Schumacher and Ferrari: The Launch of F1's Greatest Partnership
Michael Schumacher and Ferrari became the dominant force in Formula One, but when the German joined the team was more famous for politics and in-fighting than winning races.
When something ends in glittering success, it is easy to forget the comparative chaos in which it began. In sport we sometimes tend to look upon sustained dominance as something that has simply been arrived at through good fortune, rather than bold risks and countless hours of hard work.
A good example: some see what Michael Schumacher achieved at Ferrari – five world titles, 72 races wins, records set and broken – and think the German had it easy. By the early 2000s he was F1's best driver in the fastest car, the clear number one at the sport's richest and most prestigious team. Schumacher was playing life on easy mode; was it any surprise he won and won and won?
What this ignores is that the team Schumacher joined was not the all-conquering behemoth it became between 2000 and 2004. By 1996 Ferrari had not claimed a drivers' world title in 17 years and were becoming more famous for politics and in-fighting than grand prix success.
So whatever the end result tells you, Schumacher's decision to move to the Italian team was at least something of a risk. If Ferrari continued to get things wrong – and by '96 it felt as though they would do just that, forever – Schumacher might never have won another world title. For Schumacher in an alternate reality, look no further than Fernando Alonso's career post-2006.
The German's first outing as an official Ferrari driver came at their Fiorano track 20 years ago, on 15 February 1996 (he had tested their old car late the previous year). The time that has passed seems incredible: Max Verstappen – a man who looks capable of following Schumacher into F1's upper echelons – was not even born when Michael first dipped a red boot into the F310 cockpit. In fact none of the current F1 pack were even racing cars by this point – the granddad of the 2016 grid, Kimi Raikkonen, was 16 and still competing in go-karts.
The wider sporting world looked very different, too. The previous day, another man famed for sporting glory with a red team – former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley – had died aged 77. Newcastle United were top of the Premier League by nine points, and Mike Tyson was preparing to fight Frank Bruno for the WBC heavyweight championship.
While Tyson's career had already passed its peak, Schumacher's greatest achievements were on the horizon. He moved to Ferrari following back-to-back world titles with Benetton, the first a contentious affair that ended one of the sport's darkest seasons, the second less fraught but still controversial. Benetton finished that year with 11 wins and 137 points; the team Schumacher was set to join won once and accumulated a comparatively paltry 73.
As career moves go, it seemed brave. Strip the red paint and the prancing horse from the cars and it could be considered downright foolish
But Ferrari is different. There from day one, the clearest symbol of grand prix racing, the team that had made legends of Ascari, Lauda and Villeneuve. Few can resist their lure, even when times are hard in Maranello. In fact it is in fallow periods that Ferrari makes its play for a superstar: Sebastian Vettel was Red Bull's chief brand ambassador, but he is the latest to be tempted to race in red.
Not that rational German minds like Schumacher or Vettel would be pulled in by romance alone. You cannot ignore the fact that Schumacher was being paid a salary befitting his success to make the switch – a reported $30m, making him the best-paid driver of the time. But while the German was no doubt happy to sign a contract with that many zeroes on it, he would also have been driven by the prestige that awaited Ferrari's saviour. They had floundered, but the man who took them back to the top would enjoy a special place in F1 history.
Following his first test, that sort of return to glory must have seemed a long way off. The 1996 Ferrari was certifiably crap; in fact, you only had to look at the car to see that it wouldn't be fast. Chunky and graceless, it lacked the clean lines and aggressive aero of the Williams-Renault that would dominate the 1996 campaign.
Schumacher's new teammate, the straight-talking Eddie Irvine, confirmed as much in an interview with Sky Sports: "I remember when it came out I said to Michael, 'This looks worryingly different from everybody else's car,'" recalled Irvine. "It was just a disaster. And that year he did an amazing job to drive that thing because it was a piece of junk – it really was."
Launch day with Schumacher, Irvine, and Ferrari tester/token Italian Nicola Larini | PA Images
Schumacher proved his worth to the team during the 1996 season, winning three times in 'that thing'. The first, at the Spanish Grand Prix, has come to be seen as one of the finest performances in the sport's history, with Schumacher finishing 45 seconds clear of his closest competitor in pouring rain. He added two more wins – in Belgium and, much to the Tifosi's joy, in Italy – to end the year third in the world championship.
By this stage it was clear that Schumacher's 'risky move' was probably more a calculated gamble, and one that would probably pay off. The ground was already being prepared for success at Ferrari before he arrived there. Perhaps the most significant appointment was Jean Todt, who came in as manager in 1993 and is widely credited with isolating the race team from the politics rife within the wider Ferrari organisation. That allowed a crew that would eventually include Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne to build the cars that conquered the world.
From there the ascent was steep. Schumacher almost won the 1997 title despite having an inferior car to Williams, and repeated the trick in 1998 when McLaren produced the fastest package. He might well have been 1999 champion had he not broken his leg at the British Grand Prix, then went on a five-year run of dominance beginning in 2000. It was relentless, brilliant, and historic. At times it was also pretty boring.
But you cannot look at the performances of 2002 and 2004 – his most crushing title victories – in isolation. Far better to recall a day at Fiorano when it all seemed a risk, when the hard work was still yet to be done.