing driver is his feel for the limit, and we will expand later on that.
The principles of driving a F1 car haven’t changed dramatically from the past. Prost has said that the ideal setup is one with an inclination towards understeer, which preserves the rear tyres and makes the car predictable in fast corners. What Schumacher (and other great drivers in the past) has been able to do, is to drive with the same efficiency and speed cars that were not perfect, or to his absolute liking at all times. We mustn’t forget that Michael’s most spectacular season was 1997, when he fought for the championship in a car that was desperately temperamental, against much stronger opposition, and he would have won it had it not been for his radiator failing in the last race at Jerez, while leading the race.
Michael drove some difficult and temperamental cars in his career. People tend to forget that cars in the 90′s and early 00′s were completely different beasts to contemporary F1 cars, which are extremely well designed, predictable, and have huge amounts of driveable downforce. We have now reached a point that a driver can make little difference in lap times (certainly much less than in the past). The cars don’t twitch under breaking, don’t power slide, you can’t miss a gear change and you can’t over-rev the engine. But it was a different story back then. Up until 1998, Schumacher used to out-qualify his team-mates by 1 -1.5 seconds on average, each year. In fact, he out-qualified every team-mate he ever had from the end of the 1991 season until the start of the 1996 season, with the exception of the 1995 Belgian GP when it started to rain and Schumi hadn’t set a lap in the dry. He qualified 15th and still went on to win the race in spectacular fashion. Can you imagine spending almost 5 years without being out-qualified by another driver driving the same car as you? The reason I have mentioned these old times is because it makes much more sense to talk about Michael’s driving style up until circa 2004 than it is to talk about today. And I am afraid that I will have to follow Peter Windsor’s advise and not post any footage this time, because it’s illegal according to FOM (you can however search for yourselves in YouTube and find many gems).
So, what was it that made Schumacher so special? First, it was the purely visual element; Michael was a spectacular driver to see, especially in a hot lap, from the outside. It was a bit like watching ballet as opposed to bull fighting. The car was dancing around, but in a very premeditated, pre-calculated fashion. And if we watch his onboard laps, it’s easy to understand why. Michael, despite popular misguided opinion, was (and still is actually) a driver who prefers understeer, because he simply understands that this is where the lap time is coming from and that this is the ideal way to set up a car. In fact he is arguably the best driver in the history of the sport when it comes to dealing with understeer, as many team-mates he’s had in the past have attested to (Brundle, Irvine and Rubens). Ferrari, as a result of this, had always been (since 1999) a very stable and well-balanced car throughout Schumi’s reign, that always tended to understeer rather than oversteer at corner entries.
His main advantage was that he was able to carry huge amounts of speed into a corner, by using a gradually increasing steering lock as opposed to gradually decreasing left-foot braking. The interesting bit was that he was able to slide the car at the exact apex of the corner, timing this brief transition from understeer to neutral-steer to perfection. This transition wasn’t a result of something he did (e.g. wheel movement or application of brake) but it was more a natural transition from one state to the other that simply relied on physics and car setup. What was spectacular about it was the timing, since this slide would almost always take place on mid corner, so when viewed from outside it was a very fluid and natural movement, as if the car slid just this tiny bit in order to embrace the apex of the corner.
To accomplish that, Schumacher was rarely off the throttle completely, and even when he came back on it, he was very progressive and gentle – the first since many generations of drivers to achieve that. Popular belief, again, has Senna blipping the throttle inside the corners, in an on-off manner, and that’s true, but what many people don’t realize is that almost all drivers in F1 were just like that back then. Hakkinen, Berger, Coulthard, Alesi, Hill, Herbert, etc all used on-off throttle in the corners, but Michael was the first driver to take car control-by-throttle-usage to that different level. As a result, this slide at the apex of the corner, (which some have called “4-wheel drift” but I prefer to call neutral-steer), gave Michael a very significant advantage in positioning the car for the exit, by straightening the car very early. Michael never used extreme reactions to correct this slide, because it was all premeditated, just a small decrease of the initial steering lock, usually to the neutral position, which again made the transition from the apex of the corner to the exit extremely fluid and, to the onlookers, to appear as one movement. Not only the car, but the front wheels and the steering wheel were in perfect position to put the power down for the exit.
As a result of the above, Michael was indeed the first driver in the history of the sport to have maximized corner entry, apex and exit at the same time. If you like, he was the first driver to apply the fast-in, fast-out driving style. In fact, in order to be entirely accurate, we have to say that there were times when his apex speed was not the absolute fastest because of all the things that were going on at this stage, but overall he would be much faster than anybody else exactly because he didn’t have to compromise any speed either at corner entry or at corner exit. This relentless, absolute driving style required a very necessary ingredient: a very good and consistent feeling for the limit. Like we discussed in our previous blog, Alonso was able to drive the way he did in 2003 – 2006 because he had a very good feeling of how much the car was going to slide and at what exact point it would regain its grip. For Michael it was the same story, only more so, because he had to maximize all parts of the corner. His incredible, instinctive feel for the limit allowed him to drive like the way we described, using the slide to position the car and hardly ever using all the kerbs at the exit, simply because he was so nicely positioned for the straight that he didn’t have to. The only driver that has approached, ever since, this kind of driving style perfection is Lewis Hamilton, but not nearly as consistently as Michael who could do that one lap after the other, for an entire race.
This uncanny feeling for the limit came to the fore every time the track conditions were wet. Schumacher’s wet races from that era are legendary, and he used to thrive in changing weather conditions when you had to trust your instinct on how much grip is available before you commit yourself to a corner. His most spectacular race ever was the Spanish Grand Prix of 1996, when he lapped the entire field up to 3rd position, and then just cruised around to collect the 10 points (for victory, at that time); this remains the single most convincing display of natural talent and dominance I have ever seen in a F1 car. Of course there are many more examples of wet race dominance, like Spa 1997, Spa 1998, Monaco 1997, Nurburgring 2000, Spa 1995, etc, etc. Back then, when the track was wet, Schumacher wasn’t aiming to win the race, but to humiliate his opponents, something for which he paid dearly on occasion, like for instance in Spa 1998 when he crashed at the back of David Coulthard while trying to lap him. In addition to that, Michael was an extremely cunning racer, who could adapt to almost anything that a race threw at him. In 1994, for instance, in the Spanish GP, he lost all gears (from a 6-speed gearbox) except 5th, with 40 laps to go, whilst leading the race. Michael used this feeling for the limit and his knowledge from driving heavy sports cars to bring the car home in 2nd position, including 2 pit stops where he had to get the car going in 5th gear… When he mentioned that he’d lost all gears but 5th in the press conference after the race nobody believed him, and Benetton had to show to the press the telemetry from the car in order to convince them.
So, there you have it. If I had to characterize Michael according to his driving style, I’d call him the great Calculator. Watching him drive in his prime was like watching art. It was this spectacular visual element that made me want to become more involved with the sport and understand what’s hidden behind it. A lot of people tend to disregard Schumacher’s achievements, by arguing that he had subservient team-mates and superior machinery. These opinions never made me angry; they made me sad instead, because it is sad to not be able to appreciate the beauty that Michael has brought to the sport. Appreciating Michael as a driver has made me love the sport even more, and it is simply depressing that other fans are missing on that.
And what about today, I hear you ask. Well, Michael today is not the driver he used to be, by any stretch of the imagination. And this is painfully obvious in his driving style, which is a far cry from his driving style of old. The problem does not lie in reflexes, because this has never been Michael’s strongest point. There have been slightly better drivers than him in that department in the past; it wasn’t just quick reflexes that made Michael faster than anybody else. What is missing, at this point, is this tremendous feeling for the limit - this sense that every move, every correction and every slide is a calculated, analyzed and premeditated action. You can see that from his onboard laps; Michael is more hesitant, his movements are not fluid and his reactions are edgier. Michael’s reactions are just that: reactive. It’s true that the Mercedes W01 and W02 didn’t help, but Rosberg was much more stable and fluid in his driving and, as a result, faster. This loss of feeling was also obvious in qualifying, not because Michael was slower than Nico, but because it took him 2 or 3 laps in each qualifying session to find his groove, whereas Nico was bang-on-the-money from his 1st hot lap. A better car, as we all hope that the W03 is, will surely restore some of his confidence and will allow him to drive better, but it will not be able to restore all the characteristics that made Michael such a unique talent in the history of motor sport.
Schumacher has lost so much of his talent over the years, he is 43 years old and has spent 3 years away from the sport. The fact that he’s still with us and that he outraced Nico in 2011 is a testament, if one was needed, to a truly spectacular and unique driving talent. It also speaks volumes for his love of the sport, for Michael truly adores F1; he’s a hardcore petrol head through and through. And, just for that, we can but love him.