Former F1 driver and team mate to Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, has never been shy about offering his opinions, and his recent remarks are no exception. Irvine recently told La Gazzetta dello Sport that Michael Schumacher’s comeback has been nothing short of a “disaster.” Irvine urged his former team mate to stop making excuses for his lackluster performance, saying, “It’s, ‘This is a new team, with new people.’ But in his first year at Ferrari, the car was rubbish but he won three races.”
Irvine has a point. In 1996, when Schumi first joined Ferrari, he drove the wheel nuts off the car, when it was nothing but a tub of guts. One of Schumacher’s strengths, when he was in his prime, was his ability to drive around a car’s shortcomings, to the extent that he flattered the car.
Sadly, that no longer seems to be the case. Merc boss Ross Brawn, who masterminded Schumi’s seven world titles, has acknowledged that the German driver seems unable to come to grips with Bridgestone’s front tires and the Merc’s inherent understeer this year. Further, Brawn has insisted that next year’s car should be more to Schumi’s liking.
Fair enough. But that doesn’t explain away the embarrassing fact that Schumacher’s team mate Nico Rosberg seems to be able to cope with the car’s shortcomings, and has generally set the benchmark performances for the team. That used to be Schumacher’s job.
Eddie Irvine also scoffed at the idea that Schumacher had been a quasi-manager at Ferrari, galvanizing the development efforts of the team. “Ferrari took him for his talent,” Irvine said. “He had no idea about how the car was behaving…Schumacher’s strength is the driving, that’s all.”
I find this assertion a bit harder to swallow. The fact is, when Schumacher first went to Ferrari, they didn’t even have an in-house design shop. They were farming out the car’s design to John Barnard (the designer of the first all carbon fiber monocoque, for McLaren, in 1984), in England. Barnard didn’t have an office at Ferrari, and he never turned up at the races. Schumacher was incensed. He quickly urged Jean Todt to steal Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Nigel Stepney from his former team, Benetton, which is what happened.
It wasn’t long before Schumacher became the focal point of the new team, with Brawn revamping the modus operandi of the team from the ground up. And during the team’s glory years, Schumacher became the chief development driver, both for the chassis and for the Bridgestone tires. He was a tireless tester who had a major impact on the development path of the car. So I think Irvine short changes him a bit by implying that he was a mindless hotshoe who merely pressed the throttle to the floor whenever Ross Brawn purred into the radio, “All right, Michael, you should go fast now.”
But Eddie Irvine’s attitude Schumacher has always been conflicted. On the one hand, he likes to poke holes in the burnished facade. This was the driver, after all, who thoroughly dominated him during their years together at the Scuderia. On the other hand, Irvine does like to pay the man his due. “Michael is a great driver,” Irvine said. “You can give him a suitcase with four wheels and he’ll drive it quickly.”