We have all made sweeping sporting judgements that are quickly proven to be spectacularly wrong. Here is my latest.
In late July of this year, I was sitting in the press room at a sweltering Spa-Francorchamps watching the free practice times for the weekend’s FIA European Formula 3 round filter in.
While the usual suspects were at the sharp end, eighth spot was occupied by a name that demands you stop and pay attention: M. Schumacher.
This, of course, is Mick Schumacher, the 19-year-old son of seven-time world champion Michael. But whereas Michael’s name was a near-permanent fixture at the top of the standings, the Spa weekend saw Mick once again struggling to hit the front.
This was becoming an all-too-familiar pattern. Approaching the halfway stage in his second season of European F3, Mick was yet to win a race and sat eighth in the championship standings.
There is no shame in that – European F3 is an intensely competitive series – but it certainly does not suggest a future F1 star.
With this in mind, I suggested to a colleague that Schumacher Junior should call time on his racing career. Given the enormous shadow cast by his father, Mick could only hope to establish himself by winning races and titles at the junior level. With neither of those things looking likely, he would be best to call it quits and focus his attention elsewhere.
While I have been wrong many times before and no doubt will be again, this error in judgement could prove to be my crowning glory.
A PHENOMENAL TURNAROUND
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Spa would prove to be the turning point in Schumacher’s season, perhaps even his career. He took his maiden pole ahead of the weekend’s second race, only to blow the start and collide with a teammate.
But it was not a false dawn. In the final race, Mick charged from sixth on the grid to prevail in a three-way battle for the win, securing his breakthrough at a circuit that holds huge significance to his father.
Michael made his grand prix debut at the Belgian track in 1991, secured his first Formula 1 victory there a year later, and eventually took a record six wins around the Ardennes circuit. His seventh and final world title was sealed there, too, thanks to a second place finish in 2004.
Afterward, Sabine Kehm, Michael’s long-time manager who now looks after Mick, escorted the youngster outside for a photo with the iconic Eau Rouge in the background. Schumacher, Spa, and the winners’ trophy: they could not have hoped for a better visual.
Despite having his first victory, Mick was still just eighth in the standings at the season’s halfway stage. Few title challenges are launched from so far down the table with half the races already run.
But over the following weeks we were reminded of an old adage that has been revived for a new generation: never, ever rule Schumacher out.
The first victory opened the floodgates and there were further wins at Silverstone and Monza, placing Schumacher fourth in the standings with three weekends left to run. He was by no means the favourite, but it was game on.
What followed was nothing short of remarkable. Schumacher blitzed the Nürburgring weekend by taking three wins without reply and followed it up with two more wins and a second place at Red Bull Ring. Incredibly he was now on the cusp of the title, which he sealed with a second-place at the penultimate race at Hockenheim last weekend.
It was exactly the season he needed and showed that Mick has more than just a famous surname: there is real talent there, too.
THE MOST FAMOUS NAME IN RACING
Of course, junior titles will do nothing to stop the comparisons and every assessment of Mick (this one included) will inevitability mention his father. For a start, he looks like him: his hair is lighter but the face is unmistakably Schumacher and he is built like his old man, cutting a near identical shape on the podium.
All of that is genetic. But do genes contribute to something as complicated as driving a racing car at high speed? While the physical side of motorsport is hugely important, it really is just a case of training hard and being race ready.
So much of the sport is psychological. It is about a thousand things, from reaction times and stress management to raw speed – that innate ability to jump in a new car and be fast almost instantly.
I wouldn’t pretend to know which, if any, of those things are passed down. Clearly Mick is quick in a racing car, but how much of that is inherited and how much is training and coaching is near impossible to say.
In truth, comparisons between Michael and any driver are of limited use. So many of the things that made him the greatest are intangible. He was phenomenally good – perhaps the best – at building a team around himself, a fantastic people person who knew the importance of bonding with every last member of the Ferrari crew.
He understood the politics of the sport and how to engineer situations in his favour. Michael also took fitness to a new level in the late nineties, something that is now de rigueur in F1.
You can’t emulate Michael Schumacher because so much of what he did has become the norm. That is as true for Mick as it is for any promising 19-year-old racing driver.
THE NEXT STEP
Whether he uses the name Schumacher or Smith, Mick now qualifies for the Superlicence required to compete in Formula 1. The new points system used to govern licences means he is among a relatively small group of drivers who could make the step up.
And there is a vacancy. The Red Bull young driver pool has run so dry that the junior Toro Rosso squad is giving Daniil Kvyat yet another chance in 2019, and his teammate remains to be decided. Young, fast and marketable, Mick would appear to be everything Red Bull looks for.
It is not unheard of for a top European F3 driver to jump straight to F1. Max Verstappen did so after finishing third in 2014, while Lance Stroll won the 2016 title and then immediately signed with Williams.
Neither case is directly comparable to Schumacher. Mick is not the same prodigious talent as Max, and nor is his family about to sink upwards of £20m into securing him an F1 seat as Stroll’s did.
In truth, he is not yet ready for the top tier anyway. Going straight in would create unneeded pressure. He is a Schumacher and would be expected to perform, but the gap between F3 and F1 is huge.
The logical step is Formula 2 and the Prema team, for which Schumacher has driven this season, is a potential destination. Pierre Gasly (2016) and Charles Leclerc (2017) both won the second-tier title with Prema and made quick progress to the top of F1.
This is where Schumacher’s future could be shaped. If he is going to reach F1, he’ll almost certainly need to do so with some form of junior team affiliation.
Prema would keep the door open: Gasly won the title in Red Bull colours while Leclerc did so with a Ferrari logo on his car. There are also rumblings that the Mercedes-affiliated HWA squad could join the F2 grid next season; putting Schumacher in the car would effectively tie Mick to the German manufacturer.
But if there is potential for a Red Bull junior deal, this makes the most sense. While Ferrari and Mercedes have talent to spare, there is every chance that Toro Rosso will need at least one new driver in 2020, which would make a proven youngster with a Superlicence a shoo-in.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. F2 will likely be a two-year programme for Schumacher. He has shown himself to be capable of winning at a high level, but it would be an enormous shock to see him conquer F2 as a rookie. There are new circuits to learn, a very different kind of tyre, and all with limited testing and track time.
It is reasonable to give him a year to learn and a year to win. That’s what he did in F3. If he can finish among the top-five in his second season of F2, he’ll have done enough.
COOL UNDER PRESSURE
Regardless of what comes next, 2018 has said a great deal about Mick Schumacher’s character.
Above all, this is a young man who has shown himself capable of winning under enormous pressure. Much of this comes from his surname and the vast attention it brings. Suffice it to say that F3 drivers are usually pretty anonymous, but Mick certainly is not. There is huge fan and media interest in the youngster.
Take all of that pressure and combine it with the added strain of having started the season poorly. Add in the stress of people writing him off (guilty). That is a huge burden to overcome, but he did it.
Make no mistake, should he reach F1 the pressure will expand tenfold. He will also need to get used to questions about his father’s health, be they well-meaning or not. Sabine can only do so much to protect him.
But the early signs are that he can manage all of this. Schumacher has lived in the spotlight and coped remarkably well. Winning the F3 title is huge, but staying so cool while doing it has been his biggest victory to date.