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Sixth Sense

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
09/12/2019

As of Sunday December 1st 2019, Michael Schumacher is the only name of the modern era that one can utter in the same sentence as that of Lewis Hamilton.

When Michael was racing most of us watching never expected to see his like again. This was not simply a once in a generation talent, this was a once in a century talent. Only Michael and Juan Manuel Fangio were to be so mighty within a century of one another. So, just like waiting for a number 42 bus after midnight, no sooner have we witnessed this performance for the ages come to a close, than Lewis comes along and makes it all look so, well, common.

The sensibilities, approach, public appearance, and family style of Michael and Lewis could not be more different. Yet they share so much that makes them equally remarkable as drivers for the ages (and, as my dear departed grandmother would suggest, Fangio was a mix of them both).

Let's start with the simple ones. Both are remarkable on-track fighters. Each of them will not believe a race is lost until they have crossed the finish line. Both have produced fighting drives in the hope of a near-miracle occurring to either get them on to the podium or, so unlikely, on the top step. And yet in certain races when lesser drivers would settle into an easy rhythm leading to the typical post-race comment of "seventh was the best we could have expected today..." neither Lewis or Michael will give up. Then, beyond all expectations, other than their own, they grab the top step in the most dramatic fashion, rewarding us fans with a race to remember.

Overtaking. Both are masters at dogging others into errors that let them slip by, often when piloting the supposed inferior car. Or simply driving around the other car at a corner the TV commentators assure us is a point where "...no one overtakes..."

Qualifying. Michael was good. Lewis is remarkable. To think this is a poor season for him (a mere five pole positions...) puts into perspective how often we expect Lewis to simply own Saturday.

The wet. Now here dear reader we hit one of those divine sweet spots that sorts the solid, the remarkable, and the godly one from the other with no mercy. Both Damon Hill and Sebastian Vettel are fine drivers, and worthy champions. For me they are tied in equal first place for heart in mouth moments in the wet, that all too often lead to a face-palm moment a lap or two later. Not so Michael or Lewis. Like Ayrton before them, they simply moved to another plane of existence in the wet and make all those other world class drivers look like learners in an Aldi car park.

I can daydream of mostly (it is a daydream, indulge me...) keeping up with them in the same car in the dry (after a few thousand hours on the PlayStation), but even in my dreams I cannot work out how to keep up in the wet. They seem to simply rewrite the laws of physics, and dance with ease to the finish line, Miss Physics giggling with delight in their arms. Legends both. That tingling sixth sense first shows itself when showers fall across the circuit.

The inner game, the mind, their own and those of others. They each play this game differently, yet the end result is the same. Both have colossal self-belief, a platinum will to succeed, and a quiet ferocity to their driving style and their on-track car stance that all flows from the mind. Lewis appears to play more mind games with his team mates, but both of them would politely crush competing drivers in post-race commentary, or pre-race predictions. Couple this with their inhuman focus on winning (at times at any cost...) and it makes their fortresses of the mind nearly impregnable to mere humans. The sixth sense starts to glow with quiet power.

Team selection. Fangio leads the way here. Winning his five championships with four different teams. As it stands, at the end of the 2019 season, both Michael and Lewis have won with a modest two teams. Michael gave himself the challenge of rebuilding Ferrari, after two mighty seasons with Benetton. Lewis was a McLaren man practically from birth, and was widely tipped to fall flat on his face at Mercedes... well here we are. Lewis has proven us all wrong. And now would be a good time to recall it was Michael who was key to building the Mercedes team in the days prior to the Briton's arrival. So one could see a near handing of the baton from one master to another at that point. Michael played a part in setting Lewis up for his remarkable championship winning streak. If Lewis completes the loop of history and goes to Ferrari in 2021 it would be a fascinating coda to his masterclass at Mercedes. Does his sixth sense tell him, this is his true path...?

Yes, as I've elected to name it, the Sixth Sense. Finally, that magic. The one we all know is there, but can never quite define or capture. That sixth sense that both Lewis and Michael display, yet none of us can truly define. Finding grip in the wet. Finding time in the car in qualifying. Electing to jig right for an ‘impossible' overtake when the equally appealing jig to the left would have caused a race ending collision. Shrugging off controversy or criticism with a seeming indifference to public opinion and bouncing back with an ‘impossible' win.

What is that very special sense they both possess that elevates them from simply excellent into the realms of legend? Self-belief? Belief in a higher power? Being at one with the force? Fractionally faster synapses than the rest of us? More pure muscle tissue? Endless practice?

I wish I knew the complete answer. If one could package and sell it one would make a vast sum. Looking at Lewis' wildly differing lifestyle to Michael's, yet his delivery of similar stunning sporting performances, it is clear they are very different people, who nonetheless, both possess this sixth sense in abundance. Yes, it is self-mastery, and mastery of a complex sport. Yet it is also so much more. It is the subtlety of the mastery, as well it's completeness, that makes it something approaching the divine. At their peak they both render performances close to perfection. Yet perfection is not a natural human condition. It is most unnatural to be so close to a god walking the Earth. Yet here they are.

This season Lewis used his sixth sense to make far more right decisions than wrong, both on and off track. His driving was remarkable, his focus exemplary. He is not just standing on the shoulders of giants to see into, and define, the future. He is a giant striding among us.

Cherish the remarkable performance we are witnessing now, for I sense we might not see its like again for many years to come. And only Lewis knows what he senses in that undiscovered country that is Formula One in 2021 and beyond.

And right now, like dear Michael before him, what he senses he is keeping to himself.

Max Noble

Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Max Noble, 24/12/2019 2:06

"@jasman - Fully agree it was a stunning drive by Jackie. Some of the winning margins back then were remarkable, and when people like Fangio could commandeer a team mate’s car and continue in it, and still make the field look weak... well no doubt it was the man not the machine...

Wet races deserve a more complete review... let me ponder...!"

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2. Posted by jasman, 23/12/2019 9:34

"Speaking of driving in the rain...
The first F1 race that I attended was the German GP at the Nurburgring in 1968 on a miserable foggy rainy day. One Jackie Stewart completed the first lap some 20 sec ahead of second place and it seemed like forever at the time. He won the race by something like 5 minutes over second place and certainly wasn't in the best car(Matra Cosworth). In fact the entire field was much more competitive then compared to today.This race is rarely mentioned in reference to wet races, and I don't know if anyone has won by that margin since."

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3. Posted by Max Noble, 23/12/2019 8:45

"@Spindoctor - quite agree without rules, and a reasonable attempt to enforce them on one side and abide by them on the other, any sport becomes a farce, pure entertainment, or a sad mix of both. How far one presses the spirit or intent in the name of victory is a personal ethics question for all involved. Some having a significantly higher standard than others....

And yes indeed even going back 20 years, how Schumacher raced is totally different to the drivers today. Comparing to those even further back in time is whimsical at best, and pointless or worst.

@JL - rather like the infamous under arm bowl used to win a cricket match a few years back... it’s not technically a cheat unless explicitly forbidden by the rules... hence the entire tizz even today about how much room to leave for a fellow competitor. Just look at the anger Vettel displayed after his off in Canada....

@Uffen - agree Lewis is very good at pressing the advantage without totally bending or breaking the rules. Verstappen is not too far behind in terms of “closely judged “ positioning on track... I believe David Coulthard gave the best view on the drivers of Fangio’s day when he drove a period Mercedes that could top 300kph, but had drum brakes and skinny tyres....! With no seat belt... he made it clear he could not have raced as they did.

"

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4. Posted by Uffen, 22/12/2019 23:12

"It could be argued that Lewis pulled a stunt like that, perhaps more than once. I recall the opening corner at Austin when he didn't quite manage to turn the wheel enough to give Nico room. Yes, Nico was able to continue so the effect wasn't as drastic but it was a "stunt." I believe there were others but I cannot recall them at the moment.
Spindoctor is correct, there is always enough change between generations of drivers to make oranges to oranges comparisons very difficult, if not futile. It could be argued, for example, that today's safety systems make such stunts far less threatening than they were in earlier eras. Of course, such claims have already been made.
Still, it is a fascinating discussion. "

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5. Posted by JL, 21/12/2019 15:09

"Max - you are correct in that they have that "sixth sense" but there is one major difference between the two drivers, Lewis has never pulled the type of stunt that Michael did to Jacques Villeneuve. Lewis has done his winning without the antics of Michael or Senna which boils down to "If I take you out I win".

"

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6. Posted by Spindoctor, 21/12/2019 10:51

"Schumacher quite clearly was a cheat.
While I fully understand the notion of "win at any cost", the logical conclusion of that is to fit 007 oil-spreaders, tyre slashers & of course rockets. The whole point of "Sport" is that it has rules (except Aussie Rules Football!). A lot that happens in F1 is debatable, and the rules are poorly framed & enforced, and worse the interpretation changes almost weekly. Several of Schumacher's 'cheats' required no interpretation - he quite blatantly crashed into people on purpose (a la Senna!) which is by any interpretation breaking the rules; or cheating.

The other area I'd pick up is Car Development. It is impossible to compare Schumacher's time with today. He probably put in as many miles testing & tweaking in a week, as most drivers get in a season today. In my view that was his supreme skill. He was a fast driver, but I suspect Hakkinen was faster, and braver. Others have pointed-out he rarely had team-mates of equal competence, and had a cast-iron "before you Claude" clause in his contract.
None of this diminishes his achievement. I'm merely re-focusing on an his opportunity to work day-in-day out with some of the Sport's finest engineers to refine a car that suited him perfectly. His ability here was second to none.
Just for the record today's drivers, Hamilton included, don't simply "turn up & drive". Arguably their task is harder than that facing Schumacher, Senna et al, because they have effectively to drive what they brung - warts & all. Similarly the technical quality of drivers' feedback is critical, because you can't just suck it & see any more. Hamilton, hairstyles & lifestyle notwithstanding is reputedly pretty sharp on the Technical side and he has probably contributed significantly to the success of the Mercedes today."

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7. Posted by Max Noble, 19/12/2019 9:44

"@4-Wheel Drifgter: My thanks for well considered comment. Ayrton and others do not get mentioned as one needs top draw a line at some point or even my shortest articles would be 10,000 words! I framed this article around a Lewis-Michael view though keep focus.

I respectfully disagree with the “they do not play mind games” view. They all do to some extent, even Lewis in the cool down room when he has said something like “oh, were we really racing each other today?” To Max or similar when he just wants to chip slowly at their focus...

Your fond vs. admire list makes interesting reading. A good distinction to make.

Well... points make prizes.... and to get the most points you need to be fastest. (Unless you’re Keke Rosberg... :-) )

...and when they are all so good, to be that fraction better.. “Well, it’s a kinda magic.” :-)"

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8. Posted by 4-Wheel Drifter, 18/12/2019 4:33

"This has been fascinating reading. Somehow Max managed to remark on wet racing skills, which certainly Michael and Lewis both have, and presumably Fangio as well, without mentioning Ayrton or Hawthorne and, even more egregiously, without mentioning Verstappen! Winning in the wet requires extraordinary reflexes in the same way fighter pilots become aces, ie. they have the physical equipment needed; phenomenal vision and a fine delicacy at dancing on the edge. Secondly, they have the good judgement to secure seats with the best manufacturers and to keep their comments on the machines strictly in house. Finally, they don't play psychological games with their team mates for exactly the same reason they don't make mistakes in overtaking: their focus is on finishing first and psychological games are for those whose focus is on out smarting opponents. Trying to outsmart your rival is admitting he IS your rival. And they all knew better. As to the tired claim that Michael was a cheat; it's the same as the claim that Hawthorne was a bully. It comes from those who think race drivers are "gentlemen" and that racing belongs to a better class of people. These are the folks who admire Montgomery and DeGaulle and condescend to Rommel and Napoleon. Lewis will be the best F1 Driver in history... until someone out-does him. And someone will. I am fond of several F1 drivers: Fangio, Moss, HIll, Hawthorne, Senna, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Ricciardo, and Vettel. Others I admire but find hard to like: Schumacher, Hamilton, Rossberg, Bottas, LeClerc. But, in the end, nothing really matters but who has the best winning record; that is the number of races entered divided by the number of wins. I haven't done the maths, but it would be fun to do one day and see how many of the chaps I like are near the top. The one thing, Max, I will say is that there's no "magic" involved. The reason to run a race is simple: to find out who is the fastest. Not who has the most "points" or best car but who is the fastest."

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9. Posted by Max Noble, 12/12/2019 23:26

"@Ol’Timer01 - I think you mean Adelaide ‘95, not Monza... The reason Bottas has the seat next to Lewis and Verstappen never will is because Lewis is a touch more diplomatic about these things than Ferrari.

Generally one sees worse behaviour at road work and motorway/freeway merges than Michael ever displayed and all that is on the line is being one car length further up the road... Not excusingMichael’s behaviour, but noting it is very human."

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10. Posted by Ol'Timer01, 12/12/2019 15:00

"I think Lewis has a seventh sense that was sorely lacking in Shumi in his championship winning years: a sense of fair play and a willingness the take on the best of them in the same car. I'm sorry to say this but Michael was a cheat. He didn't have to be. As you put it eloquently he was talented enough, he did have this sixth sense, but a cheat he was. Taking out Hill in '95 in Monza, trying the same on Villeneuve in '97, putting Frentzen in the wall in Canada, parking his car during qualifying in Monaco, etc. etc. Then this: when did Schumacher line up his car alongside a teammate's who was allowed to race him for a championship, and capable of beating him? Perhaps Rubens could've done it given the chance. How many World Champions, past or future, did Michael race against, in the same car? Lewis matched or beat, Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg, in the same car. Alain Prost proved himself by taking on... Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill. Schumi? Well, he eventually had a teammate who was given the green flag to go for it: Nico Rosberg and Nico beat him three years straight. Then he retired and Hami came along... "

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11. Posted by Max Noble, 12/12/2019 11:49

"@GrahamG - that would have been fascinating to see them battle in the same era! Agree Michael would probably win the endless test and refine battle..."

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12. Posted by GrahamG, 12/12/2019 11:25

"One fundamental difference - Michael spent hours and hours developing and refining his car, from a pretty low base initially, to a world beater. Lewis just turns up every week or so and drives what is already the best car. Would he be prepared to put in the same level of hard work if it was allowed ? I think not"

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13. Posted by Max Noble, 11/12/2019 23:57

"@Lapps - ah... 1999 :-) Eddie Irvine finished second in the championship to Mika Hakkinen. While Michael was a lowly 5th in the championship... having missed seven races after breaking his leg in an accident at Silverstone (rear brake failure sending him off at Stowe...). Amusingly Mika won with 76 points to Irvine’s 74, while Michael was on 44. Numbers which make the six million points amassed by Mercedes this season appear amusing...
Then again - may-be Michael’s score that year was Lewis’ inspiration for his race number... :-)"

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14. Posted by Lapps, 11/12/2019 21:38

"Just a thought, but I don’t remember MS ever being beaten by a team mate over a season. Both Lewis and Seb have been beaten twice each!"

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15. Posted by Uffen, 11/12/2019 19:00

"I am not a Lewis fan but I admit he is a huge talent. In the long run you make your own luck and Schumacher and Hamilton have done that in spades. Fangio demonstrated the sixth sense (picking the right team at the right time) like no other driver and in that he stands alone. Since Prost and Senna's time at McLaren we've not seen two drivers of that caliber in one team. Perhaps the stars aligned in 1988 and remained in alignment for a short while. Will we ever see Hamilton and Verstappen together, for example? I think they would both avoid that scenario,m despite what ever "fightin' words" they may utter."

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