Michael Schumacher’s career has been remembered and celebrated during the past few days to mark his 50th birthday. Even allowing for this being a quiet time of the year for news and features, the extent and variety of tributes has been impressive.
The most revealing, perhaps not surprisingly, came from Ross Brawn. In a relaxed, hour-long chat with Tom Clarkson on Formula 1's official Beyond the Grid podcast, Brawn covers every aspect of time spent together with Michael at Benetton and Ferrari.
You would naturally expect the technical chief’s assessment of the man who brought 91 Grand Prix wins and seven drivers’ titles to be nothing less than positive, but Brawn’s typically measured evaluation brings credibility and a sense of disclosure that goes beyond the anticipated personal affection.
The central core of integrity comes from Brawn not claiming to know exactly how Schumacher drove a racing car so quickly. It would have been easy to talk technical – as some media observers try to do – and analyse throttle application coupled with turn-in, slip angles and any amount of minutiae that can be adapted to mean anything you wish.
Instead, Brawn says simply: ‘Compared to other drivers, he [Schumacher] had more of a tendency to go into a corner, see what was there and cope with it. He just had that extra degree of faith that his ability was going to carry him through. I don’t know how you describe it, but that was always my feeling with him.’
Brawn explains that attempting to define the peak of Schumacher’s career is also difficult because: ‘He flat-lined in a sense, but flat-lined at a level that was so high, you are comparing an extremely high level of performance across all the years. But in the early 2000s, we were fairly dominant and yet he was winning races sometimes he shouldn’t have won. He had a majesty about him in that period.’
Schumacher’s quiet dignity remained, even when the going got tough in 2005, as Brawn recalls: ‘We had developed a car with Bridgestone which was small fuel tank, multi-stop, nimble on our feet, lots of pit stops. At the end of 2004, the FIA and Bernie decided to introduce a rule where you had one set of tyres for the whole race, which completely screwed the philosophy of Ferrari and Bridgestone. We went from dominating and winning championships to suddenly getting lapped by cars that we would have never seen before.
‘I think,’ Brawn continues, ‘Michael‘s resolve and the way he kept his head down in that period was a tribute to him. He didn’t throw the toys out of the pram. One of his great strengths was that he always dealt with those issues behind closed doors. He was always very defensive and supportive of his team.’
Brawn says he found this sense of calm evident from their first race together at Benetton (the 1991 Italian Grand Prix). ‘He was pretty well balanced and he had enough confidence to make you feel he could do the job,’ says Ross. ‘He was very inquisitive, keen to learn and he just came across as a very professional driver. His experience had been quite narrow and there was a lot of learning to do but he had a great attitude. One of the things I’d say about Michael is that throughout his career, people who worked with him never had a bad word to say about him.’
That was not always the case outside the team and Brawn does not shy away from the moments of controversy, or ‘hiccups’ as Brawn, slightly tongue in cheek, refers to a handful of questionable incidents during his driver’s long career. Schumacher’s clumsy stall of his Ferrari during qualifying at Monaco in 2006 was, according to Brawn, a ‘stupid move; I don’t really understand what happened’.
Brawn adds an interesting perspective to the collision with Jacques Villeneuve during the championship-deciding race (in the Williams driver’s favour) at Jerez in 1997.
‘When Michael came back to the pits, he was convinced Villeneuve was the villain. When we showed it to him on the video, he was shocked – genuinely shocked. He had it in his own mind that Villeneuve had hit him; he hadn’t hit Villeneuve. It was not until he looked at the video that he went very quiet and realised what we had seen was not what he had perceived in the cockpit.
‘But,’ concludes Brawn, ‘in a career spanning more than 300 races, three instances is [just] a one per cent aberration rate when you’re in the spotlight for every race.’
That may not take into account the collision with Damon Hill (Adelaide 1994) and the scary incident with Rubens Barrichello (Hungary 2010) but Brawn’s overall assessment is enlightening and, above all, informed at a time when everyone’s thoughts are focussed just as much on the motor sport legend’s future as his distinguished past.
Keep Fighting Michael.