I remember the day that I figured out Michael Schumacher had arrived.
While it was well before the first of his seven world championships, I can’t claim to have spotted him as a speck on the racing horizon. I never saw him when he was a kid racing karts in Germany. By the time I came across the future champion he was already in Formula One.
Schumacher’s spectacular F1 career started back in 1991 when he drove a Jordan in the Belgian Grand Prix. It wasn’t much of a debut. He qualified well, but was out on the first lap. He was quickly snapped up by Benetton (despite Eddie Jordan’s best efforts to keep him). It didn’t take long for Schumacher to show why teams were fighting over his services. He finished top five in the first six races (with a DNF in the 6th).
It was in that seventh race that the light went on in my head.
I was working as a pit reporter for ESPN at the Canadian Grand Prix. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see the young phenom. I remember coming around a corner and spotting him on pit lane. He was standing by himself, but he wasn’t alone. About ten feet in front of him was a gaggle of photographers, snapping away. Clearly, they knew that they had better start taking pictures now because someday those photographs might be valuable. Michael stood there, smiling away, clearly reveling in the moment. Perhaps it had already played out similarly in the first six races. It was a joyful pose that made a great photograph.
The funny thing was that while everyone stood and watched, no one walked up to Michael. There was a certain reverence to the way he was treated. I could almost see the pedestal being build beneath him. He had definitely arrived.
A decade later I was covering F1 for SPEED. We were working on our show tease, that first minute of high tensity music and video that sets the stage for the race broadcast about to unfold. The problem was we were in the middle of Schumacher’s stint at Ferrari. There wasn’t much drama back then. Michael won 11 races. He finished second in every other race except one (a 3rd). The only question was who would finish second (usually his teammate Rubens Barrichello).
At the time our producer, Dan Shutte, came up with a line that seemed like little more than a surrender to the inevitable. It didn’t question who would win, or how. It didn’t dwell on the hungry pack hunting behind Schumacher. However, looking back, it was perhaps significant line of the year. He simply wrote, “Someday you’ll tell your grandchildren that you watched Michael Schumacher race.”
With Michael Schumacher’s announcement this week that he is retiring (and this time likely for good) at the end of the 2012 season, I’m now looking forward to the day when I can tell my children that I watched the man who will very possibly be remembered as the greatest racing car driver of all time. And that I remember the day he arrived.