Columns - Big Al

Can Michael Schumacher set a record that will never be bettered?


When Alain Prost finally retired from racing at the end of 1993, F1 insiders rocked on their heels and took a deep breath. 51 Grand Prix victories. Surely nobody can match that?

At the time, a young lad called Michael Schumacher had just posted his second GP victory. Eight years on and Michael has 53 wins - and counting. The Tiger Woods of F1 seldom has an off-day and has hinted that he could well race on beyond the expiry of his current contract with Ferrari at the end of 2003. In that case, he will probably have achieved 75 Grand Prix wins and six World Championship titles before he hangs up his helmet.

Breaking the cycle of Ferrari domination in the foreseeable future looks a tall order for the opposition. Schumacher simply delights in the tactile pleasure of driving a racing car, is always cajoling, encouraging and worrying the team over how future developments are progressing. He finished the season driving a heavily revised F2001 chassis at Suzuka fitted with a selection of development components designed specifically to give the 2002 car a flying start once it is unveiled.

"Michael earns the respect and gets the commitment from all the people around him," said Brawn. 'He's motivated, doing the best job he can, and the people around him naturally try to do the same. So you don't have to motivate the people very much when Michael is around."

Of course, winning - and winning consistently -in F1 depends on an intensity of effort and continuity which come the way of few drivers. Michael developed his talent and rose to prominence with a loyal engineering team at Benetton; then moved to Ferrari, taking several key members of that same team with him.

The end result is a synergy absolutely unmatched anywhere else on the F1 scene. And it is extremely difficult to imagine any driver in the future (a) staying with the same team for such a length of time while (b) enjoying the benefit of consistently competitive machinery throughout that tenure.

Michael will keep winning for several years to come, although I suspect that in Juan Pablo Montoya he sees much of himself as a younger F1 aspirant. Montoya may be to Schumacher what Schumacher was to the late Ayrton Senna; a thorn in the side of the contemporary towering F1 talent. But it is difficult to imagine Montoya remaining at Williams on an open-ended basis for five or six years, the sort of deal that will be necessary if he is to make meaningful inroads into Michael's remarkable career tally.

Ironically, Montoya looks like the sort of driver who will one day drive for and delight the Ferrari team. Probably after Michael has retired, of course, one would have to say. But he is the man Schumacher should most fear over the next few seasons.