Tip a stein glass in honour of Ralf Schumacher, who turns 37 years old today!
The younger sibling in Formula 1 has generally proven to be the quicker driver – the Rodriguez and Fittipaldi brothers are a case in point – but the same could not always be said for Ralf Schumacher, younger brother to seven-time World Champion, Michael.
He followed his big brother through the karting ranks and Formula Ford, making the step up into the German F3 championship in 1994, the same year that Michael would be winning the F1 World Championship. Finishing third overall in his maiden season, he went one better the following year but was unable to beat Norberto Fontana to the crown.
With guidance from the astute Willi Weber, Ralf headed to Japan for a season of Formula Nippon and earned a test call-up with McLaren, who – armed with Mercedes power – were eager to see what the younger Schumacher could do. Their response was non-committal; Ralf hadn’t proven himself to be top-shelf material.
Nonetheless, the ever-aware Eddie Jordan realised that the Schumacher name would do wonders for the PR standing of his midfield outfit, and signed the rosy-cheeked youngster to partner Giancarlo Fisichella for the 1997 season.
It got off the shaky start when Schumacher punted Fisichella out of the Argentine Grand Prix. While he would go on to finish third in the race, there was much binding in the marsh behind closed doors for his clumsy move.
Generally quicker than the ageing Englishman, he was a little too public with his criticism of the team’s instructions to hold station when Hill inherited the lead at the rain-hit Belgian Grand Prix.
After much contractual wrangling later in the year, Ralf joined Williams for the 1999 season, safe in the knowledge that he was in line for a long-term role with the team, which was set to receive BMW engines the following year.
With double CART champion Alessandro Zanardi returning to F1 as his team-mate, Ralf comprehensively blew the doors off the Italian and was a revelation that year. Despite the clear limitations of the car and its Supertec engine, he put in some sterling drives throughout the year, finishing a close second to Heinz-Harald Frentzen (the man he’d swapped places with in the off-season) at Monza, and unluckily missing out on a win at the Nurburgring when he suffered a late-race puncture while leading.
By the end of the year, Zanardi was out of the team and rookie driver Jenson Button came in, along with BMW engines. It was a building year that saw a few podium highlights and reliability niggles, but it was all about setting the platform for 2001, when the team would also switch to Michelin tyres.
Fourth time out at Imola, Ralf claimed his first Grand Prix win with a lights-to-flag display after a brilliant getaway from the grid. Two more wins – at Canada and Germany – would follow en route to fourth overall in the championship standings.
The 2002 season saw a single win – a fine drive at that, at Malaysia – in a year dominated by Ferrari, but he was often out-paced by team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, whom he famously did not get along with.
He stayed on with the team for two more seasons, although by now his form varied wildly. On-the-pace when the car and conditions were to his liking, he could equally appear moody, disinterested and thoroughly mediocre when the car was off-song. Back-to-back wins at the Nurburgring and Magny Cours were the highlights in 2003; some serious crashes in testing and during races were the lows…
Lured by Toyota’s huge cash offering, he switched the the Japanese team in 2005, with the Tokyo board no doubt hoping that having a Schumacher on board would help propel them up the grid.
In truth, they signed the wrong Schumacher. Comfortably out-paced by team-mate Jarno Trulli for much of the season, it took him much of the year to start competing with the Italian.
The 2006 season saw Schumacher and the team make a backwards step, and he again failed to shine the following year, with his best finish being a lowly sixth at Hungary.
At the end of the season, Toyota elected to dispense with his services, and Ralf’s onle last shot of remaining on the grid in 2008 ended when he crashed out after being given a test opportunity with Force India.
Sidelined in 2008, he returned to the cockpit in 2009 with the DTM championship and Mercedes, where he’s one of the championship’s biggest drawcards. He’s also continued to prove to be wildly inconsistent and lacking the discipline to be proper championship material.
[Images via DTM Media, LAT, Sutton Images, The Cahier Archive and XPB]