With hindsight I know now that I was never on the seven-time world champion’s level but he gave my career as a Formula One driver credibility
Friend and foe: Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard shared an underlying respect Photo: REUTERS
10:30PM GMT 30 Dec 2013
The outpouring of concern for Michael Schumacher‘s wellbeing over the past 36 hours, not only from the world of Formula One but from the wider sporting, and indeed non-sporting, community has been wonderful to see. In my opinion it constitutes long-overdue recognition of Michael’s status as a true sporting great. I only hope and pray that he pulls through to see what nice things people have been saying about him.
The truth is I do not believe that Michael has ever truly received the praise or recognition that his stunning achievements merited. And I say that now with the benefit of hindsight.
For years Michael was the perfect pantomime villain, particularly in this country; German, of course, ruthlessly efficient, ultra-aggressive. Whereas previous greats such as Sir Jackie Stewart or Juan Manuel Fangio left the door open to their rivals when racing, for fear of making what could easily have been fatal contact, Michael went all out in his pursuit of victory.
Sometimes he overstepped the mark Jerez in 1997 and Rascasse in 2006 spring to mind â€“ and those indiscretions made him unpalatable to the sporting purist. He was marked down by some, including me, as a tainted champion. But you cannot argue with his achievements.
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At the end of the day he had the same rules and the same race marshals as the rest of us. And he destroyed us.
He could be infuriating. I had numerous run-ins with Michael, most famously at Spa in 1998 after we collided on a wet track and he stormed over to the McLaren garage and accused me of trying to kill him. I asked him later, in exasperation, whether he had ever been wrong about anything at any point in his life. “Not that I can remember,” he replied. To me that summed him up.
He had complete and utter self-belief. It was what made him a champion.
And what a champion: 91 grand prix victories and seven drivers’ world titles. I can say now, and again it is with the benefit of hindsight, that I was never on his level. You cannot admit that, even to yourself, during your career because you need to have self-belief but I have no trouble admitting it now.
Michael was the reference point for me. I can see that now. If I beat him to a win or a podium, I knew I had done a very good job. He gave my career credibility.
As I said, we did not always see eye to eye but there were two sides to Michael.
He was a ruthless competitor but at the same time he was a family man; generous, kind. If you were part of his trusted circle then he was loyal. If you were not, he could cut you off completely.
I never knew exactly which camp I belonged to but our shared relationship with Mercedes-Benz meant that we were thrown together regularly.
I can vividly recall being invited to Michael’s private parties after the German Grand Prix and staying up smoking cigars with him, late at night after a few drinks, talking about just how lucky we were to be doing what we loved.
There was always that underlying respect. When Michael retired at the end of 2006 he approached me and suggested we swap helmets. It had never even occurred to me to ask him. Why would he have wanted my helmet? But he knew that I collected them and I was honoured that he offered me his. It remains one of my prized possessions and I know he keeps mine at his home in Switzerland.
I think Michael might have got more credit before now had he not burnt his bridges so completely with the British media, to whom he was completely closed, at least during his first career. I think Sebastian Vettel may have learnt from that experience.
In any case, Michael’s comeback with Mercedes showed he had a more human side. And in a funny way, it cemented his legacy rather than harmed it.
Watching him struggle to match Sebastian and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, not always through fault of his own, proved that time waits for no man. It was too easy during his first career to assume that he simply swept all before him.
Those struggles with Mercedes gave us, certainly me, a new-found appreciation for the unbelievable levels of consistency he achieved in his first career.
This skiing crash has connected Michael to the rest of us on a human level once and for all. Here is a father, like any other, his wife and children at his bedside praying for him to pull through. It is something to which we can all relate.
The awful thing is that so often it takes something like this before we say what we truly feel about someone.
I hope that in this instance, with Michael having received such swift medical attention, and given the fact that he continues to receive the very best treatment possible, he is going to emerge victorious once again. And when he does he is going to realise in what esteem he is held.