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The most extraordinary driver's origins were most ordinary. He was born on 3 January, 1969, near Cologne, Germany, six years before his brother Ralf, who would also become a Formula One driver of note. Their father, a bricklayer, ran the local kart track, at Kerpen, where Mrs Schumacher operated the canteen. As a four-year old Michael enjoyed playing on a pedal kart, though when his father fitted it with a small motorcycle engine the future superstar promptly crashed into a lamppost. But Michael quickly mastered his machine and won his first kart championship at six, following which his far from affluent parents arranged sponsorship from wealthy enthusiasts that enabled Michael to make rapid progress. By 1987 he was German and European kart champion and had left school to work as an apprentice car mechanic, a job that was soon replaced by full-time employment as a race driver. In 1990 he won the German F3 championship and was hired by Mercedes to drive sportscars. The next year he made a stunning Formula One debut, qualifying an astonishing seventh in a Jordan for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, whereupon he was immediately snapped up by Benetton, with whom in 1992 he won his first F1 race, again at Spa, among the most demanding circuits of them all.
Over the next four seasons with Benetton he won a further 18 races and two world championships. His first, in 1994, was somewhat tainted in that Benetton was suspected of technical irregularities and in their championship showdown race in Adelaide Schumacher collided (deliberately, some thought) with the car of his closest challenger, the Williams of Damon Hill. But Germany's first world champion was unquestionably worthy of the 1995 driving title, following which he moved to Ferrari, then a team in disarray and without a champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979. The Schumacher-Ferrari combination began promisingly with three wins in 1996 and five more in 1997, though that season ended in humiliation when in the final race, at Jerez in Spain, Schumacher tried unsuccessfully to ram the Williams of his title rival Jacques Villeneuve off the road. As punishment for his misdemeanour Schumacher's points and his second place in the championship were stricken from the record books he would thereafter begin to rewrite.
After finishing second overall in 1998, Schumacher's 1999 season was interrupted by a broken leg (the only injury in his career) incurred in a crash at the British Grand Prix. From then on there was no stopping 'Schumi' - who in 2000 became Ferrari's first champion in 21 years, then went on to win the driving title for the next four years in succession. In 2002 he won 11 times and finished on the podium in all 17 races. In 2003 he broke Fangio's record by winning his sixth driving title. In 2004 he won 13 of the 18 races to win his seventh championship by a by a massive margin.
Like all the great drivers Schumacher had exceptional ambition, confidence, intelligence, motivation, dedication and determination. What set him apart and helped account for his unprecedented length of time at the top was a pure passion for racing and an endless quest for improvement.
Blessed with a supreme natural talent honed to the highest degree, he had a racing brain to match and spare mental capacity that enabled him to make split-second decisions, adapt to changing circumstances and plan ahead while driving on the limit, which with his superb state of fitness (he trained harder than any driver) he could do consistently for lengthy periods of time. The smoothly swift and mechanically-aware driver operated with a keen sensitivity for the limits of his car and himself (he seldom made mistakes) and his feedback to the engineers (led by technical director Ross Brawn who worked with him throughout his career) was invariably astute.
No Ferrari driver worked harder for the team, nor were any of them more appreciated than the German who led the Italian team to six successive Constructors' Championships. He led by example, frequently visiting the factory at Maranello, talking to the personnel, thanking them, encouraging them, never criticising and inspiring everyone with his optimism, high energy level and huge work ethic. The team was devoted to the driver who often said he loved the Ferrari 'family.'
Life with his own family - wife Corinna and their children Gina-Maria and Mick - was deliberately kept as normal as possible (they seldom came to the races) by the essentially shy and private man who became one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. Rich beyond his wildest dreams (he reportedly earned as much as $100 million a year), he generously supported charities, especially those for underprivileged children, and to help victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster he made a personal donation of $10 million.
After finishing second in the 2006 championship, the aging superstar was still at the peak of his powers, having won seven races to bring his total to 91 (40 more than his nearest rival, Alain Prost.) No champion had been so superior for so long, but Schumi had grown tired of the effort required to continue to excel and decided to hang up his helmet.
Yet his retirement proved to be only temporary. In 2010, after a three-year hiatus as a consultant to Ferrari, 41-year-old Michael Schumacher succumbed to the lure of driving for the new Mercedes team headed by Ross Brawn. Critics questioned the multiple champion's decision to risk his reputation in the sport that was once his personal playground. He gave his best but made it to the podium only once during his three-year comeback. In his final season of 2012 his opponents included five other world champions - all of them at least a decade younger. "I enjoyed most of it," Michael Schumacher said of the second part of his career. "It wasn't as successful as before but I still learned a lot for life. I found that losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning. Now is a good time to go."
In the cruelest of ironies, after surviving so many seasons in his dangerous profession, Michael Schumacher’s first year in permanent retirement ended with him suffering a very serious head injury incurred when he fell while on a family skiing holiday. Following the accident that left him in a coma for several months his family brought him home where he faced a lengthy period of rehabilitation. If the power of public opinion could help his recovery it came in the form of a tremendous outpouring of messages of hope, support and encouragement for the sport’s most successful driver.
Text - Gerald Donaldson