Feature: The Incomparable Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher is unquestionably the most successful Formula One driver.

Feature: The Incomparable Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher is unquestionably the most successful Formula One driver.

But the greatest? Greater than Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna or Jim Clark?

Fans can argue the Ferrari driver's case until the cows come home: Is a driver greater the more he risked his life? Do the benefits of modern technology detract from Schumacher's achievements?

There is even a spiritual side to the question, concerning the essence of motor racing itself.

In the end it is a debate that can run and run without resolution. Oranges and apples are both round but they are also very different.

"I don't know how you can compare. He is certainly the best of this era, by a long way," says Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn.

"But I don't know how you can compare him with the other guys. Formula One was so different then and so I don't know how you can say whether he was better or worse and even in Ayrton's time F1 was very different.

"But he is certainly going to be up there with the few."

Iconic Figure

This weekend, Schumacher should stand alone by overhauling the record he shares jointly with Fangio of five World Championships. He is one of those rare sporting icons, like Pele or Muhammad Ali or Tiger Woods, that people will talk about for generations to come.

He has become more human as he has changed his image, removing much of the stain and suspicion left by controversial collisions with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in the championship deciders of the 1990s. And those who have watched him in action can consider themselves fortunate, knowing that they may never see another like him.

"It's hard to imagine, isn't it," said Brawn. "Hard to imagine, given what he has achieved. I don't think I'll ever see the like again."

Fangio, who died in 1995, always said he was just lucky and there is an echo of that with Schumacher.

"I never consider I am the best because it is always a combination of things and maybe I am just in the right place at the right time," he said last year. "The times in which Fangio was driving cannot be compared to these days. I have a lot of respect for what he did. I think what we are doing right now doesn't come anywhere near it."

The reason why some people like Stirling Moss, Fangio's rival and friend, place the Argentine above the German in the greatness stakes have as much to do with Schumacher's temperament as his talent.

"I don't think he's as good as Jim Clark or Ayrton Senna," Moss said last year. "Michael is exceptionally good but he is still making mistakes. Michael has done a few things which are a bit naughty. Fangio brought nothing but credit to his sport and you can't say that about Michael."

Long Lasting

When Brawn says that even in Senna's time Formula One was different, he also pays tribute to his driver's remarkable longevity. While Fangio's career spanned eight seasons in all, Schumacher is completing his 13th with a contract to carry on to 2006.

Remember that Senna's era overlapped with Schumacher's for two full seasons before the Brazilian's death in 1994 deprived Formula One of what would surely have been a thrilling duel. The roll call of Schumacher's past rivals reads like a dusty ledger: Senna, Gerhard Berger, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Riccardo Patrese, Martin Brundle.

His first teammate at Benetton was Nelson Piquet, who made his Grand Prix debut in 1978. All are gone now, not one driver from the 1991 season left alongside Schumacher. Damon Hill, who now seems like a champion from a distant era, actually made his Formula One debut a year after Schumacher.

Brundle is better known now as a television commentator while Berger recently retired from his second career as BMW motorsport director. Schumacher, likely to be the only active Formula One champion next year now that Villeneuve has lost his BAR drive, just keeps on going.

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