Mick Schumacher’s fate is just days away, steaming at him head on, his career hanging plainly in limbo. Schumacher's success or failure at this weekend's Grand Prix in Austin, and in the final three races of the 2022 season, may dictate not only Schumacher’s future with Haas, but his future in Formula 1. Both ruin and glory are on the menu.
“If he wants to stay with us, he’s got to show us that he can score some more points,” team boss Gene Haas said just this week, further pressurizing the situation. It feels like an almost monumental task: the Haas car leapt from the blocks early this season, but hasn’t scored any points in the last seven races, whether it’s Schumacher or his teammate Kevin Magnussen at the wheel. It will take luck and some extra special sauce from Schumacher to turn that trend around.
Mere days before the US Grand Prix in Austin, the mounting pressure doesn’t seem to faze Schumacher. We’re sat at a homey plastic picnic table on the Schumacher family ranch near Gordonville, Texas, a sprawling haven among the grasslands north of Dallas. The sun is high, the sky a faultless cobalt. A thin breeze runs its fingers through the dry gold stubble. It’s unfathomably serene; how could any of the world’s concerns reach you here?
Schumacher was waiting for us to arrive, lingering near a row of modded Can-Am side-by-sides, joking around with the Haas staff. In Formula 1, a word of spit-shine polish, six-figure wristwatches, and athletes who must personify their sponsors as much as broadcast their own humanity, Schumacher appears in striking relief today. A well-worn black hoodie, Pit Viper shades, helmet hair. You almost couldn’t pick this F1 driver out of a lineup of down-home mud-spattered farm boys. Almost. Only his jeans, so European in their sensibility, out Mick as a German on Texan soil.
“Is it okay if I wear my sunglasses for the interview?” he asks me, as we sit down and face one another across the table.
“It’s your place, brother, you make the rules,” I reply.
“Yeah, it’s just that some people might perceive it as rude,” he says. “Because you can’t see my eyes.”
Even with the shades on, Schumacher broadcasts a sense of ease and transparency that’s uncommon among the pro ‘shoes I’ve interviewed. It felt like joining your neighbor for a backyard dinner. It makes sense he’d feel comfortable; this is Schumacher country, after all. The 400-acre property we’re sat on operates as a fully functional horse ranch, a world-class facility for breeding and raising competition horses, owned by Mick’s mother, Corinna Schumacher. Mick’s sister, Gina, a world-class equestrian herself, also trains here.
The family bought this place in 2012, back when bobcats and deer roamed its grounds. The property had sat for twenty years untouched, before the Schumacher’s took over. Since then, it’s been a place of business, but also a spot for Mick to decompress with regularity.
Of course, this being a Schumacher property, decompression includes more than riding horses. Behind the back forty sits another back forty devoted to the art of driving faster than hell. Swaddled by a broad bank of deciduous trees, there’s a dirt course that must be a half mile long, curling and twisting, wide as a Texas two-lane. There are several jumps, one of them in the middle of a flat-out right hander, plus a mix of hairpins, sweepers, and elbows. It’s a carnival ride for adrenaline junkies, the stuff of wistful redneck fever dreams (as a son of eastern Washington state, I’m well equipped to qualify these matters).
“You know, whenever I get the chance, I come out and visit [my sister] when she's here and train,” Schumacher says. “We are really happy around here, especially when we can do stuff like this, go out with the buggies. We built our own race track,” he reiterates, motioning to the track over his shoulder.
Mick invited some of the Haas staff and members of his personal team out to the ranch as a thank-you for their efforts this season. He wanted to treat them to lunch and a session spent ripping around on the property’s dirt track in a fleet of Can-Am side-by-sides. It was an opportunity for the gang to slam the pressure release valve ahead of the season's final test, a baptism in the mud and dirt.
Of course, track ownership has its own perks. Before we sat down for the interview, Schumacher took to the course in his own side-by-side, a Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS, gussied up with a robust full roll cage, billet tie rods and a-arms, uprated shocks, wheels, tires, and every other trick in the go-fast playbook. He swung the Can-Am through each corner, a mile-high rooster tail rising behind.
With the dirt track bedded in, I folded myself into the passenger seat for some hot laps with Mick. One great pleasure of this job is access to batshit metal. Another one is the opportunity to sit in the proverbial office with some of the most talented drivers on earth. Every moment beside an F1 pro is informative, even on dirt. Maybe especially on dirt. Schumacher doesn’t draw many parallels between his work on the F1 grid and the driving out here, even if one skill, in abstract, can enrich the other.
“It’s just just another way of driving and you kind of get a feeling for it,” he said about ringing out the Can-Am. “You know, you just drive out there, you put it sideways and you just get a different feel for it. Hence, I kind of feel like if I do end up going to a rainy session or whatever, that I'll be able to maybe deal with the conditions just that bit better. And even if it doesn't help me still, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
“If it's on dirt or if it's on ice, there's always an aspect of getting to know how to drive a car and how to handle a car. And again, it's just about that, those different feelings that you get while driving it and, and ‘how can I improve? How can I go quicker?’ That's very much the same aspect, because you always want to go quicker.”
At the end of the day though, work is work, play is play, Schumacher says. He can have fun out here at the ranch, but after a long enough stint, he wonders aloud, “what’s the point?” If there’s no competition, you can only enjoy flinging mud so much.
The sentiment brings the coming weekend and its stakes into razor-sharp focus. With the dust settled and the adrenaline still buzzing in my stomach, we settle into a longer conversation about the state of Schumacher’s season. The pressures at Haas are nothing new, he said. They’re an expectation at racing’s highest level.
“The targets are clear. It’s obvious we want to do the best we can, and if that’s points, then obviously we’re shooting for the points,” Schumacher says flatly.
Still, it’s a tall task for a driver in just his second full year in Formula 1. The series constitutes a quantum leap in complexity from open-wheel feeder series like Formula 2 and Formula 3. Schumacher explains how your skillset has to take flight with little runway; even the feeder series can’t prepare you for F1 fully. You must simply land on your feet and get to sprinting, or else get left behind.
“You just start driving on big tracks, start working with engineers, mechanics… So basically you run through those in Formula 3 and Formula 2, then try and be as complete as possible going to Formula One, but still Formula One is definitely the biggest step you will do in that ladder. It does take time and I mean, a lot of people know that it'll take time before you are at your best,” he says.
Williams boss Jost Capito is one of those who understands that development takes time; he has openly entertained the idea of hiring Schumacher in interviews, should his seat at Haas evaporate. Capito acknowledged it often takes three seasons for a young driver to acclimate to the levels of speed and professionalism required in F1. He cited Mercedes driver George Russel as an example, who despite fits and starts, became consistent and quick enough by his third season to land a top seat in the sport.
That’s part of Schumacher’s Catch-22 at the moment. His development requires the patience of mechanics, teams, and engineers, but at a small team like Haas, there’s simply not enough time or resources for that development. Results are vital to the team’s continued survival in the sport.
Besides, Haas’s patience has often been tested by Schumacher. A series of serious crashes this year have likely strained Haas’s budget, which pales in comparison to financial behemoths Mercedes or Red Bull that might accept a few balled-up chassis as the logical cost of sharpening fresh talent. While Schumacher has developed and whittled away the gap in qualifying times with his teammate over the course of this year, even out-qualifying and out-racing his veteran teammate at times this season, Magnussen has scored more points and cost Haas far less in damages. If Magnussen offers more points with less cost to Haas, what hope does Schumacher have to stick around?
I ask Schumacher for his impressions about open-wheel racing in America, hoping to tease out a backup plan: maybe he’d follow the glut of European talent who have fallen out of the F1 ladder only to find success in Indycar? Maybe he’d be interested in stock car racing or Ferrari’s bid for WEC next season, as he's still a driver in Ferrari's development team (for now). But Schumacher is resolute in his focus.
“I see a lot more people that maybe don't necessarily get into Formula 1, ‘cuz of one reason or another, moving towards IndyCar and they say they absolutely love it. They say the competition is high. They say that the racing's fun, the car is difficult to drive. So yeah, it's definitely interesting to see some people moving from Europe to IndyCar, to the States,” Schumacher says. “On the other hand, I have to say that it never really crossed my mind. I'm really set on Formula 1 as I wanna race against the best people in the world and in and the fastest cars.”
It's the attitude required in moments like this, when one is hemmed in on all sides. If you shift focus even minutely and quietly acknowledge an exit plan, you’ve already lost.
“I'm definitely consistent in my approach,” Schumacher says. “I don't wanna adapt or change [due to the pressure], ‘cuz then ultimately it would probably would make me slower. Obviously, we want to be as quick as we can, and yeah, I've always been good with dealing with pressure. It doesn't necessarily mean I want more pressure, but you know, I'm not a I'm not gonna crumble underneath it.”
There are more than glimmers of hope, however. Schumacher has placed in the top ten this season. He scored crucial points for Haas F1, learning exactly what it takes over the course of a race weekend to earn the results which may save his seat. The points were absolutely critical to his development.
“Obvioulsy, once you taste blood, you kind of want to go for it,” Schumacher says. “It’s been kind of frustrating ‘cause every time we did have a car capable of scoring points, through racing luck or whatever, we’ve always had something that didn’t quite work out… if it was a strategy or a safety car or whatever. So, you know, these things are not really in our control. I think we should have had at least 15 points added to our account from all the races we had.”
The results then, in these final four races of the season, and especially at Austin this weekend, will both exercise Schumacher’s patience with himself and Haas’s patience with their young driver. Schumacher notes that if you try and force results to happen, they tend to go the other way. By keeping his head clear, he managed back-to-back points finishes and a meticulous performance in Austria this season.
Expectation will always fill a driver’s mirrors, Schumacher says. The only thing he can do is maintain focus and stay joyous behind the wheel. It’s an oddly existentialist approach to racing from one of the elite drivers on this planet.
“You know, the question that I would ask is, ‘why did we choose this job?’ It’s because we love it. I feel like with without enjoyment you won't get far. Hence, you know, I really love this sport,” he says. “For me it's the only thing I wanna do. Absolutely. And, and so yeah, enjoyment is a huge factor in performance.”
Our conversation winds to a close with some nervous body language from Haas PR. There’s another interview to be done. Lunch is served. Schumacher is now another 30 minutes closer to the race weekend that may determine his fate in the sport he loves singularly.
You’d hardly notice. After another round of laps in his Can-Am, Schumacher swings close the the picnic table where his team are sat eating burgers. I can almost see the grin beaming through his helmet as Schumacher streaks past the table and pins the throttle. A huge braaaap issues from the Can-Am as a streak of grass and mud spray across his team who are still laughing and hollering when bounds out from the driver’s seat.
The pressures of Formula 1 don’t seem to find Mick Schumacher out here on his Texas ranch, among the cobalt sky, the stubble, and the horses. Whether that’s folly or genius, we’ll find out soon enough.
You Might Also Like