Schumacher’s Footsteps: With Ferrari, can Sebastian Vettel emulate his hero?


Back in 1994, Michael Schumacher was taking the Formula 1 world by storm. At the age of 25, the German racer had his first championship in sight, and would eventually retire 18 years later as – statistically – the greatest driver in the history of the sport.

However, in the very same year, another German driver was making great strides in his own career. Seven-year-old Sebastian Vettel was finding his feet in go-karts with dreams of being like Schumacher when he grew up, just like thousands of other young racers.

That year, Vettel was surprised at a karting event when he was awarded the winner’s trophy by Schumacher (picture), who at the time may not have thought much of the young man that he squatted down to shake hands with and congratulate.

Fast forward to the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. Having fought back from almost a lap down to finish inside the points at his 308th and final F1 race, Schumacher parks his car up in the Interlagos pit lane. His attention soon turns to the same young man whom he had met 18 years earlier, only this time, the prize is far greater: a third F1 world championship. They embrace and share words as Schumacher symbolically hands the torch over to Vettel in his final grand prix.

The correlations between the two drivers have been there from the beginning. When Vettel first arrived in Formula 1 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 2006, he was dubbed “Baby Schumi”, and has since delivered on much of the promise that he showed all the way back in 1994. With Red Bull, he won four world titles and 38 grands prix, spearheading the team’s success over the past six years.

However, for 2015, he has moved to pastures new: Scuderia Ferrari. A revolution has taken place at Maranello over the past year, costing Luca di Montezemolo, Stefano Domenicali, Marco Mattiacci and Fernando Alonso their jobs as a new regime was been ushered in. The goal is to return the team to its former self, having won just a solitary drivers’ title in the past ten years.

And Vettel is at the centre of all of this, just like Schumacher was.

Michael pulled exactly the same move in 1996, just two years after that iconic photo of the pair was taken. After winning titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, he made the shock decision to quit the team and join Ferrari – a team that, for all of its history, had not won a championship since 1979.

The dream team was built up over the years that followed. Ross Brawn, Jean Todt and Rory Byrne were all critical to Ferrari’s success with Schumacher, setting the stage for a devastating run of form that would see the German win five consecutive world titles between 2000 and 2004.

Vettel may already have bagged four-in-a-row with Red Bull, but like any great sportsman, he wants more. He now has the chance to become a true great by building a team around him like Schumacher did, taking Ferrari back to the pinnacle of F1 after years in the doldrums. The similarities are frightening at times.

Oddly though, Sebastian still has a point to prove. Few doubt that the car Red Bull produced in each of his championship winning years was the best in the grid, with the 2011 and 2013 models being particularly dominant. The naysayers argued that it was not Vettel who had won these titles, but chief designer Adrian Newey; Seb had just done a better job than teammate Mark Webber.

This was an argument that only grew stronger in 2014. Joined by Toro Rosso graduate Daniel Ricciardo, most expected Vettel to blow his teammate out of the water. Instead, the German failed to get to grips with the new technical regulations and car, leaving him a lowly fifth in the championship without a single win. Ricciardo had three to his name, finishing third in the standings. Sebastian had been soundly beaten and made to look rather average.

But an opportunity presented itself at Ferrari. It was clear that change was needed, resulting in a purge of many of the gestione sportiva’s top personnel, including lead driver Fernando Alonso. Quite clearly, Vettel was the man they always had in mind. Rumour has it that the final straw for Alonso came in the summer, when what he thought would be a positive chat with team principal Marco Mattiacci ended with the Spaniard storming out, calling his boss a “son of a b****”. At that moment, the path was cleared for Vettel to move to Maranello.

Vettel’s poor showing in 2014 was also instrumental in securing his move to Ferrari. A clause in his contract permitted the German to leave Red Bull if he sat any lower than third in the drivers’ championship. In a hotel room on the Friday of the Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel broke down in tears and told team principal Christian Horner of his decision. Red Bull didn’t dwell on the matter: Daniil Kvyat was confirmed as his replacement just 12 hours later.

It wasn’t a done deal, though. Vettel considered walking away from F1 completely, but after conversations with the incoming management at Ferrari, Sergio Marchionne and Maurizio Arrivabene, his mind was nearly made up. A conversation with Sabine Kehm – Michael Schumacher’s manager – was what sealed the deal.

Clearly, Schumacher has had an influence on Vettel’s career ever since he stepped into a go-kart for the very first time. The goal has always been to be like Michael; to be as successful as him; to dominate like him.

Ferrari has always been a dream for Vettel. In a recent interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta della Sport, he revealed that he first spoke with the team back in 2008 about a future there, and even held secret talks following the 2012 season at Maranello. “It was a dream for me,” he said. “Now I’m happy I’m inside that dream.”

Vettel was unable to speak to his hero about the move in 2014, though. After suffering a severe head injury whilst skiing in December 2013, Schumacher was in a coma for many months, and despite returning home, he remains in rehabilitation.

He did, however, know of Vettel’s desire to race for Ferrari.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t speak with Michael,” Vettel said. “A while ago I told him about the possibility offered by Domenicali, and he said that if I agreed, I would find a nice atmosphere and a great enthusiasm in Maranello.”

And that is what Vettel appears to have found in 2015. The atmosphere at Ferrari has changed dramatically, and he is said to have made such an impression that, upon getting out of the car following his first test at Jerez, the mechanics gave him a round of applause. He has even began to learn Italian to aid communication with his engineers. They clearly see him as the future of this team; as the man who can return Ferrari to its glory days.

The spirit of Schumacher is perhaps stronger now at Ferrari than it has been since he left the team in 2006 upon his first retirement, such are the similarities between Michael and Sebastian. Speaking to Italian journalist Leo Turrini, new team boss Maurizio Arrivabene said himself how starting the similarities are.

“I was around in Michael’s time,” Arrivabene said, “and I confess that there are times when I look at Vettel and, in some ways, it really seems like a carbon copy of Schumi.

“There are impressive similarities, for those who have known both. We all hope that the results are the same as well.”

The seven-year-old boy who received that trophy back in 1994 has realized his dream: he has followed in Schumacher’s footsteps. Now, he has the chance to truly emulate his hero with Ferrari and establish himself as one of Formula 1’s all-time greats.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”