When you've won a record 95 times in your racing career, choosing one performance that stands out above the rest becomes daunting at best.
As Michael Schumacher remains in a medically induced coma after a skiing accident in late December, we’ll look back at the seven-time world champion’s incredible career and his uncanny ability to find a way to win or get the most out of the car no matter the circumstances.
There was the second place finish in Spain in 1994, after the German driver completed two pitstops with his car stuck in fifth gear. Three years later, he cemented his reputation as the "Rain Meister" with a victory margin of 45-seconds in monsoon conditions. To top things off, that race in Spain was also his first win for Ferrari.
Spa was the scene of a masterful Schumacher drive in 1995, where he started 16th after getting caught out on a drying track in qualifying. In the race, Schumacher's wet weather mastery allowed his Benetton to stay out on slicks in a downpour while when his rivals needed to pit for rain tires. He crossed the line almost 20 seconds ahead of the rest.
The 2006 Monaco Grand Prix saw Schumacher thrown to the back of the grid after the stewards found he deliberately stopped his Ferrari on the circuit in the dying seconds of qualifying to prevent rival Fernando Alonso from taking away pole position. Fending off criticism, he went out the next day and drove the wheels off his car. On the tight and twisty Monte Carlo circuit where passing is nearly impossible, Schumacher started 22nd on the grid and finished in fifth place – and made it look easy.
There are countless other memorable Schumacher efforts, but the 2003 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy stands out. That year, Ferrari started the season with the 2002 racer that won all but two races the previous season and helped Schumacher clinch the title after just 11 of 17 races. Ferrari anticipated that the all-conquering car would be able to hold its own, but instead arrived in Italy for the first European race without a win.
It wasn't panic time yet, but the Scuderia needed a win to get back in the title chase.
As the weekend got going, news began to filter through the paddock that Schumacher's mother, Elisabeth, had taken a turn for the worse after a fall at home about a week earlier. Things also started poorly for Schumacher on track when he broke his suspension in Friday practice, losing about 45 minutes of track time due to the damage.
He bounced back on Saturday, taking pole position for Sunday's race, edging out his brother Ralf, who was driving for Williams at the time, by a miniscule 0.014 seconds. With qualifying in the books, the Schumacher brothers flew to Cologne, Germany, to visit their ailing mother.
News of Elisabeth Schumacher's death early on Sunday gave the paddock a somber feeling as the teams and drivers made final preparations for the afternoon's race. Ferrari offered to let Michael go home and miss the race, but he instead stayed and put in one of the best drives of his career.
Despite the obvious stress of the day, Schumacher made only one tiny mistake all day, getting two wheels off the track at the Piratella Corner in the closing stages of the 62-lap grand prix. Otherwise, he drove flawlessly, cruising to a win in the last few laps.
On what could only be described as devastating weekend personally, Schumacher took pole, the win, fastest lap of the race and got his Ferrari team back in the title hunt.
But, there was no trademark victory leap on the podium, no patented Schumacher grin, and no spraying of champagne. Wearing a black armband over the right sleeve of his racing overalls, Schumacher stood stoically on the top step of the podium and stared almost blankly into space until the end of the German anthem that marked his 65th career victory. There was a quick wave to the Italian crowd before he left to fly home to attend to his mother's funeral.
He departed with the humble respect of everyone who attended the race in Imola, whether they were fans, detractors, officials, media, or team personnel. Schumacher was considered cold and mechanical due to his guarded manner in the paddock, but that day he was human and vulnerable.
The driver with the best shot of beating Schumacher's records is reigning four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull Racing squad.
At 26, Vettel easily has another 10 years left in F1 to catch his countryman. The question is whether or not he can keep up the pace needed to reach the rarified heights that Schumacher attained. With four titles, 39 wins, and 45 poles to his credit so far, Vettel still needs a daunting 56 victories, 23 poles, and three championships to tie Schumacher's considerable tally.
At the rate he’s going, "Schumacher Junior" could easily make it happen. So far in his career, Vettel has averaged a win once in every three F1 starts (32.5 per cent), and has taken pole a little more than a third of the time (37.5 per cent). Staying on pace would mean he'd eclipse Schumacher's record of 68 poles in just 61 more grands prix, likely sometime early in the 2017. The 95 wins tally would take about five years longer, falling somewhere in the middle of the 2022 campaign.
On the other hand, it's unlikely Vettel can sustain the torrid pace that has seen him win four consecutive world championships beginning in 2010. Even Schumacher could not put up those kinds of numbers consistently, ending his career with a win percentage of 29.74 and starting on pole only 22.22 per cent of the time.
When it comes to pole positions in F1, only four drivers have ever started at the front of the grid in their first career Formula One world championship race: Giuseppe Farina (1950 British Grand Prix), Walt Faulkner, (1950 Indianapolis 500), Carlos Reutemann, (1972 Argentine Grand Prix), and Jacques Villeneuve (1996 Australia Grand Prix).
Mark Webber waited longer than any driver to score his first pole in F1, going 131 starts before finally notching his maiden start at the front of the pack at the 2009 German Grand Prix. Of the active drivers on the grid, Nico Rosberg went the longest before his first pole, taking it at the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix in his 110th F1 race.
Of the drivers who finished in the top-10 in F1 points last year, only Lotus' Romain Grosjean does not have at least one pole to his credit.
By the Numbers
No. 27, made famous by Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve, makes its return in the 2014 Formula One season on the car of German driver Nico Hulkenberg. The addition of personal numbers for drivers is one of the rules changes for the 2014 season.
Hulkenberg will now race under 27 for the rest of his time in F1. The celebrated number was sought after in the paddock, with Marussia's Jules Bianchi - a Ferrari Development Driver - also asking for the number, but his wish was overruled by Hulkenberg's choice. In the case of two requests for the same number, priority was determined according to the drivers' finish in the 2013 points standings.
Although Villeneuve only won six times in his career, he is nevertheless considered one of the most gifted and spectacular drivers in F1 history. He raced with the No. 27 for less than two years, beginning with the 1981 F1 season. He took one of his most storied victories in Spain driving a terribly uncompetitive No. 27 Ferrari while holding a train of four much faster cars behind for the entire race. Just 1.24 seconds separated the first five cars at the finish line.
The last car to sport No. 27 was the Ferrari of Frenchman Jean Alesi in 1995. Coincidently and fittingly, Alesi took his lone career F1 victory that year in the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The Last Word
Formula One testing gets underway next week with several outfits getting ready to unveil their 2014 challengers in Jerez, Spain. All the teams should be there except for Lotus, which announced last week that it would miss the first 2014 outing. Its technical director Nick Chester said that the team decided that attending the Jerez test wasn’t ideal for its build and development programme.
The first of the three four-day pre-season test sessions begins Jan. 28 with the two others going in Bahrain (Feb. 19-22 and Feb. 27-Mar. 2). The season begins March 16 with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
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