Michael Schumacher, seven-times World Motor Racing champion, is 45 years old today. However, this morning he remains in a medically-induced coma after a skiing accident in France.
Schumacher's standing as statistically the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time has been endlessly dealt with elsewhere. In fact, many of these records owe themselves to the seasons where, in an utterly dominant Ferrari car, he won as he pleased. 2001 saw him win 9 times and in the following year he added eleven more victories, never finishing lower than third place. A tighter championship in 2003 (a season where the powers-that-be had amended the World Championship scoring system to try and slow his progress) still yielded six wins on the way to a record-breaking sixth world title. The 2004 World Championship, meanwhile, was his zenith, winning 13 times from 18 Grands Prix with eight pole positions and ten fastest laps. Out of a possible 180 points, he scored 148.
However, unlike the current situation with Sebastian Vettel -where naysayers continually ask how much of his success is down solely to the brilliance of his car - no-one casts aspersions about the value of Schumacher's numbers. If they seem unrelentingly high then it is only because they were deservedly so; Ferrari were a team in disarray when Schumacher joined them in 1996. The fact that he spent the early part of the 21st Century monotonously chalking up successes is solely a result of his own work building a team who were able to deliver them and who were continually inspired to want more. This much said, Schumacher's genius was never better displayed than in the four years between joining the Scuderia and his first World Championship with them - and third overall - in 2000.
There was the dancing, balletic win in the streaming wet 1996 Spanish Grand Prix where he made everyone else look like they were driving Formula 3000 cars, in spite of his own vehicle having the majority of the handling attributes of a truck. Or his win the same year at Spa-Francorchamps in the Belgian Grand Prix where, having qualified over a second slower than Jacques Villeneuve's dominant Williams in the damp, he doggedly prevailed in the dry on race day. How about Monaco in 1997, where he was leading by 6 seconds after the first waterlogged 2 mile lap? Or Belgium, streaking through the field in the wet? Or his electrifying win in Hungary in 1998 where he overcame the faster McLaren cars of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard by being able to deliver the performance required of Ross Brawn's impossible tactical gamble?
There were questions - questions that very often unsatisfactory or even disturbing conclusions - about his standards of on-track sportsmanship and racing ethics. Off the circuit, there was also little doubt that he lacked the charisma of the driver he succeeded as the leader of the F1 pack, Ayrton Senna. It was the latter's death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix that thrust Michael Schumacher to the top of the pile. His first World Championship, that same year, was a bit of a hodge-podge of an affair. Suspensions, suspicions, accusations of illegality that dogged his Benetton team and the final race collision with his title rival Damon Hill all gave a strong impression that the right man had won but in the wrong way.
A dominant 1995 season, however, confirmed what most of us already knew - rather than just being the best of the rest, Schumacher was coming to hold his place in the sport's pantheon in his own right. By the time he won the first of his 72 wins for Ferrari (bear in mind that the highest career total of victories after Schumacher is Alain Prost's 51) at the following year's streaming wet Spanish Grand Prix, it was clear that there was very little to choose in raw talent between Schumacher and the brilliant Brazilian whose shoes he'd had to step up to fill. Whilst I would hesitate in calling Michael Schumacher one of the all-time greats, any list of the best racing drivers of all time which does not have Schumacher towards, if not at, the very top isn't worth a brass farthing.
Because like all people who are the very best at what they do, Michael Schumacher took what he did and changed it. In Michael Schumacher's era, to be less fit, or less dedicated, or less tactically astute, or less politically savvy as a racing driver meant that you would at best finish second. To manage to get up to his level was in itself no guarantee, as by that point Schumacher would most likely have tirelessly moved onward and upward to a higher plane. Even after his retirement, the standards he set have remained the norm. The modern-day Grand Prix driver is his legacy.
He was a brilliant racing driver, the best of the best and a man whose achievements have cast a long shadow on a significant part of life thus far. It's hard to accept that his 46th year begins in such a vulnerable position, hovering between life and death, when it was the sheer gravity of his presence in the sporting arena that meant that most of my formative years were consumed with loving, hating, supporting or opposing him in some way.
But admiring. Always admiring. Happy birthday, Michael. Get well soon.
Michael Schumacher by numbers
Grand Prix entries 308
Grand Prix starts 307
Grand Prix wins 91 (record)
Podium finishes 155 (record)
Career points 1566
Pole positions 68 (record)
Fastest laps 77 (record)
Formula 1 World Champion 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004. (record)
Grand Prix wins: 1992 Belgian GP; 1993 Portuguese GP; 1994 Brazilian GP, Pacific GP, San Marino GP, Monaco GP, Canadian GP, French GP, Hungarian GP, European GP; 1995 Brazilian GP, Spanish GP, Monaco GP, French GP, German GP, Belgian GP, European GP, Pacific GP, Japanese GP; 1996 Spanish GP, Belgian GP, Italian GP; 1997 Monaco GP, Canadian GP, French GP, Belgian GP, Japanese GP; 1998 Argentinean GP, Canadian GP, French GP, British GP, Hungarian GP, Italian GP; 1999 San Marino GP, Monaco GP; 2000 Australian GP, Brazilian GP, San Marino GP, EuropeanGP, Canadian GP, Italian GP, United States GP, Japanese GP, Malaysian GP; 2001 Australian GP, Malaysian GP, Spanish GP, Monaco GP, European GP, French GP, Hungarian GP, Belgian GP, Japanese GP; 2002 Australian GP, Brazilian GP, San Marino GP, Spanish GP, Austrian GP, Canadian GP, British GP, French GP, German GP, Belgian GP, Japanese GP; 2003 San Marino GP, Spanish GP, Austrian GP, Canadian GP, Italian GP, United States GP; 2004 Australian GP, Malaysian GP, Bahrain GP, San Marino GP, Spanish GP, European GP, Canadian GP, United States GP, French GP, British GP, Hungarian GP, German GP, Japanese GP; 2005 United States GP; 2006 San Marino GP, European GP, United States GP, French GP, German GP, Italian GP, Chinese GP.
Michael Schumacher's other all-time Formula 1 records:
Most consecutive World Championships 5 (2000-2004)
Most wins in a season 13 (2004, tied with Sebastian Vettel (2013))
Most front row starts 116
Most perfect races (win, pole and fastest lap) 22
Most consecutive podium finishes 19 (2001-2002)
Most wins in a single Grand Prix 8 (French Grand Prix (1994-95, 1997-98, 2001-02, 2004 and 2006)
Most wins for a single team 72 (Ferrari, 1996-2006) (Michael Schumacher is also the only driver in Formula 1 history to have won multiple World Championship titles with two separate Constructors)
Most points in a season (10 points for a win) 148 (2004)
Highest championship winning margin (10 points for a win) 67 points (2002)