Will Gray

Gray Matter: How Michael Schumacher changed F1

Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher ripped up the record books during his time in F1 – but it was the determined and ruthless way in which he reined that changed the sport forever.

From the cockpits of his F1 steeds to the saddles of his wife’s prize horses, Schumacher has always loved the buzz of adrenaline, but it was his single-minded focus on achieving 100 per cent performance in Formula One that stood him out from the crowd.

His ultimate domination during the early 2000s with Ferrari saw TV viewers switching off in their droves while in the F1 media centres race reports could be completed within a handful of laps of the start, such was the predictability of race results.

But as with any era of domination in any sport, such stellar performances should be admired rather than criticised.

And it was Schumacher’s focus on fitness, his single-minded approach on the track and his deep-rooted involvement in the team that enabled him to break those records and, in doing so, set the standard for the F1 drivers of the future.

FITNESS

A bead of sweat on Schumacher’s head during his prime was almost as rare as a blue moon.

As cars got faster and cornering speeds increased, there had been an increasing focus on the importance of drivers’ physical fitness but Schumacher took things up another notch.

The German spent hours in the gym honing himself into a lean, light and strong performance athlete, with a combination of endurance training and core strength exercises.

In comparison to his peers, he was in a different league and he set the standard for young drivers coming up through the ranks.

Indeed, fitness is now a primary focus from the day a driver gets behind the wheel and, as Schumacher discovered to his detriment during his comeback years, what once was one of his key advantages is now simply a pre-requisite.

TEAM FOCUS

Schumacher took the concept of teamwork to a new level during his time at Ferrari.

From the very start of his career, he appreciated the importance of the people around him. He saw himself as not just a driver, but a crucial part of the management team and a key advisor on how things should be developed.

First at Benetton then at Ferrari he focused on getting the very top people in the business not only in his team, but on his side of the garage.

For Schumacher, even his team-mate was there simply as another part of his armoury, to help him out “for the sake of the championship” if he ever needed support.

One-man teams have been seen before, but the fact that Schumacher had contractual veto over potential team-mates was, some felt, stretching things a bit too far.

Indeed, Ferrari’s internal driver management was so overt that team orders were banned in 2002. It proved impossible to police and was scrapped in 2011 - but that itself resulted in the more overt approach to team orders that we see today.

DESIGN FOCUS

Schumacher not only focused on the people around him, but also on the technologies that made his car go faster.

He learned basic mechanic skills while working alongside his father tinkering with karts during his early racing years and even briefly became a mechanic when he left school.

Having a brain that understood the underlying performance criterion for a fast racing car was key to his success – but it was how he used that knowledge that stepped things up another level.

At the circuit, he would sit with his engineers into the early hours of the morning trying to find that crucial extra little bit of performance. He knew what he was seeing, and his insight from inside the cockpit combined with the engineers’ knowledge of the data on the screens from the increasingly advanced telemetry systems gave him the edge.

Things have moved on, however, and modern day F1 data is so detailed that no one engineer holds all the information so the kind of commitment Schumacher gave to the engineering side is now impossible.

But drivers can still play a crucial part in the technology knowledge, and Schumacher had shown that it’s that kind of technical involvement that makes champions.

FOCUS AND DETERMINATION

All drivers have focus and determination, but Schumacher’s was so un-flinching that it was ultimately both his biggest success and his biggest failing.

There is a fine line between ruthless and unsporting, and like Ayrton Senna before him and other steely champions before him, Schumacher often took things too far and crossed that line.

No stranger to controversy, he was involved in not one but two world championship-deciding collisions. He won his first title by punting Damon Hill into the wall in Adelaide in 1994 and he openly admitted trying to knock Jacques Villeneuve out of the season-ending race in 1997 in a bid to steal the title.

He has often pushed his rivals to the boundary of the racetrack, but the most notable moment came when he almost forced his former team-mate Rubens Barrichello into a concrete wall during his comeback season with Mercedes in 2010.

For many it was this move that truly defined Schumacher’s racing ethos, as few would have been able to do such a thing to a man with whom they had shared such long-running success.

But that is, and always has been, the mark of a champion.

In this way, Schumacher was no better or worse than any of the top champions who have gone before him or, indeed, those who have come after.

Ultimately, above all else, it’s that unflinching determination that delivered for him time and again.

And that’s exactly what he needs now as he faces the biggest fight of his life. Whatever side of the fence they sit on, the whole F1 world is praying for him to make a full recovery.