Michael Schumacher’s seven World Drivers’ Championship titles set a record only matched by Lewis Hamilton in 2020. He is unequivocally one of the most accomplished Formula 1 drivers in the history of the sport. But even with an incredible record behind him, a cloud of suspicion follows Schumacher’s reputation.
The accusations aren’t unfounded. Some, like his 1997 aggressive driving incident, are undeniable. Schumacher’s most infamous moment, however, involves kernels of proven malfeasance shrouded in suspicion. Did the legendary F1 driver really cheat in 1994, or is there more to the story?
The 1994 cheating allegations hounded Michael Schumacher for his Formula 1 career
1994 was a pivotal year for F1. It started with a cloud of suspicion hanging over Schumacher’s team at the time, Benetton Formula. Drivetribe reports that the other great of that era, Ayrton Senna, heard a strange noise coming from Schumacher’s car.
At one point during that controversial 1994 season, after Senna’s car was knocked out of a race, he simply stood at the sidelines listening. He was convinced illegal automated traction systems were in use.
That was never proven, although as Motorsport.com reports, one of Schumacher’s teammates at the time insists illegal electronic assistive technology was in use. There was also the matter of the suspiciously fast refueling endemic to the team, which was proven. Using an unauthorized pump system cut 12.5% off refueling times, a sizable edge in F1.
At the very least, the fuel pump situation helped Schumacher stay competitive in the final seconds of the 1994 Australian Grand Prix. Even as drivers watched his vehicle for any signs of cheating, it was Schumacher’s manual driving that caused the biggest controversy.
Near the end of the race, with 92 points to his name, he collided with Renault driver Damon Hill. Both were retired, but Hill was stuck with 91 points. Schumacher won his first major title as a result.
Schumacher ran into controversy again with an infamous 1997 bump
While suspicion toward Schumacher’s driving and cheating was almost universal, there was little in the way of definitive answers. That wasn’t the case the next time the decorated driver faced controversy. Even Schumacher, now driving for Ferrari, was shocked by what he saw when he reviewed one telling moment in the 1997 European Grand Prix.
MotorSport Magazine reports that on lap 48 of the race, Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve made a daring late-breaking maneuver to edge ahead of his Ferrari competition. Schumacher reacted by making an obvious move to intentionally disable Villeneuve’s vehicle.
The collision did mostly cosmetic damage and damaged some of Villeneuve’s electronic diagnostic equipment. But it was Schumacher who found himself careening off the track and out of the race.
He returned to his pit crew dazed, and insisting that Villeneuve should be disqualified for trying to bump him. But his team were blunt with him, and insisted he watch the moment on the monitor. What Schumacher saw was undeniable: he clearly took a deliberate turn towards his opponent.
Formula 1 rules have changed since Michael Schumacher’s retirement
Schumacher may have retired in 2012, but he cast a long shadow over Formula 1. When Hamilton accomplishes anything today, it’s Schumacher comparisons that come flooding forth without fail. That’s all held up in spite of the cheating accusations, the proven fuel pump situation, and a recurring habit of illegally knocking opponents out of races.
None of these things tarnished the German F1 hero’s reputation for good. He simply did too much outside the cloud of suspicion for his most notorious incidents to define his career. Still, F1 had many reasons to push for reforms after that 1994 season that Benetton and Schumacher marked with malfeasance.
Cheating was put in a different light that same year when driver Roland Ratzenberger and Senna were both killed in F1 races. Were cheating teams encouraging drivers playing it straight to overextend and put themselves into dangerous situations? The rules had to address safety, and clamp down on cheating, all at once.
New fuel pump regulations made cheating harder and driving safer. Revised collision penalties — with 10 second time loss as the most common — made intentional collisions less common. Schumacher wouldn’t have won in 1994 had that change been in effect. But he won more than his share of races without that factor, and deserves his lofty place in F1 history nonetheless.