As Michael Schumacher strolled into the press conference after qualifying at Monaco that day I can still clearly remember the burning fury I felt. The utter indignation. Did he really think we would fall for that?
The great German had just faked a crash to steal pole. But in reality had just parked his racer at Rascasse hairpin to block Fernando Alonso from nicking top spot.
Starting at the very front is always, of course, the biggest part of winning a Monte Carlo.
It was not only dastardly it was downright dangerous and risked not only his life but that of others roaring up behind him on such a narrow ribbon of tarmac between steel barriers.
What got me was the audacity. Cheating so blatantly in front of a TV audience of 400 million. Keke Rosberg, the 1982 F1 world champion, called it "the cheapest, dirtiest thing I have ever seen in F1”.
The feeling among some of the media was that F1 politics, being as pernicious as it is, if he was allowed to leave the room without censure he could get away with it entirely. We had to set the tone.
The press conference was packed and the mood heavy.
I raised my hand to ask a question and sooner than I expected I was nominated. How do you ask someone if they cheated? Is that slander? Perhaps Alonso had the answer, seen as how he was the one who had lost out. So I asked him what he thought of Schumacher’s actions. The Teflon Spaniard smiled his thin smile and dodged the question with a clipped answer.
Having had no time to frame a more considered question I served it straight: “Michael, do you think you cheated?”
Mark Webber, who was sitting beside him, would later recall that Schumacher’s hand began to shake.
The German blustered an indignant answer and denied it all. Others, feeling as I did, continued the inquisition. No escape, Michael. Even so it was not until well after dark some eight hours later, even in the face of blatant chicanery, that the governing body, the FIA, got up the courage to kick him to the back of the grid.
Later Bernie Ecclestone told me I should have been more direct: “Michael, why did you cheat?”
That was 2006. But Schumacher was not a one-time offender. There’s Adelaide 1994, Jerez 1997 (when he was kicked out of the entire championship), Austria 2001 and 2002 to name a few.
Austria 2002 was particularly immoral. Rubens Barrichello was forced by the team to surrender a rare victory. It wasn’t a win Schumacher needed, he had won four of the previous five races, and would take the title by a country mile. He just wanted to complete the full set with a trophy from a race he always found difficult. It was just greed.
I mention this because all the hoopla this weekend in Russia will surround Lewis Hamilton’s bid to equal Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 wins. A feat once so far beyond the rest everyone doubted it would ever be beaten. And yet here we are 14 years later.
So the Schumacher era taught me statistics mean nothing. They don’t automatically translate to greatness. They don’t entitle you to greatness.
He won five championships at Ferrari with teammates who were not allowed to compete equally. So, in my eyes for those years, Schumacher is champion of all the people that year called Schumacher driving in red. Who did he beat on equal terms? No one.
With Hamilton it is a different matter. Besides the odd (Mercedes & McLaren inspired) occasion he has won every race on merit and earned his record.
I was there on the start grid when the journey began at Brazil in 2008. Despite the enormous pressure Hamilton won his first title on the last corner of the last race. He was mighty. And has been so several times since.
Drivers with the most F1 titles
Hamilton’s year up against another champion, Fernando Alonso, will always be the benchmark of his talent. More so because it was his first season.
But wouldn’t it be great if instead of this string of comfortable wins he were to push Mercedes to hire Max Verstappen as his teammate? Or Sebastian Vettel or Alonso again? Ayrton Senna was defined by his years against Alain Prost in the same car. I believe Hamilton is actually up for it, too. It’s only Mercedes who are squeamish at the potential mayhem.
Taking on Verstappen over a season, and perhaps beating him, in the same car would mean more than another 100 victories over Valtteri Bottas. Hamilton doesn’t need it, of course, to be considered ‘a great’ but wouldn’t it be feast for the fans. And he might just enjoy it too.
So is Hamilton greater than Schumacher, the man he will shortly overtake on the all-time winners list? I believe he already is. He doesn’t need to surpass this Schumacher landmark to prove that. Is he a better racing driver than Schumacher? Ah, that’s a different discussion.