Features - Exclusive Interview
NOVEMBER 23, 2000
Ralf Schumacher: Make or break?
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
If the 2000 World Championship season was a dream come true for Jenson Button, what was it for Ralf Schumacher?
On the face of it the young German racer had a great year as Button's leader in the BMW Williams team, securing a comfortable fifth place in the Drivers' title and helping BMW Williams back into the respectable position of third best constructor. Third places in Australia, Belgium and Italy, allied to other strong finishes, demonstrated that Ralf is maturing nicely in his fourth season in the Big League.
Should there even be a but? Perhaps there should. For there were several occasions when cracks were visible in Schumacher's armor. When Button outqualified him in only their second outing together, when he comprehensively out-thought him on set-up and took ninth place in the starting line-up in Brazil, a driver's circuit, toys came out of the pram. He was unhappy too in Belgium and Japan to be outqualified on the other two most demanding circuits on the calendar.
The statistics say that Ralf outqualified Jenson 11 to six, and that was to be expected. Given his level of experience - he was in his fourth year of F1 - and Button's complete lack of it, it should have been 17: nil.
Much of the time, even when the Briton had been quicker in practice, Ralf raced better. He would get his head down in commendable style and get the job done. He was third in Australia, Belgium and Italy, and to those three podiums added fourths in Britain and Spain and fifths in Brazil, France and Hungary. By any standard, his was a good season. Without Button it might have been regarded as great. But the Briton's presence and his speed highlighted Ralf's weaknesses.
By the end of the season Button's qualifying performances at Spa and Suzuka, where he was faster than Schumacher on his first pukka acquaintance with the two most daunting tracks, spoke volumes for his ability. And at Suzuka in particular he not only pressured Schumacher into a momentary off in the second part of the Degner Curve, but was comfortably out-racing him until Ralf went off for good after being short-braked by Marc Gene.
So what does all this really mean? As much, perhaps, or as little as you might want it to, for you can prove or disprove anything with a few well-chosen statistics. But there is a sneaking suspicion within certain areas of Williams that they are letting the wrong driver go.
Some feel that we may even have seen the best that Ralf has to offer in 2000. And while that has been pretty good most of the time, it may not be enough ultimately against his new team-mate, the much-vaunted Juan Pablo Montoya, or even against a maturing Button if and when he returns in two years' time. So will 2001 be the make or break season for the World Champion's younger brother?
The man himself doesn't think that it will, and says that he is perfectly relaxed, thank you, about his prospects. "A lot of people like to make a fuss about me because I am Michael's brother," he contends. "Well, I'm proud of what he has achieved and the fact that he has reached his goals. I have enough to do for myself, but there's no pressure on me. Why should there be?"
Easy to say, even defensively, but of course that is precisely what there is on each and every F1 driver. And the greatest pressure is to perform. To beat one's team-mate. Back in his initial days in F1 with Jordan in 1997 he had the upper hand over team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella in the early races, partly because the Italian was still recovering from the big testing accident he had at Silverstone prior to the Brazilian GP. But once the Italian had got his wind back there was no stopping him in the second half of the year. As he took control, Ralf's focus suffered.
In 1998 he showed well against Damon Hill, and in 1999, for a variety of reasons that need not detain us here, he had a relatively easy ride against the troubled Alex Zanardi, despite the canine qualities of the Supertec-powered FW21.
This year it might be argued that he should have had no trouble with a 20 year-old novice, and there are those who believe that once he becomes fully acclimatized to the latest breed of F1 car, Juan Pablo Montoya will annihilate his more experienced partner.
Though BMW Williams has attempted to stick a plaster over the open wound of its latest drivers' war of words, the verbal and body language suggests that Ralf may be whistling to keep his spirits up when he suggests that Montoya will find F1 a bit tougher than ChampCars. It was quite clear from comments he made at Indianapolis that he does not have much time for a man he believes is arrogant. The German is very much a man who likes to feel comfortable about his speed in comparison with a team-mate.
"Yes, I can see all that," he concedes. "But that's not why I said it. Alex was a nice fellow and I think we worked very well together. Likewise Jenson and I. We got on well as team-mates, and when two team-mates get on well, you have to ask what is the point of changing that?"
He admits that he didn't like being upstaged by his younger partner - "No driver likes to be beaten by their team-mate, do they?" and that the two were not particularly close socially. "But Jenson fitted in well, and thankfully Williams F1 has the capacity to prepare two cars to equal standard. Jenson and I understood each other very well, although we didn't really have a personal relationship."
So what about Montoya. Why didn't he have very positive things to say about him? Why say at Indy that the Colombian was too full of himself and would find F1 a bit more difficult than ChampCars?
"Because I do think that he will find it tough. What's wrong with saying that? It's not going to be easy, and these cars are hard to get the best out of. They are not like the cars that he is used to driving. But much of what I said has been blown out of proportion by people who want to make a big deal of it all. There has been a misunderstanding between Juan Pablo and me. What I said was that it would not be good to break the current team of Jenson Button and me. We make a good pair."
Other people have suggested that Ralf Schumacher, too, has a high view of himself. "Well," he counters, "nobody who races in F1 is going to admit that somebody else is better than they are, are they?"
Looking back rather than forwards, Schumacher Jnr is clearly delighted that his brother succeeded in the quest for a third title, and any rift that might or might not have developed after their on-track spat at Barcelona back in May is clearly a thing of the past. There was not, he insists, any need to kiss and make up.
"We didn't need to! I know people like to see these things and to imagine the worst, but it wasn't necessary. Okay, the maneuver was hard, and I got angry at the time about losing a place on the podium. I think that's understandable. As a matter of fact, though, Michael and I don't really enjoy being overtaken and also we like to attack. Therefore we are both strong adversaries on the track and this is absolutely evident in that race in Spain and at Silverstone the race before. In any case, Formula One will never change anything in the relationship between us. No matter what happens."
To be fair it didn't change much after the Nurburgring in 1997, after their first corner collision in which, it might fairly be said, his action cost his brother the world title.
Schumacher is optimistic about 2001, and BMW Williams' chances of making up ground on Ferrari and McLaren. As long ago as Brazil he said of the FW22: "If we had a Mercedes or Ferrari engine right now, this chassis would be a World Championship contender."
But whether it will be he who takes the fight to his brother and Rubens Barrichello, and to Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, or whether it will be the man in the other FW23, remains a fascinating point of pre-season conjecture.