Ralf S. just wants a title shot
After a dismal and frustrating 2004 season with Williams BMW, Ralf Schumacher is looking forward to a new life with Panasonic Toyota in 2005.
"It was a very disappointing season," he told ESPN.com, "not because of the accident, but more because we thought we were going to go for the championship, and we never were close to it."
The accident happened when his Williams slammed into the wall at Indianapolis in June, leaving him with two fractured vertebrae and out of action for six races.
By the end of the 2003 season, BMW WilliamsF1 was really on a roll and looked ready to unseat Ferrari and Michael Schumacher from the top of the championship in 2004. It didn't work out that way and, although Williams made massive strides toward the end of this past season, it still ended up far down in the championship tables.
Ralf Schumacher was ninth in the Drivers World Championship, while his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya finished fifth. Williams was fourth in the Constructors Championship, which was the team's second-worst finish since 1991.
"It is not so easy to leave the team, but I took the decision six months ago," Schumacher said. "I thought about it very carefully. The good thing about it is people seem to be a bit sad that I am leaving. It is always good if you are a driver and you have that. So obviously at the end of the day I did a reasonable job."
One of Schumacher's biggest supporters at Williams BMW is the team's Technical Director, Sam Michael. He and Ralf go way back to when Michael was an engineer at Jordan and Schumacher was one of the team's drivers. Michael joined Williams in 2001 as Chief Operations Engineer, and earlier this year he took over the role of Technical Director.
"He is obviously a very talented driver," Michael said. "He's very good analytically, working with engineers and going through data. He's extremely good at understanding tires and set-up, so he has obviously contributed quite strongly."
BMW's Motorsport Director Dr. Mario Theissen hasn't forgotten that when BMW returned to F1 in 2000, Schumacher brought BMW its first podium in its first race by finishing third in the Australian Grand Prix. Then, in the 2001 San Marino Grand Prix, Schumacher gave BMW its first F1 victory since its comeback. Five more wins would follow between 2001 and 2003.
"There have been some very bright spots with both Juan and Ralf," Theissen said, "but Ralf has been with the team longer. In Japan (2004), after he returned from his injury, he was very strong when he finished second. We can look back to a very good cooperation and a successful operation."
Away from the track, Schumacher and Montoya had absolutely nothing in common. They did not hang out together. They were not and are not friends. But they were very professional at the track.
"They complement each other very well," Michael said during the final Grand Prix weekend of the Schumacher/Montoya pairing. "Although you see from the outside a lot of things in the press about them fighting and not liking each other, internally they actually work very well together and when they turn up for an engineering debrief there is no funny business going on. They've both got a common goal: they're both smart enough to realize that if they work together on the car, the car will go faster."
Was Montoya the toughest teammate so far for Schumacher?
"I don't know," Schumacher said. "I have always had tough teammates: Jenson (Button), Giancarlo (Fisichella), even Damon (Hill). Juan was a very good teammate."
At a rumored salary of around $12 to $15 million a year, Schumacher was one of the highest paid drivers in the history of Williams. Co-owners Frank Williams and Patrick Head generally would rather spend money developing the car than on overpriced drivers.
You can be sure that Schumacher will get a very healthy check from Toyota, but he has always insisted that he didn't make the switch for money. Toyota is a young team, but he sees a lot of potential there.
"There is a lot of development to be done at Toyota," Schumacher told ESPN.com. "It will be tough in the beginning, but the chances are very good, so that is why I decided on this team in the first place. It never had anything to do with money; it was a success-oriented decision. Not in the short term more in the long term."
Schumacher didn't see short term World Championship potential in Williams.
"If I had been in a car capable of challenging for the title this year and felt we could win it next, then I would have stayed at BMW Williams," he said in an interview with a London newspaper. "But that was not the case. My target is to win the World Drivers Championship. I want to be the best. Sadly, it has not happened. Each time both myself and the team were left a little frustrated at the end."
Schumacher spent six seasons at Williams, which was longer than any other driver has survived with the team. Sam Michael gave him a good sendoff.
"He came back strongly after (the accident), and I wish him all the best at Toyota," Michael said. "I'm sure he will do a good job there and be a really big benefit to them on their climb to the top."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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