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Ferrari witnessed its most successful era when Michael Schumacher drove the Ferrari F1 car from 1996 to 2006. While Ferrari enjoyed an unprecedented five driver’s titles back-to-back from 2000-2004, the car was almost nothing back in 1996.
Ferrari was having a drought of driver and constructor championships, and great drivers like Alain Prost in 1992, Jean Alesi in 1993 and others could hardly change its fortune. By 1995, Schumacher was already a two-time world champion and was ready to make a switch to one of the most renowned names in the sports car and performance car arena—Ferrari.
But the switch over to Ferrari was questioned by many. Many wondered about the number of victories and championships Michael could have won had he not moved to Ferrari and stayed with the supremely better Benneton in 1996. However, Michael did enter Ferrari’s bastion and was almost immediately ready to take on the competition.
The Struggling 1996 and 1997 Season
One of the strong points of Michael had been his ability to work closely with his team, and in almost all of his podium finishes, he did sing their praises. So, it was natural that 1996-1999 were the formative years which led to the 2000-2004 championship wins.
That did not mean that Schumacher’s performance was below par during the formative years. Though the car was far from ideal, Michael finished 1996 third in the overall standing. The stark contrast in performance was evident when the other Ferrari driver did not even make it to the top six.
The 1997 season was more eventful than the 1996 one. The championship went right up to the last race of the season, and Villeneuve prevailed and got his victory, which meant Michael was second. However, due to a disputed move by Michael, he was stripped of his points for that year.
The Giant Killer Years: 1998–1999 Season
Generally, Michael would be considered as the giant and others taking on him would be the Davids of the world. However, in 1998 and 1999, the giants were McLarens, while Schumi and his Ferrari were the David of the F1 world. Already a two-time champion, Schumacher faced competition particularly from Mika Hakkinen from the McLaren stable.
McLaren came out with a gem of a car in 1998, and its qualifying and race performance was way better than any car on the track. Ideally, a one-two finish in almost all the races wouldn’t have been a far fetched expectation, but Schumacher had other plans.
Despite being in a slower Ferrari, Schumacher ended up being faster than the second McLaren of David Coulthard and at times faster than Mika Hakkinen, the flying Finn. These were the times when the driver, team and strategy worked well within the Ferrari team walls.
Take a look at this video to see how the strategy and Schumacher’s near qualifying fastest laps brings home the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix victory.
One of the things visible was the point that I had made earlier—the video clearly shows the sheer speed of the McLarens, and how far behind the Ferraris are in terms of speed. Only Schumacher is close to them while the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine is far behind.
And here’s one more video of 1998 Argentine Grand Prix where Schumacher puts out blistering pace catching up with the McLarens and taking them on.
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Suggestion: This is a long video, so watch from 18:00 minutes.
While these were really great races, there was one that did not go Schumacher’s way at all. We are talking about the 1998 Spa race where Mika had already retired, and with rain pouring down, Schumacher was the fastest on the track. In fact, Schumacher was well poised for victory when disaster struck. Schumi rammed into a slowing David Coulthard’s McLaren, which he was about to lap. The race was over for Schumacher.
Obviously, Michael was angry and would have preferred a boxing bout with David Coulthard. Ironically, this race was stopped the first time due to an accident caused by Coulthard while his second accident took out Schumacher. Well, that would have been a comfortable 10 points for Schumacher but for the accident.
Despite Schumacher’s heroics, the 1998 contest ended with Mika Hakkinen ending with 100 points while Schumacher had 80 odd points. He was in the second place, and fans were hopeful for a better 1999 season.
Come 1999, Ferrari already looked to have a winning car, yet there was a huge task ahead. The first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, turned out a bit of a dampener for Schumacher. Schumacher failed to get off at the start and lost track position. When he tried to catch up, he had a rear-wheel puncture. That ended his campaign. Eddie Irvine went on to win the race.
Michael Schumacher came back in San Marino and Monaco to take victories and then one more retirement followed in the Canadian Grand Prix after hitting the champions wall. However, that was nothing in comparison to an unfortunate accident that Michael would encounter later.
The British Grand Prix took out Schumacher for a good part of the rest of the season and virtually ended his campaign. Here is the accident.
The crash was due to a brake failure which left Michael with a broken leg. Interestingly, Eddie Irvine was holding himself up against the McLarens until Michael came in the penultimate race to help Eddie win.
Here’s the video of Schumacher letting Irvine pass while holding back the McLarens.
What was interesting about this race is that Schumacher had a blistering pace and had opened up a significant gap over the second place Irvine. He then slowed down to let Irvine through and kept the hopes of Irvine’s first driver’s championship alive.
However, that was not to be. Hakkinen won the Japanese Grand Prix, which was the last of the season, and became champion once again. That said, the contest was close. First-placed Hakkinen was at 76 points to the second-placed Eddie Irvine’s 74.
McLaren took home the driver’s championship while Ferrari won the constructor’s championship. That was Ferrari’s first constructor’s title over 20 years. It was a sign of things to come in the next season.
The McLaren’s of the 1998 and 1999 season was way better than most cars. Michael did not win but came close to winning both the 1998 season, not to mention the 1997 season.
While conjecturing is not going to change the past, Michael would have a miraculous, record-breaking season from 2000 to 2004. Those seasons will be soon covered.
Hope readers had fun!
© 2019 S K