Former teammates weigh in on Schumacher
One of the most difficult and frustrating jobs in Formula One -- being Michael Schumacher's teammate -- is about to cease to exist.
For the past 15 years, a variety of drivers have been teammates with Schumacher. Not one of them finished out a full season with more points. Occasionally, especially in the early years, a teammate beat him on the track. But as Schumacher's power and influence grew, the teams molded themselves around him and his teammates were usually not allowed to finish ahead of him even if they could.
Many rival teams, such as McLaren and Williams, have run their drivers on an equal basis, with basically no team orders. They've stuck to this policy even to their detriment, such as in 1986 when Williams had the fastest car but let Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet score points off each other, opening the door for McLaren's Alain Prost to sneak through to win the title.
But, almost from the beginning, Schumacher has had unchallenged No. 1 status on his teams.
In his very first Grand Prix, with Jordan in Belgium in 1991, Schumacher outqualified his vastly more experienced teammate, Andrea de Cesaris. But Schumacher's F1 debut ended after a few hundred yards with a broken clutch.
In the following days Benetton (now Renault) swooped in and snatched Schumacher away from Jordan.
In Schumacher's second Grand Prix, in Italy, he finished fifth; his teammate, three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, took sixth. Fifteen years later, at the same Monza venue, Schumacher announced his retirement.
Piquet retired at the end of 1991, and another experienced driver, Martin Brundle, took his place in 1992. The final points standings of that season show Schumacher third and Brundle sixth. But, Brundle told ESPN.com, it was possible to beat Schumacher in those early days.
"I passed him many times," Brundle said. "In Magny-Cours, Monza, Silverstone, Montreal. I could beat him because he got his head a bit mixed up at the starts and he was busy looking in his mirrors. He was always aggressive, though, always ready to run you off the road when you tried to pass him.
"He is a tough teammate because he is so fast and confident and fit," Brundle added. "Difficult to get close to. He was beatable because he then had a couple of Achilles' heels when I was his teammate. He did not always get his car set up for race day because of his lack of experience."
In 1993, Benetton paired Schumacher with another experienced driver -- Riccardo Patrese. They finished fourth and fifth in the Drivers Championship, but Schumacher had 52 points to Patrese's 20. In the record books, Patrese has beaten Schumacher in one category. Patrese has started more Grands Prix (256) than any other driver.
Schumacher will close out his career in second place with 250 starts.
Schumacher really became a complete driver in 1994, and it was tragic that Ayrton Senna lost his life early in that season. The battles between the two would have been titanic. As for his teammates, Schumacher had JJ Lehto, Jos Verstappen and Johnny Herbert. By now Benetton was focused solely on Schumacher, and he easily beat them all on his way to winning the first of seven world championships.
In 1995, Herbert recalls setting a faster lap time than Schumacher in a qualifying session in one of the early races of the season. From that point on, Herbert was barred from looking at Schumacher's telemetry data.
"It was not easy to drive with him in the same team," Herbert told ESPN.com just before Schumacher announced his retirement at the Italian Grand Prix. "When I went there, I always knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be. But that is always Michael's way of working with the teams that he has been with. He gets that team to work for him, and when they work for him, he always give them a payback at the same time."
The following year Schumacher joined Ferrari and had a new teammate in Eddie Irvine. As at Benetton, Schumacher soon had the entire Ferrari team working around him. Irvine took a different tack than most of Schumacher's teammates by saying up front that Schumacher was the best driver in the world and basically unbeatable. That philosophy kept Irvine sane for the next three seasons, especially when team orders told him to give way to Schumacher.
In 1999, when Schumacher missed almost half the season with a broken leg, Ferrari drafted Mika Salo as his replacement. Even though Schumacher was absent, Salo could still feel his deep-rooted influence in the team.
"He was molded in there very well," Salo told ESPN.com, "so that is why there is a little mystery about what will happen when there is another driver there in 2007."
Rubens Barrichello arrived at Ferrari in 2000 thinking he could beat Schumacher. But he rarely did so in the following five seasons. And there were times, most notably the infamous 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, when Barrichello was winning only to be told by the Ferrari brass to slow down and let Schumacher get ahead.
The outcry from the fans and media after that particular race (they booed Schumacher on the podium and in the press room) led to the FIA banning team orders that affect the outcome of a race.
After the incidents of the Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari started to give Barrichello more equal treatment, but it was still a case of playing second fiddle to Schumacher. And that is one reason Barrichello asked to be released from his Ferrari contract one year early so that he could join Honda in 2006.
"As a person, he is fine," Barrichello now says of Schumacher. "As a teammate, when we are having caipirinhas [a Brazilian cocktail], he is quite good. When we are driving alongside each other, he is all right, but he seems to protect himself a lot more. I care a lot less. I just like to race."
Schumacher's current teammate, Felipe Massa, said there is nothing in his contract that states he must give way to Schumacher. Still, Massa is on record saying he will let Schumacher pass him if it will help in his quest for an eighth world championship.
Schumacher said one reason he is retiring is to give Massa, with whom he gets along splendidly, the chance to continue racing for Ferrari in 2007.
But there was more to it than that, of course.
"At one moment, I simply knew that all the effort, all the energy, all the motivation you need in order to be competitive -- and that's the only reason I want to be here -- I can't see I'm going to have that for further years," Schumacher said.
Looking to the future -- Schumacher had to quit one of these years -- Ferrari signed Kimi Raikkonen for 2007 and told Schumacher he was welcome to the other seat but, for the first time in many years, he would have to share equal No. 1 billing.
If Ferrari's pairing for 2007 had been Schumacher-Massa, many F1 insiders believe Schumacher would have raced for another season.
Yet Schumacher insists he was not forced out.
"I know there has been a lot of speculation about the timing of the announcement," he said, "but for me it was just right. Ferrari have been incredibly gracious and left it all up to me to say when."
The pairing of Schumacher-Raikkonen would have been a fascinating one because, for the first time in over a dozen years, Schumacher would have had to go head-to-head with a teammate on equal terms. But that is not to be, and in just over a month one of the most difficult and frustrating jobs in Formula One -- being Schumacher's teammate -- will cease to exist.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.