As reported yesterday, in the lead up to Formula One’s 70th birthday celebrations, the official Formula 1 website asked fans to vote for the ‘Most Influential Person in F1 History’. F1 icons like Lewis Hamilton and Ayrton Senna fell out of the running in the early rounds – both were beaten by Michael Schumacher. Yesterday, having reached the final up against F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone - a man who had already taken out two pioneers of motorsport (Dr Sid Watkins and Ross Brawn) from the competition - Michael Schumacher became the victor with 61% of the public vote.
Inevitably, with any public vote, the conclusion can be debated and discussed for weeks on end and knowing Formula One – it probably will be. Nevertheless, in the record books (or on the F1 website at least) the Most Influential Person in F1 History is Michael Schumacher. Although, had Schumacher headed elsewhere following his departure from Benetton, the 7-time F1 Champion’s story may have been very different.
Having achieved a record-breaking number of Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championships during his F1 tenure, hundreds of thousands of words (more likely millions) have rightly been written about the much-loved German racer. Michael Schumacher embodies the spirit of Ferrari, although there are some who would say that Ferrari embodies the spirit of Michael Schumacher. However, it could all have been so very different if Schumacher had chosen to leave Benetton and head for McLaren - as opposed to Ferrari.
Following the hype centered around Carlos Sainz being the favourite to replace Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari from 2021 this of course would mean a McLaren driver heading to Scuderia Ferrari in the hope of achieving greatness. McLaren, at present, is no longer the force in Formula One that it once was and Scuderia Ferrari looks like a more realistic rival to the Mercedes dominance of the last 6 years – although I wouldn’t tell Red Bull Racing that.
As such, where a driver chooses to ply their race craft is all important and this speculation on Sainz’ future made me recall a video posted on YouTube back in 2007 by Erik Tjandra showing an encounter between Ron Dennis and Michael Schumacher at a promotional event. In the video Ron Dennis, at that time the head of the McLaren Formula 1 Team, is filmed trying to coax Michael Schumacher away from Benetton to the Woking outfit to partner his new signing – Mika Hakkinen.
In this vintage video filmed in 1993 at the Hugo Boss Fashion Show, Ron Dennis (R.D) makes his pitch to the talented German racer, Michael Schumacher (M.S):
R.D.: “The thing to do, is come and talk privately one day, away from everything, see how I think.”
M.S.: I believe, really next year we’ll see what is our team worth? If they’re really a team to go for a world championship or not. Of course, this year, it is all develop, develop and now I think it is the situation where something big has to happen to be better. If they can do this, then it’s fine but if not then after this period it might be the right time to leave. But I have a contract and as long as the team does not change to me, I don’t want to change the situation I want to respect the contract.
R.D.: Absolutely the way to be, but, at the right time, come and see, come and feel.
M.S: That’s fine, I’m sure I’m going to do this.
What followed next in this momentous 1993 conversation, may be a decisive point that led to Michael Schumacher venturing down an unexpected path by choosing to join an unsuccessful Ferrari team in 1996:
R.D.: Look after yourself, sometimes, you’re on the limit, you know, there’s one thing that you can’t replace you know, just look after yourself. You are horrendously impressive and…
M.S: You think I have some problem coming up with me?
R.D: No, I didn’t say a problem
M.S: That’s what it looks like.
R.D: Just look after yourself because when you’re in the car you’re controlling your own destiny, you know, and there’s only you that knows where the limit is and sometimes, from the outside, it just looks right on the limit, you only get one chance sometimes, so just look after yourself.
Michael Schumacher won his first F1 Drivers’ Championship in the infamous 1994 season which culminated in that incident at Adelaide with his rival Damon Hill. At the time, and even now, many people considered that this incident showed Michael Schumacher was willing to go beyond the limit for the top prize at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Michael Schumacher is very much a man who directed his own destiny throughout his Formula One career. Having claimed two titles at Benetton he made the decision to move to a struggling Ferrari team and not McLaren. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether that 1993 encounter with Ron Dennis impacted his decision years later seeing how once Schumacher arrived at Ferrari it was evident that the reigning F1 Champion expected Team Principal Jean Todt to buy into his vision of what a future Ferrari team should look like – and not the other way around.
Upon announcing the news that Michael Schumacher has claimed the title of ‘Most Influential Person in F1 History’ F1.com wrote:
Even for a double world champion, to have such confidence and strength of character to dictate to Ferrari as a 26-year-old, was extraordinary. Here were F1’s most powerful team surrendering to the wishes of the driver they saw as their saviour – and history shows that they were right to.
Only Michael Schumacher could enter an iconic Formula One team (albeit unsuccessful at the time) such as Ferrari and dictate the team in this way. However, had Schumacher joined the Woking outfit and taken this approach at McLaren up against Ron Dennis, the question can certainly be asked – would the outcome have been the same?
History is there to learn lessons from, therefore, if Carlos Sainz is to join Scuderia Ferrari in place of Sebastian Vettel and partner Charles Leclerc – what approach will be taken? For all intents and purposes, Charles Leclerc appears to be the golden boy at Ferrari. This assumption is helped in no small part by the fact the Monegasque racer stood on the top step of the podium in Monza last season – high above the tifosi who effectively crowned a new king that day.
Consequently, is Charles Leclerc going to have the Scuderia Ferrari team centered around him in such a way like Michael Schumacher did? If so, would this result in Carlos Sainz (or whoever joins Ferrari) most likely taking more of a Rubens Barrichello role? If this comes to pass, then maybe, in a further 70 years, it will be Charles Leclerc positioned as the nearest rival to Michael Schumacher in the history books.
For now, the title of ‘Most Influential Person in F1 History’ belongs to the seven-time F1 World Champion, born January 3rd 1969 and it will certainly take a very special individual to ever have a chance to take this title from the Legendary Michael Schumacher.