Michael Schumacher Mathematical Career Review

Schumacher needs no introduction. He smashed almost every F1 record in the book during his tenure, including most victories, poles, fastest laps and championships. Obviously many of these have since been eclipsed by Hamilton, but his achievements still put him in contention for the greatest F1 driver of all time.

Let’s start with his career stats.

Obviously these stats are impressive. Perhaps the most impressive (and also the most overlooked) are his 77 fastest laps. This is a record that still holds and is a full 20 clear of Hamilton. (Admittedly the nature of fastest laps has shifted significantly as rules have changed over time.) Let’s break down how the model views his career overall versus some of his teammates (see here for info on how the model works):

The model considers Schumacher to be (overall) significantly better than every teammate he faced. Also recall that 100 is considered an average season for Hamilton, meaning that the model considers Schumacher and Hamilton to be of an almost identical level on average over their careers. Now let’s break it down year by year:

Schumacher is not only ranked as the best driver of the 90s (see here), but he is considered to have a top performance on eight separate occasions. Previously we I have added the absolute top performance as a reference for drivers, but as Schumacher holds this himself so many times, I have instead added the best driver that wasn’t Schumacher.

One of the criticisms Schumacher occasionally gets is that he never faced a true equal as a teammate (particularly in his Benetton/Ferrari career). However, the model believes that between 1994 and around 2902 he really had no equal. Prost/Senna are considered to be at least Schumacher’s level in his early career, and Alonso is a formidable rival in his late Ferrari years, but in between there is a significant gap. Across this period there are 5 different drivers ranked as the second best across a year, suggesting that the field behind Schumacher was very close in ability. The 5 drivers are Hill, Alesi, Villeneuve, Frentzen and Button. It is true that none were Schumacher’s teammate, but Irvine and Barrichello both delivered strong performances at times too. Mike Häkkinen is a notable driver missing from the list, suggesting that he benefited significantly from McLaren machinery during his most successful years.

The only exception to Schumacher’s strong performances in this period is 1999, where he only completed half of the season (this would not inherently lower his ranking for the year, but it does make the ranking less reliable). Schumacher’s deficit to Rosberg across 2010-2012 can mostly be explained by age related decline and a lack of experience with the new cars, both things that the model takes into account.

Early Years

1991, Jordan-Ford/ Benetton-Ford: 67%

1992, Benetton-Ford: 68%

1993, Benetton-Ford: 102%

Schumacher immediately impressed on his debut , qualifying 7th at the 1991 a Belgian Grand Prix. Legal wrangling followed as Benetton managed to poach him before the next race in a contract dispute. After proving competitive versus teammate Piquet, Schumacher outscored teammate Brundle in 1992 (53-38pts) and took the teams only win of the year in mixed conditions, a year after his debut. His form is thought to be considerably lower than in future years during this period, but it is common for drivers to a year or two for their real potential to shine through (Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel all went through similar teething phases).

By 1993 Schumacher was almost at his peak. He was teammates to Ricciardo Patrese, and the model compares him favourably to the previous champion Nigel Mansell who had partnered Patrese in 1992.

Championship Success

1994, Benetton-Ford: 116%

1995, Benetton-Renault: 107%

It’s hard to judge Schumacher’s 1994 season for a host of reasons. Firstly his rotating teammates make a benchmark difficult. Secondly he was disqualified from 2 races and banned from a further two. Thirdly, there were mid-season rule changes aim at increasing safety (in the wake of the tragic deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna), and fourthly there were regular allegations of his Benetton team cheating. Nevertheless, his statistics are incredibly impressive. Out of 10 races he finished without disqualification he won 8, with a further 2 second places. This places his ranking extremely high, particularly given that his teammates scored a meagre total of 9 points in the 14 races he started. Schumacher won the title due to a controversial collision with total rival Damon Hill at the final race of the year.

1995 allowed Schumacher to win the title in a much more conventional fashion. His ranking decreased slightly compared to 1994, at least partly due to collisions with rival Hill at Silverstone and Monza (for which on off-form Hill is usually attributed the blame). Schumacher decided to leave the team for 1996, and whilst his eventual Ferrari domination seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it was a surprising choice at the time given their lack of competitiveness in the previous few seasons.

Ferrari Near Misses

1996, Ferrari: 113%

1997, Ferrari: 111%

1998, Ferrari: 103%

1999, Ferrari: 73%

The 1996 Ferrari was unreliable (the two drivers combined finished 16 times out of 32) and far adrift from the dominant Williams car. However, Schumacher still won 3 races: more than Ferrari had won in their previous 5 seasons combined. This included his legendary drive in the wet at Barcelona, winning by 45s despite engine troubles. In 1997 the team inched further towards the front, and Schumacher lead the title race going into the final round, with more convincing wet weather victories at Monaco, France and Belgium. As in 1994, he collided with his title rival (this time Villeneuve), and was subsequently disqualified from the entire championship for his actions.

The 1998 season featured many rule changes, with McLaren dominating the early season before Schumacher came back in the mid season. For the 3rd year in a row he dominated teammate Irvine, with 14 victories at the end of the season compared to Irvine’s 0. Once again the title campaign fell short, as he suffered a tyre failure at the final round, following an impressive comeback drive from the back. Whilst 1999 saw Ferrari win the constructors title, Schumacher was injured at Silverstone, putting him out for much of the season. His low score is due to many factors, but would surely have been higher had he seen out the season. Schumacher returned for the final two races, helping Ferrari to clinch the constructors title and assisting Irvine in his title campaign after several years of the reverse.

Floodgates Open

2000, Ferrari: 108%

2001, Ferrari: 113%

2002, Ferrari: 112%

2003, Ferrari: 99%

2004, Ferrari: 98%

Whilst Schumacher spent the previous years playing catch-up, he won the 1st three of 2000 season. Whilst unreliability and first lap incidents cost him in the middle of the year, he returned to form in the final third, winning the title in Japan after a race-long battle with chief rival Mika Häkkinen. Schumacher cruised to the title in 2001, with 9 victories and 11 pole positions (teammate Barrichello didn’t manage a win or a pole that year).

2002 set new levels for domination, with Schumacher finishing every single race on the podium and securing 11 wins. Across the whole season (17 races) he was only 26 points off a perfect score, and he secured in title in July. A raft of rule changes (including an overhaul to the points system to attempt to eek out of the championship fight further in future years) slashed Ferrari’s advantage in 2003. Barrichello was more competitive relative to Schumacher than in previous years (they both had 8 podiums in 2003, although Schumacher still lead on points and victories), and his campaign was somewhat inconsistent. Nevertheless, he clinched the title by 2 points. 2003 was the first time at Ferrari that Schumacher was not rated the top performer, with the honour going to a young Fernando Alonso instead.

2004 saw a return to Ferrari domination, and Michael won 12 out of the first 13 races. His relatively poor end to the year hurts his score, but it was quite possibly because both titles had been secured long ago.

Final Ferrari Years

2005, Ferrari: 96%

2006, Ferrari: 101%

The 2005 rule changes worked against Ferrari (and particularly Bridgestone). The model considers this to be Schumacher’s worst complete season since 1992, but he was still performing at a very high level. His only victory was the highly controversial US GP, in which there were only 6 starters (the 2 Ferrari cars and 4 back markers) due to Michelin bringing inadequate tyres to the event.

2006 saw Schumacher up against a new teammate in Felipe Massa, as well as a new rivals in Renault and Alonso. Whilst Schumacher easily outpaced Massa (and the result is almost exactly what the model expects), the battle with Alonso was intense. On more than one occasion they jostling for position in qualifying. The season also featured Schumacher’s third major controversy, as we was sent to the back of the grid for intentionally stopping his car in Monaco qualifying to prevent other cars from improving. Whilst his collisions in 1994 and 1997 determined the championship, this action had much lower stakes. (Whilst pole is of course critical in Monaco, the difference between winning and second place was only 2 points at the time). His comeback drive on Sunday was heroic, but the incident did further damage to his reputation in a season that should have been a celebration of his phenomenal career. Ultimately he fell short of an 8th title, with Alonso claiming his second championship instead.

Mercedes Comeback

2010, Mercedes: 70%

2011, Mercedes: 87%

2012, Mercedes: 75%

Expectations were high for Schumacher’s comeback. He’d left F1 3 years earlier at close to his peak form, and he was joining the current world champions for 2010. Given this, 3 years of being outscored by his teammate with only a single podium to his name was a crushing disappointment. The model sees Nico Rosberg as Schumacher’s strongest teammate, but thinks that Schumacher would have come on top had they both been at their peak (although the subsequent Rosberg/Hamilton battles demonstrates that this would not be guaranteed). Once age related decline and his time away from the sport are taken into account, the model ranks his 2011 and 2012 seasons at about the level one would expect, with Schumacher only underperforming in 2010. This is perhaps due to the significant changes to the sport that took place during his 3 year absence, most noticeably the lack of testing.

Despite all this, Schumacher’s performances are considered more than respectable. He’s still within the top 20 drivers of the 2010s (see here for a ranking of 2010s drivers), and in the best season of his comeback (2011) he’s rated as the 6th best driver.

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