"The balance is nearly there, just a little too much understeer at low speed, but what is really troubling me is the sudden oversteer in the higher-speed corners."
Michael Schumacher is giving me his views on the Benetton during our final pre-season test at Kyalami in 1992.
"I want a quick check of the recorded data, but I think we should stiffen the rear anti-roll bar," I reply. Michael disagrees. Classic pitlane vehicle dynamics say that stiffening the rear bar will increase oversteer. Checking the data confirms what I thought was happening and we do the next run with a stiffer rear bar. He is immediately quicker; the snap oversteer gone.
I explain how the oversteer is caused by the car bouncing into the bump rubbers at the rear and how the stiffer bar is holding the car off them, as well as helping his low-speed understeer. He looks impressed and I feel it's a seminal moment in initiating what will become a formidable partnership over the next five years. That bond of trust between driver and engineer had been made - we each know the other has the ability and will give all in the pursuit of success.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with Michael over the years. His attention to detail and his attitude were something I had never seen before, even though I'd been Ayrton Senna's race engineer, when he drove for Toleman in 1984.
Michael was different. He had the same raw natural talent as Ayrton, but whether he had more or less of it is impossible to tell and is something that will be argued about for as long as people talk about motor racing. What was different was his total focus on every detail.
Schumacher's meticulous approach set him apart, says Symonds... © LAT
Ayrton, in his early days, believed that everything was down to his ability to drive a car and the ability of the team and suppliers to produce hardware that would perform. The subtleties of things like personal fitness were not on his radar at the time.
Michael could not have been more different. True, he had a similar faith in his ability to drive and he also pushed the engineers to provide ever-better equipment, but Michael also understood that the whole could sometimes equal more than the sum of the parts.
He understood the value of a team and realised that if every element of that team was pulling in the same direction - and had a modicum of ability - then they became formidable opponents.
The first part of Michael's career was like nothing we had seen before. Later, his total dominance in the early part of the new millennium almost killed the sport. Such was his supremacy that the result seemed inevitable and casual fans turned off their televisions in droves.
When he drove for Benetton during the early '90s, he worked with the team at Enstone to hone every part of the operation. We were a good team when he joined; we were a great team when he left. Every aspect of performance was inspected, analysed and improved. No longer was a simple lap time the be-all and end-all; it was merely part of the equation that summated to championship victories. Fitness, starts, pitstops, strategy: all were examined and worked on.
When refuelling was re-introduced to Formula 1 in 1994 it could have been made for Michael and for Benetton. Here were a team at the top of their game and ready to take on any challenge with an open mind and a determination to succeed.
While it was a team effort, Michael's part in making the team a cohesive entity cannot be underestimated. Not only was he the best driver I have ever worked with, he was probably the best man-manager I have encountered as well.
...while he was also instrumental in galvanising the team around him © LAT
Most drivers struggle to remember the names of all the members of the team. Michael knew them all and, what's more, he knew all about them. He knew about their families and he showed genuine interest. If there were social events happening he was always there. Nothing was too much trouble for him. I have many photographs of him relaxing in the kitchen of my house at some Benetton party or other.
His success was phenomenal. His titles in 1994 and 1995 were dominant. You might argue that he won by only a single point in 1994, but this ignores the huge obstacles put in his way during that season.
The two-race ban handed to him as result of the Silverstone incident was an enormous penalty for a minor misdemeanour by a driver (albeit a major one from the team). The exclusion from the win at Spa for an overworn plank still rankles with me as an injustice. There was continual innuendo from the establishment and Machiavellian actions from many who should have known better. He rose above it all with the style of a true champion.
Also not to be forgotten are the near-misses that would have added to his already impressive tally of records. The 2006 championship would have been his, had it not been for the appalling luck he suffered at that year's final race in Sao Paulo. The Ferrari/Schumacher/Bridgestone combination was clearly superior to the Renault/Alonso/Michelin triumvirate on that day and yet Michael went in to retirement as runner-up.
That retirement was a surprise to those who knew him well, and there's no doubt there was an element of contrivance about it. In my opinion, given free rein over his future, it is not what Michael would have chosen and, therefore, in spite of the words of finality at the time, it was no great surprise to see him return in 2010.
I, for one, was delighted and recalled a conversation we had when he left Benetton for Ferrari. I had asked him if he thought he would finish his career at Ferrari. He answered that he still owed a debt of gratitude to Mercedes for the support they gave him early in his career and hoped that one day he could repay that.
Schumacher returned to Formula 1 with Mercedes in 2010 © XPB
Of course Mercedes were not a complete F1 team in those days, merely an engine supplier, but when they announced their purchase of the Brawn team it was no surprise to see Michael return as their lead driver. Comebacks are often as futile as any attempt to relive the past but here, I felt, was a real chance for someone to show that age should not be a barrier to success.
Unfortunately, in spite of their wonderful achievements in 2009, there were signs of malaise in the team from Brackley. The huge injection of funds given by Honda had dwindled and the team had downsized. They may have won the championship in 2009, but they were definitely not the class of the field by the end of the year. Michael had a hill to climb.
With Nico Rosberg joining him at the 'dream team', it meant a completely new driver line-up for 2010, so another vital aspect had been lost - that of continuity. The funds were swelling the coffers again and recruitment proceeded in earnest, but there is inevitably a lag in these things. The much-vaunted Silver Arrows were a class act - but not the class act.
In my mind it mattered not. Michael had always been able to gather a team around him, but he had also been fortunate to work with some talented people - including Rory Byrne. Rory was the missing ingredient in the new recipe. Ross Brawn has always been a brilliant technical boss, but his skill lies in organising a team and giving them the arena in which to best nurture their talents. The natural talent was their own. As Brawn GP, the team achieved much in 2009 by using a large budget wisely and making full use of a 'write-off' season in 2008. There was no such luxury for the reincarnation of Mercedes.
But is it fair to lay all the blame on the team? A three-year hiatus from a sport as fast-moving as F1 is like a decade in any other job. Was the returning Michael the same one who had slunk away from the Sao Paulo paddock incensed that he was not retiring as champion? Indeed, had he won the title that day would he even be considering honouring that debt of so long ago?
His fitness was beyond doubt and, in my opinion, the returning 41-year-old was probably fitter than most of his considerably younger rivals. True, the rules had changed a lot but adaptability had always been one of his strongest points. I well remember in our days together how we would toil through Friday and Saturday to extract every last gram of performance from the car and then, on Sunday, how Michael would use the morning warm-up session to adapt his driving to the car I had given him.
Despite a car stuck in fifth gear, Schumacher finished second in the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix © LAT
This was perfectly illustrated in 1994 when, with his car stuck in fifth gear, he was able to finish second in the Spanish Grand Prix. It was not just the finishing position that was impressive but the way he had taken a mere handful of laps to learn how best to drive his crippled car. Once he had figured it out, his lap times belied belief.
Surely, with these skills, the reintroduction of races without refuelling and the new tyre characteristics would present no problems to him? With the benefit of hindsight, I am not so sure.
Michael had always been able to destroy his team-mates, but now the young Rosberg was capable of outqualifying and outracing him. The Pirelli tyres did nothing to favour him and the need to drive a race at a pace entirely dictated by the fact that the future performance of a tyre was dependant on the current performance being extracted, was anathema to him.
In the past, he had always proved himself as a great racer in all conditions, including long-distance sportscar racing - excelling when short sprints were required. Many could pull out a single golden lap for qualifying, but Michael was able to hold that pace for as many laps as were necessary to seal the outcome of a race.
But perhaps more worrying during Michael's second coming were his occasional lapses of judgment. Many would say that these were nothing new and might cite Adelaide '94, Jerez '97 or Monaco '06 as examples. These were different. Those earlier incidents had been, in my opinion, the result of Michael's innate competitive instinct overcoming his normal sense of fair play.
What we have seen more recently, have been true errors. They have cost him dearly and none more so than in Monaco this year. In fact, that weekend summed up the story of his return in a nutshell. A brilliant pole position could so easily have led to a dominant win. Instead, having qualified fastest by a tenth he was required to start from fifth place as a penalty for a totally unnecessary accident that had occurred at the preceding race in Spain, where he had inexplicably cannoned into the rear of Bruno Senna's Williams.
What could have been a highlight of his comeback instead turned into an unremarkable run in seventh place until his retirement with fuel-pressure problems. That weekend was almost a microcosm of the season - all that skill and potential wasted due to poor reliability and unnecessary incidents.
Schumacher said a second farewell to F1 at the end of the 2012 season © XPB
And so, on October 4 2012, he announced his second retirement. But why? Judged by any standards other than his own, his comeback would be considered successful. Ninth in 2010, eighth in 2011 and 13th in the 2012 standings may not sound stunning but in the context of his team-mate finishing seventh in the first two years, it is by no means dishonourable.
It seems Michael is enjoying his racing now, maybe more so than at various other periods in his career but ultimately, for one as fiercely competitive as him, the motivation to race for 10th place is simply no longer there.
However, I do believe that, just as with his first retirement, Michael has had a situation partially forced upon him and been presented with a scenario that, in other circumstances, he may have handled completely differently.
While his loyalty to Mercedes is admirable, he has grown increasingly frustrated with the team. There is no doubt that the underlying competitiveness of the car is lacking. In a tough year in which the teams have had to learn a lot about thermal management of tyres, the Mercedes has been good when temperatures are low. But once it warms up, the car no longer uses its tyres optimally and neither is the car as aerodynamically efficient as may be expected.
Mercedes felt part of their problems lay with their 50 per cent scale windtunnel model. So they made the decision to develop their 2013 car at 60 per cent scale. Michael, I believe, wanted to see the initial results of this work before committing to another midfield year.
Sure, Lewis was in the background sniffing around - but he would never leave McLaren, would he?
Hamilton's arrival at Mercedes left Schumacher out in the cold © XPB
Well he did leave McLaren to join Mercedes, and, just as in 2006, Michael was left out in the cold. Remember that at Monza in 2006 it was Ferrari who announced Michael's retirement, not Michael himself. It appears now, as it did then, that others were determining the outcome of Michael's future.
When presented with this fait accompli what could he do? There really was no point in moving sideways to another team that may or may not produce a competitive car, and certainly no other team would have either the historical or moral provenance of Ferrari or Mercedes. He had two options. Either retire or return to Ferrari.
A return to Ferrari may seem like wild speculation, but it would also have made sense. At the time, Massa was out of favour and Michael is still a hero of the tifosi. The thought of Schumacher vs Alonso, the 2006 rivals, in equal cars is one that many people would have cherished and Bernie Ecclestone would have positively encouraged.
There is no doubt in my mind that such an avenue was explored. Sadly it did not come to fruition, so we really did see Schumacher start his last race in Brazil this year.
In judging Michael's return it is hard to argue that he accomplished all he set out to achieve. His career averages have dropped as a result of three years of mediocre results, but a podium finish in Valencia at the age of 43 is no mean feat. Equally, 2010 was his first season since his 1991 debut that did not result in a win, pole, podium or fastest lap. Yet it would be supercilious to suggest that his return did anything to take the sheen off his lifetime of achievements.
So was this comeback worthy of one of the greatest drivers of all time? I believe it was. The work ethic is still second to none, the desire and competitiveness are still there - but the judgment, perhaps born of frustration, is sometimes questionable. At times, his accidents have been those of a beginner and yet at others, like that pole performance at Monaco, the brilliance is overwhelmingly apparent.
I've worked with many greats, including Senna and Alonso. I believe Michael is special and I, along with thousands of fans, will miss the sparks of genius that have marked not just his time with Benetton and Ferrari, but his entire career.
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