Michael Schumacher: F1's Greatest Driver?

Paul MurtaghCorrespondent IJuly 14, 2008

For many Germans and other nationalities, the words "Formula One" can only be associated with one man—Michael Schumacher.

He has broken many F1 records during his 16 years in the sport, with seven world titles, 91 wins, 68 poles, 154 podiums, and 1,369 points. He is known as the man who took a modest team (Benetton) to glory, and then set about resurrecting the grand Ferrari team that had not won a title in over 20 years.

He managed to achieve both and is regarded by many as the greatest F1 driver of all-time—but not without controversy.

Schumi, as he is affectionately known, made his F1 debut at Spa in 1991 for the new Jordan Grand Prix team, after their regular driver, Bertranct Gachot, was jailed for two months for spraying a taxi driver with CS gas.

Michael immediately made the F1 family sit up and take notice after qualifying a sensational seventh on the grid—despite only having minimal testing in the car the week before the race and having never seen the track before.

Although his clutch burnt out as he came out of Eau Rouge on the first lap, an F1 star was born.

But his first act of controversy came straight away, as he moved over to the Benetton team despite having a contract with Jordan (this led to the set-up of the Contract Recognition Board).

After finishing the season with Benetton he remained with them in 1992, being paired with Martin Brundle. At Spa that season he scored his maiden F1 win in changeable conditions and finished third in the championship. In 1993 he took his second career victory at Estoril on his way to fourth in the title race.

For 1994 he was pitched head-to-head with Ayrton Senna in the Williams, and was hot on the heels of the Brazilian when he fatally crashed at Tamburello during the San Marino GP.

This affected Schumi badly, and he stayed away from the funeral, fearing a backlash from the Brazilian public. He even contemplated retirement before being persuaded by the Benetton team to stay on.

He went on to win three of the next four races, and was controlling the championship when he was disqualified from second at the British GP for overtaking pole man Damon Hill on the formation lap.

He was later also disqualified from the Belgian GP for a technical infringement, meaning that there was only one point separating him from Hill going into the final round in Adelaide.

On lap 36 he ran wide and when he rejoined the track Hill tried to dive down the inside to take the position. Schumi turned in as usual as the two collided, with Schumi going into the tyre wall and Hill retiring with suspension damage.

Schumi had won his first world title, and regained it the following year after another battle with Hill for the championship. This was more clear-cut, as Schumi won it with two rounds to spare. But the two drivers still had their moments, both retiring after colliding at the British and Italian Grand Prix.

In 1996 Michael wanted a new challenge and moved to the famous Ferrari team, which had only won two races in six seasons and hadn't won the championship since 1979.

In his first season with the Scuderia, Schumi helped redress the balance, winning three races despite appalling reliability on the Ferrari. In 1997 things improved once again, with the German taking five wins and going into the final round one point ahead of Jacques Villeneuve.

But once again he was involved in a controversial collision, this time losing out and being stripped of his second place in the championship.

In 1998 he took a further six wins and went into the final race with another shot at the title, but a stalled engine at the start and right rear tyre failure handed the title to Mika Haikkinen.

It looked like he would finally clinch the title in 1999. But a crash in Silverstone where he broke his leg ended his challenge, leaving his teammate Eddie Irvine to try, but fail, to overhaul Haikkinen for the title.

In 2000 things started off well, with three wins in the first three races. But a midseason slump, which saw him retire from three out of four races, meant that once again he had a title showdown with Mika Haikkinen at Suzuka.

However, this time it all came out right, and Schumi became the first driver since Jody Schekter in 1979 to win the title in a Ferrari. The floodgates had now opened and he won a second title with the team in 2001. Then he earned his fifth title, equaling Fangio's record, in 2002 at the French GP with six rounds left.

However, in a situation we might characterize as Schumi-esque, there was a hugely controversial moment. In Austria he was dominated by teammate Barrichello who looked set to take victory, but then moved over just before the line to give Schumi the win.

A chorus of booing, followed by an embarrassing moment on the podium, meant that the team was under the spotlight. This led to the banning of team orders in F1.

He struggled throughout 2003 with the Bridgestone tyres, but took his record-breaking sixth title at the final race at Suzuka, fighting off the challenge of young chargers Kimi Raikkonen (who would later replace him at Ferrari) and Juan Pablo Montoya.

In 2004 he was once again dominant, taking 13 wins and clinching the title with four races left, breaking the points record on the way.

Alas, his domination was not to last.

Despite having a fast car, Ferrari struggled with tyres in 2005, and Schumi could do no better than third in the title race, taking his only win of the season at the six-car USGP fiasco.

Rumours of retirement began to surface, but Schumi went into the 2006 season full of optimism. He equaled Ayrton Senna's pole-position record at the opening race in Bahrain, and claimed the record outright three rounds later at the San Marino GP—the same race in which Senna met his death.

As the season went on he began a championship challenge, despite being 25 points behind reigning champion Fernando Alonso after the Canadian GP.

After Alonso retired at Monza and Schumi took an emotional win, pulling himself level with the Spaniard, he announced that he was to retire from the sport at the end of the season.

This gave him the chance to end his career as a world champion, but an engine failure at the next race in Japan left his dream in tatters. Despite a spirited drive in the final race of the season in Brazil, where he climbed up to fourth despite starting 10th and receiving a puncture during the race, he lost the title to Fernando Alonso.

So how has Schumi's career been reflected upon since his retirement?

Without doubt it has been tainted in many people's eyes due to his incidents. But then again, Senna, Prost, Mansell, and Piquet all had their moments yet are still regarded as greats.

He is statistically the most successful driver ever to have taken part in F1, and when you are watching the German GP this weekend you will still see Michael Schumacher flags flying in the grandstands—proof that the great man made a massive impression on Formula 1.