With just three races to go, Michael has a meager 2-point deficit to championship leader Fernando. Looking at Ferrari’s current form, the drivers’ championship seems to be a forgone conclusion. But if history is anything to go by, Michael Schumacher should not be winning the title this season. The burden of history is too much to be shrugged off.
Stats don’t lie
Two championship points might seem like nothing with three races to go, but since 1990 there have been 5 seasons when the provisional runner-up was shy of the leader by two points or even less, with three races to go. Only twice did a leading driver lose the battle – Michael Schumacher to Jacques Villeneuve (1997) and Mika Hakkinen to Michael Schumacher (2000).
|1994||Michael Schumacher||76||Damon Hill||75||– 1|
|1997||Michael Schumacher||68||Jacques Villeneuve||67||– 1|
|1998||Mika Hakkinen||77||Michael Schumacher||70||– 7|
|1999||Mika Hakkinen||60||Eddie Irvine||60||0|
|2000||Mika Hakkinen||80||Michael Schumacher||78||– 2|
|2003||Michael Schumacher||72||Juan Pablo Montoya||71||– 1|
Note: Since 1990, in five out of the past 16 seasons, the championship had already been decided by this stage – Nigel Mansell (1992), Jacques Villeneuve (1997) and Michael Schumacher (2001, 02 & 04).
With three races to go, Damon Hill was down on Michael Schumacher by just 1 point. He then lost five points to Michael in the next race and again earned them back in the penultimate race, taking the battle down to the wire at Adelaide. He simply needed to finish ahead of his rival to win the title. But we all know how the closely contested race ended in a controversial manner when Damon and Michael collided, the title going to Schumacher by default.
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice. But with three races to go, Schumacher again had a 1-point lead over Jacques Villeneueve. He then failed to score in one of the next two races, thus going into the final round at Jerez with a deficit of 8 points. Michael had to win- nothing less. All that turned to naught when he tried a repeat of Adelaide ’94. He not only lost the race and the championship, but also honor. It could happen again if he keeps driving the way he did at Hungary this year.
Schumacher himself came close to achieving a miraculous 7-point comeback by finishing 1st and 2nd in two of the last three races, to head into the final round at Suzuka with a deficit of 4 points. Only a win could’ve put him at 96 points and 7 wins – exactly the same as Hakkinen. And only then could the championship go in favor of Michael for scoring 12 podiums versus Mika’s 11. It was that tight. Michael promptly bagged pole, with his Finnish rival starting second. He then stalled his Ferrari at the start of the formation lap, which dropped him to the back of the grid. The rest, as they say, is history.
Taking charge of Ferrari’s championship bid after Michael broke a leg in shunt at Silverstone; Eddie Irvine was level with Mika Hakkinen at 60 points. He then failed to score at the next grand prix. However, Michael was back at the penultimate round in Malaysia, where he gifted the win to Eddie, giving him a lead of 4 points over Mika. However, in the final round at Suzuka, Irvine qualified 5th while Hakkinen was 2nd and Schumacher on pole. At the end of the race, Irvine managed to finish 3rd. But Schumacher couldn’t (some say didn’t) prevent Hakkinen from stealing the lead right off the grid.
Just two years after his storming debut with Williams, the fiery Colombian was very much in the title hunt. With three races to go, he was just 1 point down on Michael and 1 point ahead of Kimi. Then he lost 9 points in the next two races, going into the final round at Suzuka with a 1-point deficit to Kimi. Had he won the race with Michael finishing outside the top eight, Montoya would’ve been at par in terms of points. However, Michael had 6 wins to Montoya’s 2. So only Kimi had title hopes still alive. He qualified 8th and Michael was an appalling 14th. However, Rubens was on pole. Kimi had only one win in the entire season, so to win the title, he had to snatch victory away from Rubens and hope like hell that Michael would not score a point. But it was not to be. The best he could manage was 2nd and Michael somehow managed to sneak a point in the dying stages of the race. If not for sincere Rubens coming to Michael’s aid, Kimi would’ve been the youngest world champion.
With this year’s engines needing to last two full grand prix weekends, reliability is a huge worrying factor for every team, more so for Ferrari and Renault. Let’s not forget how Alonso’s formidable 12-point lead vanished with a single blown engine at Monza. Even a loose wheel nut is enough, as Alonso painfully learned at Hungary.
If there’s anything Michael can feel relaxed about, it’s his teammate. For once, he has in Felipe a teammate who can qualify with him up there consistently – a quality Irvine and Rubens lacked.
Let’s take a look at how often Michael’s teammates qualified alongside him during a season (with 3 races to go, in the years that mattered).
|Year||Driver (teammate)||No. of times qualified alongside Michael|
|1998||Eddie Irvine||2/13 = 15%|
|2000||Rubens Barrichello||4/14 = 29%|
|2006||Felipe Massa||9/15 = 60%|
Clearly, Massa will have a pivotal role to play in the coming races; and Michael had better thank him for playing a perfect supporting role this season.
Moreover, what makes this year’s title chase not so easy for Michael is the sudden upswing of performance from McLaren. Schumi’s successor Kimi or a dark horse like Button or even Kubica could play spoilsport and eat into the available points-pool.
While Michael undoubtedly relishes challenges, they have also brought the worst out of him. Adelaide 94, Jerez 97, Suzuka 98 and Suzuka 03 (to an extent) are sour reminders of breaking under pressure. No wonder he prefers to build and retain a formidable lead early in the season. Austria 2002 was a glaring example of how Ferrari doesn’t leave anything to chance when it comes to Michael’s championship lead.
One can’t really blame Ferrari for such unpopular moves because just two seasons earlier (2000), they watched Michael’s massive lead over the McLaren drivers disappear. At the halfway mark, i.e., after 8/17 rounds, Michael had a formidable lead of 24 & 22 points over Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard respectively. Then came three consecutive DNFs at Magny-Cours, A1-Ring and Hockenheim. It looked like game over until Michael put in a mercurial performance to take three consecutive grand prix wins – Monza, Indianapolis and Suzuka, with Sepang still to go. Maranello exhaled after 22 long years.
The FIA’s banning of Renault’s ‘mass damper’ and the controversial grid penalty for Alonso at Monza helped Michael catch up. Surely, he’s receiving all the help he needs and more for a grand retirement.
If he were to lose the title now, it would all be of his own making – crashing in Australia, parking in Monaco, messing in Hungary and overdriving in Turkey. If he triumphs, Michael Schumacher would be rewriting history for one last time. The odds are 2:5.