Last night while enjoying a nice relaxing bubble bath, my mind started drifting off to a Montreal memory in 2003 when the Amazing Schumacher Brothers were entertaining F1 fans the world over with a little family squabble to decide the Canadian GP. The race was under a safety car period with only a handful of laps remaining. Michael was in the lead, Ralf was second, but Ralf clearly had the better car as evidenced by the chunks of time that he had been making up prior to the caution period. The atmosphere in the stands was electric with anticipation over the crucial restart. Michael was attempting a little gamesmanship to get the jump on his younger sibling, who was glued to his gearbox as they were about to go back to green. Big Brother Michael slowed the pace way down to let the safety car vanish off into the distance, setting the scene for a mano-a-mano battle. Montoya, Alonso and Raikkonen were lurking but for all their collective brilliance, they were not in the Schumacher’s league on this day at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
As Michael exited the final hairpin he dropped the hammer, but Ralf was right there with him, Ferrari and BMW V10’s screaming in unison. Michael, sensing that Ralf would have had a tow down the long final straight, decided to abort the getaway and brake tested the field. He then swerved from side to side to get more heat in the tires. Ralf was having none of it. He was sitting on the Ferrari’s gearbox with a twitchy right foot. I swear I could see Michael’s eyes watching Ralf in the mirror and could feel the brotherly love. Michael then faked like he was going to swerve again and this time Ralf took the bait and tossed his car into a slide. Instantly, I heard the rev limiter and saw wheel smoke and black rubber being laid down by the Ferrari. Just like that, the Maestro was gone!
Watching those two rocket off along the St Lawrence river played out in my mind like a movie scene where the characters are gradually transported back in time from the glamorous world of F1 to their youthful days of innocence at the family run karting track in Kerpen, Germany. To a time when a young Ralf would have no doubt been cursing in his helmet as he strained every sinew in his 9 year old body to keep up with his older brother, who in turn would be cracking up over duping his little brother yet again. To a time when their mother would be standing at the fence motioning to pit the karts for the night so the boys could have supper and tend to their studies.
I made a pilgrimage to this historical little piece of track in 1997. On an epic day of buzzardry that included driving a rental car through Eau Rouge at Spa (at 52mph – yes my dad was driving) and witnessing the famed Nordschleife at the Nurburgring, our party headed to Kerpen to get a firsthand look at where the dynasty began. Arriving in town in the early afternoon, we went into a bank where a teller, who could have passed as a Schumacher sister, knew the general location and sent us on our way. After ten minutes of cruising narrow two lane farm roads, we were beginning to second guess our guide until we came around a corner and were treated to the unmistakable buzz of two-stroke kart engines at full tilt on the other side of a tree grove. The anticipation of what we were about to witness rivaled the feelings I had when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s secret vault on live TV in 1986. To be honest, what we discovered was a track that resembled the kart tracks in Dixon, CA or Medford, OR, but I still felt like I was standing in front of the stage where the Beatles played their first gig.
The sheer unlikelihood that two brothers would go from this rather ordinary karting track in the middle of a farming community to the pinnacle of motorsport on raw talent alone is one of the great stories of modern racing. Everybody knows the gaudy stats that Michael produced, but as the only two siblings to both win a GP, they made quite the brother act. Four 1-2 finishes. A three year stretch (2001-2003) where they both placed in the top 5 in the championship each season, winning a remarkable 64% of the races run (MS – 26 and RS -6). And with uber manager Wili Webber negotiating their salaries, the brothers earned enough money to buy Luxembourg.
The thought of two brothers going after the same prize at the pinnacle of their chosen profession is interesting to ponder. Obviously, the Manning brothers are the gold standard, having both quarterbacked teams to Super Bowl wins. In racing, Al and Bobby Unser come to mind as a very successful tandem. But the norm seems to be one alpha dog per family while the other is grinding just to stay in the game. Examples: Bernard vs Albert King, Emerson vs Wilson Fittipaldi, Cal vs Billy Ripkin, John vs Patrick McEnroe, Gilles vs Jacques Villeneuve, Dominique vs Gerald Wilkins, Bill vs Brian Doyle-Murray, Michael vs Tito, The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) vs Andy Gibb, Marv vs Steve Albert. The list goes on and on. I’m having a chuckle over the thought of Larry Bird having a brother named Perry Bird who averaged 7 pts/gm for the Atlanta Hawks over 5 seasons before heading back to the farm in French Lick, IN.
Ralf often gets incorrectly labeled as a bust and, granted, his career did end with a thud at Toyota, but in his 4 seasons alongside the revered Juan Pablo Montoya, Ralph won 6 races to JPM’s 4. He was a match alongside Giancarlo Fisichella and Damon Hill at Jordan. He easily handled Alex Zanardi and a young Jensen Button at Williams. Tied for 38th on the all time win list is a great career if your last name isn’t Schumacher.
If there was ever a weekend to solidify both brothers as courageous top notch professionals, the San Marino GP weekend of 2003 did so for me. On this dark weekend, the Schumacher brothers were racing while their mother, Elisabeth, lay dying in a hospital in Cologne after suffering a freak head injury from a fall. The boys strapped their helmets on and did what they were born to do in qualifying, placing their cars 1-2 on the grid and then rushed off to Germany to be by her side. The next morning, just 2 hours prior to the race, Elisabeth perished. Rather than withdraw to mourn, Michael and Ralf honored her by racing.
And what a beautiful display it was! At the start they held a sibling drag race down to the first corner where Ralf prevailed. For the next 15 laps, Michael tried every trick in the book to get by to no avail. They were back in Kerpen with their mother on the fence willing them on. I was on my couch at 5:00am with tears of inspiration in my eyes. In the end Michael prevailed and Ralf faded to 4th, but the mental fortitude that they displayed and the emotions that came out after the race will forever be imprinted in F1 lore. “Schumacher!!!”