We are witnessing another “Golden Era” in Grand prix motor racing, one that will rival the classic era of 1950-1968 in creating legends of the sport. Today’s Formula One circus is still unfortunately marred by money politics and officious stewardship — witness the drive-through penalty assessed on Juan Pablo Montoya at Malaysia — but all of that pales in comparison to the brilliant driving of Michael Schumacher.
Since his debut with Team Jordan in 1991, Schumacher has pounced on F1 like a tiger, vanquishing rivals Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen and others as if they were merely so much dead meat. Not that they are slouches, with three World Championships between them, but Schumacher’s mastery of modern Formula One is clear. Taking a desolate Scuderia Ferrari under his wing in 1996, Schumacher has guided Maranello to back-to-back championships, remaking the team in his own image. Leading the prancing horse back to the top of the heap would be proof enough of his artistry, but Schumacher has done more.
As of this writing, Schumacher leads all Grand Prix drivers in career wins, points, fastest laps and kilometers led. He has tied Nigel Mansell’s record of nine wins in a season three times (1995, 2000 and 2001) and last year shattered the mark for season points with 123. He stands second only to “The Maestro” Juan Manuel Fangio in points per GP appearance and, other than Jim Clark, is the only Formula One driver in the last 40 years to win more than 30% of his GP starts. With a little luck, he is bound eventually to break the late Ayrton Senna’s “unbeatable” mark of 65 pole positions, as well.
Numbers are not everything, but Schumacher’s relentless re-writing of the Formula One record books is remarkable. It reveals his maturity as an athlete and his progress as a leader. It illuminates his drive to succeed and his unflinching pursuit of perfection. It illustrates that while many things change over time in F1, the basic qualities that make the sport so compelling are surely alive and well in the 21st Century.
With the technical superiority of Ferrari assured, there seems little doubt that this year or next will see Schumacher take his fifth World Championship, something matched only by the legendary Fangio and an achievement many would have thought impossible for anyone just a few short years ago. Yes, he started brash and may have benefited from an absence of “stars” in the early days of his career, but Schumacher has proven he deserves to be classified among the best who have ever lived. Twenty or thirty years from now, F1 aficionados luck enough to have seen him drive in person will say, like they do of Fangio, Clark and Senna, “I saw him when …” That is as it should be. We are witnesses a true example of the “art & genius” of Formula One in our own times.