Go with the Flow: Michael Schumacher

The Schumacher phenomenon has never really been explained to satisfaction. Those incredible cornering speeds, putting the competition to shame . . . How did he do it? An attempt at explaining the unexplainable on the 53rd Birthday of the legend.
Text David Staretz
Photo Getty Images / Netflix

Like Jim Clark, Michael Schumacher had a perfect feel for the car, the curves, permanently drawing nearer and nearer to the absolute limits. Perhaps Schumacher’s immense sensitivity in this respect can be compared to “absolute pitch” in music. It gives the chosen few access to a space that will remain forever out of reach for the rest of us.

Such a high sensitivity, in connection with speed and race instinct, often comes with a self-perception that leaves the chosen one wondering why his competitors can’t go as fast as he can. Schumacher won the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona in such a spectacular fashion despite the torrential rain that the tabloids bestowed upon him the title of “rain master”. It was races like this that clearly demonstrated the qualities of the future champion.

On a wet track, engine power, downforce and chassis tuning all take a back seat to the pilot’s skills. The footage of the race includes some breathtaking sequences in which Schumacher constantly holds his Ferrari at the edge of breaking away, with two wheels over the abyss, so to speak. All the while, he overtakes his rivals on the inside and the outside, as if the laws of physics did not apply to the Ferrari with the number 1. In some laps, he even outclasses his competitors by three seconds. It’s all or nothing; great drivers like Damon Hill or Gerhard Berger swerve off the course – and at the end of the race, there are only six cars left. After Schumacher’s win, it takes another 45.3 seconds before second-placed Jean Alesi finally crosses the finish line. Pedro Diniz, who came in sixth, was lapped twice by the winner. This was Schumacher’s first victory with Ferrari, by the way.

Schumacher’s driving style has been much analyzed, an easy feat thanks to the availability of continuous telemetry. His data was once compared to that of his Benetton teammate Johnny Herbert, in particular in a curve where Michael had been two-tenths faster. Three components were evaluated: throttle position, steering trace and speed. The chart comparison shows that Herbert kept on full throttle longer but, when he braked, his speed then dropped down quite significantly in the corner. Johnny Herbert’s braking amplitudes were much higher than those of Schumacher, whose graphs were a lot rounder. If you took a look at the steering trace, which clearly shows the tiny movements of the steering wheel that are invisible to the naked eye, called micro-inputs, Schumacher had a rapid succession of ups and downs while cornering, a staccato of corrections, similar to an electronically controlled sampling in real time, which shows an enormously rapid steering rate.

This also clearly showed that Schumacher didn’t use the apex of a curve as a point of orientation, as is commonly recommended, but the point at which the car is actually slowest. That’s not a fixed point, but a point whose position varies depending on degree of curvature, inclination, road condition and car set-up.

An expert in the field, the British journalist Peter Windsor, once explained, “Many drivers mistake the slowest point for the apex. That’s why they steer into the turn at the wrong time and take their foot off the gas sooner than Michael.” Schumacher probably adopted much of his cornering technique from the special, quite physically demanding dynamics of karting. It is just at that point where the technical differences are negligible that the art of taking speed with you as you leave a curve is most important. This is where attainable benefits are realized with that fundamental sense that distinguishes the dutiful craftsman from the natural-born artist. It is undoubtedly an innate talent; you can learn it to some degree, but not to perfection. Still, this isn’t some kind of voodoo magic we’re talking about here. There’s a very sober explanation: edging against centrifugal force isn’t the only thing that counts; there’s another dimension, that of the inner vehicle balance. It’s important to handle the dynamics of the car’s center of gravity softly, to avoid abrupt maneuvers that would disturb the momentary center of gravity of the vehicle to the disadvantage of its overall performance.

It is important to know that the center of gravity of a moving vehicle is always in motion as soon as the car is no longer in a steady state. The center of gravity moves outwards in curves, to the rear when accelerating, and to the front when braking. This movement has a substantial impact on the load acting on the chassis and on the driving dynamics. A knowledge of – and a feeling for – this phenomenon can be very helpful in extreme ranges. In the same way in which a (steered) tire is subject to its dynamic adherence limits within the traction circle (steering and braking forces have to share the variables of the field of adherence), the dynamic center of gravity can only act within the set limits – or else it will disturb the car’s ideal movement through a curve.

“Many drivers mistake the slowest point for the apex. That’s why they steer into the turn at the wrong time and take their foot off the gas sooner than Michael.”

Peter Windsor

So what did Schumacher do? He braked late – but that’s something others have come up with as well. Schumacher, however, stepped on the gas with his right foot at the same time. It was like an internal race against the brake, balancing the two effects with a lot of sensitivity, in order to achieve something that non-experts would maybe compare to greasing a casserole. He constantly kept the car on a tight rein, which is a lot more difficult in practice than it may sound. He used forceful gas bursts, where others would decelerate, to keep his car on course. And he could do that as he had already stabilized his car before entering the curve by softly touching on the brake – in equestrian sports this would correspond to “a half halt”, i.e., calling the horse to attention and calm it so that the animal will know to expect a command. In racing, the command is full throttle and braking on the left. Other drivers tend to brake towards an (often dubious) apex and then fully step back on the gas. Schumacher, however, considered every part of the arc equally important; he was relentless, fully going to the limit in every segment. His steering rate shows the intensity of his work throughout a curve. Only at the exit would he step off the calming brake pedal to fully accelerate his perfectly balanced car.

With astonishing results: in some combinations of curves, the master was able to go 25 km/h faster than his competitors, who already had a hard enough time making up for his natural talent. Even teammates who drove his car to try out the settings resigned themselves to the facts. There’s a quote from Schumacher’s Ferrari teammate Gerhard Berger. He said, “If there was a bump in a fast curve, the car would immediately swing off. Michael reacted to this situation with an incredible reflex. He automatically countersteered in advance. At this point I knew: someone who can control their car like that in an extreme situation really must be an extraordinary driver.” It’s something his competitors felt at close quarters. When he surprisingly overtook Damon Hill inside an unusual section of a curve in Portugal in 1995, he had already rehearsed the situation in the previous lap to make sure he wouldn’t be surprised by the changed cornering line at the decisive moment.

"Someone who can control their car like that in an extreme situation really must be an extraordinary driver.”

Gerhard Berger

Schumacher’s mentor Ross Brawn, who was Ferrari’s Chief Technical Officer at the time, likes to use this example to describe Schumacher’s circumspection and analytical skills. For example, using the unpleasant situation of a slow-speed spin to look at the tires of his passing teammates to conclude, by the rubber blisters on the tires, that his own tires must look the same and that it was therefore high time for a pit stop. Young Schumacher won that race at Spa in 1992 not least because of this decision. It was the first GP victory for the then twenty-three-year-old. Another ninety were to follow.

But who better to explain the Schumacher miracle than Schumi himself? His technique and analysis were perfect, he made valuable contributions to his teams and, even under high pressure, functioned as precise as clockwork. But even Schumacher, who usually communicated in a very direct way, had to resort to the meta level to appropriately explain the Schumacher phenomenon: “At some point, a sort of flow sets in, a single flowing rhythm. And then I see nothing else but the ideal racing line. A black band winding before my eyes. I look for the points that I have to head for, because it’s these points that define the line. I know where they are in my head, I can feel it in my body.”

In December 2013, Michael Schumacher suffered a skiing accident in the French Alps and abruptly disappeared from the scene. What remains are stunned fans and a family that does everything to protect the Formula 1 record world champion from the public eye. For the Netflix documentary "Schumacher", his wife, children and brother speak for the first time very personally about the now 53-year-old. Former companions such as Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone, Sebastian Vettel and Mika Häkkinen also have their say. The touching portrait traces Schumacher's path from the Kerpen gravel pit to global superstar.

»Schumacher«. Verfügbar auf Netflix.

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