Schumacher has decided that he has had enough. It’s probable that he will clinch his 8th World Championship this year - a quite remarkable achievement. But does that make him the best driver ever? That’s a very different question.
In cold statistics, at first his figures make everyone else seem like also-rans. He could end up winning 93 Grand Prix, with the next highest being Alain Prost on 51. He has scored 1,248 points so far in his career, with the next best being less than 800. And so on, and on. But there are other ways of looking at numbers, and there is a much bigger issue about not just How Many, but How?
How important is it in any sporting arena to balance the actual achievement, with how it was all done? Are the figures in the record books the sole judge of greatness, or at the highest level, is it a more subtle combination of the individual’s attitude, moral approach and style as well as the cold numbers?
There is no right answer, although I lean very heavily towards the combination of How and How Many. On the one hand. there is little doubt that for anyone to be considered great, they must have an excellent record of success just to get on the board. Try to think of one individual who you would consider to be The Greatest in any sporting field, with a limited or minimal level of success in the record books, and you’ve got a real argument on your hands to convince the world you’re right. So you do need the numbers.
The real Greatests, the Mohammed Ali’s, the Sampras’s, the Navratilova’s, the Lance Armstrong’s all have the numbers in the book. But they have something else, as well. And this is where the Schumacher debate gets interesting. I scribbled a piece the other day called "Michael Schumacher – Flawed Genius". He undoubtedly can drive a Grand Prix car better than anyone else today, and has been able to do that for 10 years. He has stamped his authority on the sport like a vice. He has taken the physical and mental conditioning of the Driver to new heights, he has forged a team around himself at Ferrari in a way no-one has ever done before – all prodigious Firsts.
And yet, there’s always a But with the man. Insiders keep telling us that he’s a really warm hearted individual away from the circuit, how he loves his kids and family. From The Greatest’s point of view, those things are not that important. It’s the conduct “on the field” that matters. The fact that, in his professional career, he has been guilty of several underhand and quite dirty actions, of which most drivers would be rightly ashamed, is enough, in my view, to push him off the top rank of drivers who could be seen as The Greatest - in spite of his record. You just don’t do those things. It’s as simple as that.
So, who is the Greatest? There has been much ink spent this week, ruminating on Schumi’s retirement, and the list of names which comes up time and time again, is very small. It contains Schumacher, and the only others are Fangio, Senna and Clark. And that’s it.
Interestingly, Alain Prost, with the 2nd highest total of 51 wins, never gets a mention. So that’s one good argument to prove that it’s not just the numbers. He was a good driver, nicknamed “The Professor”, but you’d never get out of bed to watch him race, whereas the other three, well, that’s the last thing you’d say about them.
Senna, because of his death, has become almost immortalised by the media. You don’t have to look too far however to see some of Schumacher’s Win at all Costs approach in the way Senna raced. One of life’s “What Ifs” is Senna vs Schumacher. Senna was killed just as Schumacher got into gear, and I actually think Senna had already seen how good Schumacher was, and that may have had an effect on the way he drove in 1994.
Sometimes, you could be forgiven for thinking that the racing car has become so safe these days, that forcing an accident has become a deliberate tactic and fair game to drivers over the last 20 years. The other guy nowadays will likely be forced off the track onto an acre of gravel, and – so what? In the 50s, 60s and 70s, such actions could easily kill you opponent, so you treated such actions with a totally different level of seriousness. It’s the sort of issue which actually means comparing champions from different eras is almost impossible. Jackie Stewart, himself a 3 times World Champion, was asked to make such a comparison, and parried it quite simply with “All I could do was to beat the guys around me at the time.” Which he did.
I think in areas such as this, with no real right answer, you are affected by a raft of other side issues, one of which is your own age. I think that the things which impact on you when you are at your most impressionable, around 18-25, take on an almost over-riding importance which lasts all your life. I know it did with me. Music and Musicians, Writers, Films, Actors, Singers, sportsmen and women, and I suppose, friends and people in general, drill into you very deeply at that age.
I missed seeing Fangio in those years, and if you read his life-story, he gets many people’s shout, including people like Stirling Moss and Murray Walker, but look at when they were both 18-25. See what I mean? But I still put him at Number 2 - just.
It will not come as a surprise then, that my Greatest Driver EVER is Jim Clark. I was loopily passionate about Motor Racing in my adolescent years, and Clark was in a completely different class from all the others for all that time. If you look at the cold numbers, compared to more recent drivers, there are very few categories where he now comes top. He won, ONLY, 25 races, and scored, ONLY, 274 points and so on. But, with statistics, you need to look a bit deeper to see the reality. He ONLY started 74 races, and because car reliability was nothing like it is today, he only finished 40. Starting with that number, winning 25, including all his days as a driver starting out, takes on a whole new meaning. He NEVER finished second. In fact, you could say, that if his car was running sensibly and well at the end of a race, he would win. Simple as that.
It must have driven his team-mates mad. It wasn’t like Schumacher, who has always ensured that his team-mate is more like a domestique in a Cycle race – there solely to support himself. Clark spent a good part of his career with Graham Hill as his team-mate, and Hill was already a World Champion, so it was a case there of Fastest Man wins in the Lotus team.
As an example, Clark drove what many people, including myself, think is the finest race ever, at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix. Monza, in those days was a mad rush with no chicanes to slow you down. A third of the way through the race, Clark was in the leading gaggle of cars, but suffered a puncture. He lost more than 1 lap while the tyre was being changed, and we then saw just what a racing driver can really do. He drove at his maximum for the rest of the race, starting back in 16th place, firstly unlapping himself, and just before the end of the race he had caught up the whole lap on everyone, including his team-mate. He passed them all and took the lead. Coming down the final straight, his car faltered, and ran out of fuel. He coasted round the last corner and finished 3rd.
It was the only time he was seen to get angry, having driven the race of his life, and then been thwarted in victory, for the want of a cupful of petrol.
He was as unassuming a man as you could imagine, being a sheepfarmer from the Scottish Borders. He could drive anything, literally anything, and his David and Goliath exploits in a tiny Lotus Cortina up against huge American Ford Galaxies is the stuff of legend. His car only ever seemed be on three wheels, and if he was trying really hard, on two – you wouldn’t have believed it had you not been there. You thought he was there for ever, so good was he, but…..
In the cruel way of the sport in those days, he was killed in April next year, in an inconsequential Formula 2 race in Germany, and for me, and I suspect many other people, the passion for the sport died with him.