Michael Schumacher returned to Formula 1 retirement at the end of 2012 to definitively bring down the curtain on an extraordinary career at the very top of the motorsport ladder.
Last Updated: 11/02/13 2:41pm
Michael Schumacher returned to Formula 1 retirement at the end of 2012 to definitively bring down the curtain on an extraordinary career at the very top of the motorsport tree.
While there's no denying the fact that his three-year comeback with Mercedes provided precious few highlights, what remains unsurpassed is Schumacher's status as far and away the most successful F1 driver of all time.
A record seven World Championships, 91 race victories - just one fewer than Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna combined - 68 pole positions and 155 podiums are astounding statistics that are likely to remain out of reach for anyone for a good while yet, and perhaps forever.
While debates continue to rage over whether or not Schumacher is also F1's 'greatest' driver in history, what has never been questioned was the German's supreme talent behind the wheel at his peak for, first, Benetton and then, over a glorious decade, Ferrari - even if some of his driving over the years courted more than its fair share of controversy.
Schumacher's return to F1 in 2010 with Mercedes after an initial three-year retirement brought the German full circle as he was originally one of the German manufacturer's rising homegrown stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s in sportscars.
Although many rated his compatriot, and fellow Mercedes young driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen as the more talented of the two at the time, it was Schumacher who got to F1 first after a string of unusual circumstances - not least the imprisonment of Bertrand Gachot for spraying CS gas in a taxi driver's face - combined to land him a drive with Jordan for the 1991 Belgian GP.
Having already stunned Eddie Jordan with his speed in his debut run in the glorious green 191 at Silverstone, Schumacher announced himself to the wider F1 world with a sensational seventh on the grid at the fearsome Spa circuit. Although his first race was almost over before it had begun - his clutch burnt out soon after the start - a star had been born.
So much so that by the next race at Monza, he was lining up for the race-winning Benetton team after Flavio Briatore controversially poached him from Jordan's grasp. After outqualifying his new team-mate, three-times World Champion Nelson Piquet, at the first attempt, Schumacher opened his F1 points account with fifth place. From there he never looked back.
He marked the first anniversary of his debut with a maiden victory at Spa, and after a further success in Portugal followed in 1993, the now 25-year-old Schumacher was ready for a first title tilt in 1994. With Senna moving to the dominant Williams team, the season seemed set for a titanic battle between master and apprentice. But the great Brazilian's death three races into the season at Imola cast a huge shadow over the year and Damon Hill was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the man to take Schumacher on.
Six victories and a second place in the opening seven rounds appeared to make a first title for Schumacher a near certainty but along with the success increasingly came controversy - and a two-race suspension for overtaking Hill on the parade lap at Silverstone - which culminated in a collision between the two as the title went down to the wire in Australia, which won Schumacher his first title.
His second the following year was more straightforward - and emphatic - with a record-equalling nine wins. But at the height of his success at Benetton, Schumacher bravely decided to take on the challenge of resurrecting Ferrari's fortunes.
After three brilliant wins in a difficult car in 1996, Schumacher, now with Benetton cohorts Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne in tow under the leadership of Jean Todt, took the title fight with new Williams rival Jacques Villeneuve all the way to the final round at Jerez in 1997.
But once more he found himself at the centre of controversy as, in a move that was widely interpreted as being calculated, he turned in on the Williams as it went to overtake him. Schumacher came off worse this time and the title was the Canadian's, with the German later stripped of his runner-up finish in the championship amid a worldwide backlash against his actions.
The following year Schumacher again came close, challenging McLaren's Mika Hakkinen for the title right to the wire at Suzuka. However, his hopes died when he had to start from the back of the field after his car stalled on the grid. Many suspect Schumacher of making a rare mistake; Ferrari blamed the car.
After his 1999 challenge was written off mid-way through the year when he sustained a broken leg in a crash on the opening lap of the British GP, everything finally came together at the turn of the century as Schumacher clinched his third Drivers' Championship in Japan following another monumental battle with Hakkinen, handing Ferrari their first world title for 21 years.
Armed with the dominant car in 2001 and 2002, Schumacher proceeded to rewrite the F1 record books. He won his fourth title easily in 2001 and then crushed the opposition to an even greater extent the following season to secure a record-equalling fifth crown before the summer was out.
Schumi's success continued in 2003, despite the FIA implementing new rules intended to slow him down and level the playing field. Even so, things were much closer this time as new pretenders Juan Pablo Montoya and, ultimately, Kimi Raikkonen ran him close. Ferrari went up another level in 2004 again, though, and Schumacher was more dominant than ever, winning a record 13 times - including seven in a row during the summer months - to take his world title tally to an astonishing seven.
The German's record-breaking run came to an abrupt end in 2005 as the decision to introduce tyres that had to last for the entire race distance handicapped Ferrari's tyre supplier Bridgestone. Schumacher did still finish third in the standings but claimed just a solitary win - and that only came at the six-car U.S. GP.
With the tyre rules reversed for 2006, Ferrari were back on the pace and Schumacher locked horns with the man who had finally dethroned him the previous season, Renault's Fernando Alonso. Again, the title fight went down to the wire but Schumacher, who had mounted a brilliant mid-season revival only to suffer his first engine failure for six years while leading at the penultimate round at Suzuka, had just too much to do and the title remained with the sport's new champion.
Schumacher, who produced one of his best ever comeback drives at the Brazil finale to finish fourth following a puncture, had already announced his retirement a month earlier after winning at Monza and therefore his extraordinary F1 career had seemed set to have finished on a high. However, his retirement would prove surprisingly short-lived. After a three-year break in which he had time to recharge his batteries, the now 40-year-old announced in December 2009 that he would return to the sport with Mercedes after they had bought reigning champions Brawn.
Schumacher entered the 2010 season making it clear that he would need time but that it wouldn't be long before he was back in top form. That, though, didn't happen. The team struggled with their W01 while Schumacher's own form was further complicated by the Bridgestone tyres that just didn't suit his style. He was trounced by younger team-mate Nico Rosberg and, although things picked up marginally by year's end, he didn't make the podium and finished ninth in the Drivers' Championship.
In 2011 he proved much closer to Rosberg in race conditions in particular, but the campaign was not much better for the two Germans and their team. Again failing to come close to catching the leading three teams, Schumacher's year highlight was a brilliant run to fourth in the chaotic Canadian GP that rolled back the years.
Entering the final year of his contract in 2012, what had so far been an underwhelming comeback suddenly seemed about to take off as Mercedes, equipped with an ingenious Double DRS device, were among the pacesetters in the early rounds of the season. Schumacher himself rediscovered his qualifying mojo and put the new W03 fourth on the grid in Melbourne.
However, in what would become the depressing story of his year, he dropped out early in the race due to unreliability - something that would strike again in China when on course for the first podium finish of his return.
A brilliant, and somewhat unexpected, 'pole' arrived in Monaco but Schumacher was unable to officially add a 69th front-of-the-field start to his collection as he had picked up a five-place grid penalty at the previous race in Spain for crashing into Bruno Senna.
While Mercedes again fell off the pace thereafter, Schumacher did enjoy one more moment in the sun when he finally registered the first - and only - podium finish of his comeback with a stirring late charge to third place in Valencia.
Having delayed a decision over whether or not he would continue in F1 into 2013, the decision was effectively taken out of the 43-year-old's hands when Mercedes announced Lewis Hamilton as his replacement, and after some speculation he might try to race on elsewhere, Schumacher announced his retirement for the second time at Suzuka.
His final six races in the sport brought little joy but in his final appearance at Interlagos there was something of a symbolic 'passing of the baton' as in the closing stages Schumacher - for probably the first time in his two-decade career - willingly moved aside to let his friend and compatriot Sebastian Vettel through to sixth place so the young star could more than cement his third world title.
But while Vettel is Germany's new hero, Schumacher's achievements mean he is very much F1's ultimate yardstick.