How Michael Schumacher engaged with his team at Ferrari to unlock their Ultimate Performance

April 22, 2021

Part 1: Background

Back in 1993 Ferrari were in the middle of a season which would bring them no wins. They also hadn't won a championship since 1979 so in a change of management they brought in Jean Todt, the Frenchman who had over seen a huge amount of success in sports cars and rallying with Peugeot throughout the 80s and early 90s.

Todt was tasked by Ferrari Chairman Luca Di Montezemolo to bring success back to the Italian team. Over the next few years he set about doing this by recruiting a team to carry this out. This included getting a driver to the lead the team who Todt felt should be "beyond reproach" due to the internal politics within the team.

Todt said in an interview with F1 journalist Tom Clarkson (Beyond the Grid) “I wanted to analysis and understand the situation (when I joined). (What was clear was) the team was not unified; chassis people were saying it was the engine that was not working and engine was saying that it was the chassis. Then everyone was saying we don’t have the proper drivers. Honestly it was a mess, so I considered that if we changed our driver we would have to get someone who was not be able to be discussed.”

According to reports in 1994, they had spoken to Ayrton Senna about driving for them but unfortunately this never happened after the Brazilian’s untimely death at the San Marino Grand Prix of the same year, so in 1995 they turned their attention on soon to be 2-time World Champion Michael Schumacher who joined the team in 1996.

Over the next few seasons the partnership grew as Ferrari got other key members of the team together such as Technical Director Ross Brawn, who had worked with Schumacher at Benetton, where he had won his two World Championships. Ultimately though between 1996 to 1999 they fell short narrowly missing out on Championships to Williams and McLaren. Schumacher also missed half of 1999 with a broken leg, further to a brake failure and accident on the first lap of the British Grand Prix. However, from 2000 – 2004 it all came together with Ferrari winning both the Drivers and the Constructors Championship in a row. These victories were not always without controversy though, as many suspected that Schumacher was the ultimate number 1 driver within the team. This was only highlighted more when incidences such as when teammate Rubens Barrichello slowed down and let Schumacher through on the pit straight on the last lap to give him a victory at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix.

In public Schumacher came across as aloof and almost arrogant - so how did he get a team around him - working hard for his success rather than his teammates if this was what he was like – ultimately leading him to be the most successful driver of all time?

Turns out behind closed doors with the team, he was anything but....

The Number 1 proudly carried on Schumacher's Ferrari for 5 seasons

Part 2: How Schumacher Engaged with his team.

In another interview to celebrate Michael Schumacher’s 50th birthday, Ross Brawn (again talking to Tom Clarkson) talked about how Schumacher was the first driver he saw who truly understood the power of the team and what it took to get people to work for you.

He did this by doing the following:

1. Set an example with levels of fitness and a work ethic which instilled and reinforced principles for the whole team.

One example Brawn gave was back when in season testing was allowed during the Monaco Grand Prix. Traditionally Monaco practice has always taken place on Thursday to allow for a sponsor’s day on Friday. In this particular Thursday practice Michael was unhappy with an aspect of the car, so rather than stay in Monaco on the Friday flew back to Ferrari’s test track in Italy and tested the car until the issue was resolved and came back to Monaco on the Saturday ready for Qualifying.

2. Never Publicly Criticised the Team

Anything that needed to be said was said behind closed doors. No one was publicly shamed and this created a shell around the team. According to James Allison who was working for Ferrari at the time this was also something that Jean Todt helped implement, to help shield the team from external politics.

3. Found out what was important to members of the Team

Michael made sure he remembered things such as birthdays and children’s names of the team who worked around him. He knew that this was important to them and if he showed he cared then he would get the same thought and respect back.

4. Shared pleasure in the win which made the team feel more involved

Michael understood this was a team game and he was only as good as the people around him, as such he was always happy to acknowledge and reward the team personally. Whether it be with a gift, day out or a simple "thank you".

In Summary - Nick Fry on Michael Schumacher in his book "Survive, Drive, Win"

To summarise this article, I recently read the book “Survive, Drive, Win” by former Honda F1, Brawn GP and Mercedes AMG F1 CEO Nick Fry. The book itself is a fantastic read, which I highly recommend anyone interested in what business can learn from motorsport. It covers the period between around 2007 to 2013 when Honda F1 dropped out of the sport to became Brawn GP and then the team being purchased by Mercedes after their incredible 2009 season.

Of course, it was at this point in 2010 that Michael Schumacher came out of retirement to return to F1 with the Silver Arrows. In this short extract from the book (Chapter 17 “Michael”, pg 218 to 220) I think it gives a fantastic insight into the 7 time Formula 1 World Champion. Summing up the importance he put on relationships and how he engaged with the Mercedes team and sponsors in that period between 2010 - 2012. Over to you Nick Fry!

Schumacher's 2011 Mercedes, which he raced during his come back years!
“Michael was always positive, regardless of how dire our team’s fortunes were – and they were at times pretty awful – but he would always take positives out of a situation and look for ways to build and improve. There was never any ‘blame’ emanating from him; if anything, he was the first to blame himself. And unusually perhaps for a superstar, he always thought of others and would invariably remember birthdays and react to family situations. When our son was unwell, the first person outside of the family to send a “get well soon” text was Michael, with a reminder of how important family was and that he and Corinna would hold the fort if I was away.
Michael had that knack of making people feel good about themselves by doing simple things that most sporting superstars do not do. He knew everyone’s name in the team – all the mechanics, the catering staff, the truck drivers – and he would make a habit of socialising with them and taking them our for a beer. How good does it make you feel when one of the most famous people on the planet cares about you? In this respect he was the polar opposite to someone like Jacques Villeneuve and his helmet-on-visor-shut approach to his teammates.
I think Michael genuinely liked people and if he found them interesting then he would give them lots of time. For one relatively small sponsor we organised a lunch at The Square restaurant in London’s Mayfair. We booked a private room for their sponsors, their senior people and guests. Michael was contracted to attend and we expected him to do what most sportspeople would do: the minimum required and then nip off as soon as he reasonably could without causing offence. In this instance, the sponsor was Autonomy, a British IT company which was not necessarily the most intriguing of businesses for a top sportsman. But Michael stayed all afternoon. He was genuinely engaged. Of course, the company’s senior staff thought the world of him after that and would have done anything for him and us.
Michael passed his people skills on to Nico (Rosberg – his teammate and 2016 F1 World Champion), who did not have the same empathy and ability to engage with the warmth that Michael could exude. Michael spent time with his young German rival and teammate, counselling him on how to get his people onside – something Michael had excelled at during his years at Maranello. Nico is a bright guy and quickly saw the benefit of what he was being shown and started engaging with his engineers to a much great extent after that. In fact, I would say that his championship win in 2016, ahead of Lewis (Hamilton), was a direct result of the tips he had picked up from Michael.
At the start of the season Nico got his engineers together and gave them a pep talk. He told them he was not as naturally quick as Lewis but that he believed they could beat Hamilton through guile, superior engineering and superior racecraft. They did. I believe Sebastian Vettel also modelled his behaviour on Michael and to great effect. I think it could be said that Jackie Stewart was the first to take driving in Formula One to a professional level, but Michael Schumacher made the next quantum leap.”

The above extract from Nick Fry, I think backs up Ross Brawn’s points perfectly that we went through earlier and how Michael understood that in order to get the best of out people you must engage in a two way relationship and if you go that extra mile for others, they will for you also. It’s something we can put into both our personal and business relationships very easily. A lot of businesses we come across think that throwing money at engagement is the answer and then don’t understand why they are seeing no return. The truth is I don’t think enough of us understand how far a “well done”, “thank you” or “how are you?” can go in terms of making people feel valued and listened to. Yes, Employee Benefits and Rewards can be a powerful tool in business in terms of engagement and retention and they do work but they must be built upon a genuine foundation of decency and respect in order to truly get the maximum return.

In terms of Michael Schumacher, as many of us know, since his second retirement from the sport in 2012, he sadly suffered terrible injuries during in a skiing accident in 2013. He now remains out of the public eye receiving 24 hour medical attention at his home in Switzerland. So, as we finish this article, I’m sure you’ll join everyone here at Ignition Human Performance as we say Keep Fighting Michael and wish him a steady recovery.

Nick Butcher

Nick has been an HR & Leadership Professional for nearly 15 years and has held senior HR positions within both Corporate Multinational and SME Companies.
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Nick Butcher

Nick has been an HR & Leadership Professional for nearly 15 years and has held senior HR positions within both Corporate Multinational and SME Companies.
Get in touch >>
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