Born in Hurth Germany in 1975, Ralf Schumacher, like his brother Michael, began karting at an early age when his father Rolf introduced him to the sport at the nearby Schumacher-family-owned Kerpen-Horrem kart track aged just three.
By this time, older brother Michael – now nine – was competing at a club level, and it was only natural that Ralf would want to follow in his footsteps. Little did he know that those footsteps would become so difficult to follow!
After much success in karting, including the German Junior Kart Championship, he moved to single seater racing, aged 17, where he finished runner-up in the ADAC Junior Formula Championship (feeder series to German F3, roughly equivalent to Formula BMW/F4) which granted him a F3 test.
This led to a one off German Formula 3 appearance which opened the door to a full-time drive for WTS in 1994 where he finished the season in the top three, whilst brother Michael was en-route to the first of his seven F1 world titles (It’s impossible to write about Ralf without mentioning his brother every now and again! If it’s too much, sorry!).
Another year in German F3 in 1995 saw some progress, but the title once again eluded him and he finished runner up to Norberto Fontana. He had to be content with second place in the F3 Grand Prix de Monaco, and the Masters of Formula 1 at Zandvoort too, but he would take home the biggest F3 prize of them all – The Macau Grand Prix – emulating his brother (again – sorry!) who won the event five years previously.
This success prompted a move away from Germany up to Formula Nippon in Japan, where Schumacher won the title at his first attempt.
Following a McLaren F1 test at Silverstone in 1996, it was announced that Schumacher would join his brother in F1 in 1997, in a Bitburger funded deal for Ralf to join the Jordan F1 team – with whom Michael had made his F1 debut in 1991.
Ralf wouldn’t have to wait long for his first taste of F1 success with a top three finish coming in only his third Grand Prix start. However, it was a rare highlight in the first half of 1997, as it was flanked by six retirements in a season that would see the Jordans retire more often than not.
The car, and Ralf himself, were not without pace though, and when he managed to make it to the flag, it was usually in the points.
1998 followed a similar pattern – regular retirements would be punctuated with the odd points finish. A highlight of the season was also the source of some controversy, when Jordan implemented team orders in the soaking wet Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, insisting that Ralf stay behind team-mate Damon Hill, allowing the team to take their first ever 1-2.
But it was a race Ralf felt he could and should have won, and after a second consecutive podium at the next round at Monza it was announced he’d be leaving to join Williams for 1999.
Ralf’s Williams career got off to a flyer in the opening round of 1999 when he finished behind Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen (who’d moved in the opposite direction to Ralf, leaving Williams to join Jordan).
Five points scoring races followed, including a second Williams podium at the team’s home race at Silverstone.
It seemed that Ralf was able to compensate for Williams’ Supertec engine in a way that team-mate Zanardi found impossible, and while poor Alex found himself surplus to requirements at the season’s close, Schumacher was offered an extended deal worth in excess of $30m.
He finished the season in 6th place in the WDC, behind only the two McLaren-Mercedes, both Ferraris and HHF in the Jordan car Schumacher had recently vacated.
Better was to come in 2000 as Williams signed a works deal with German giant BMW, and Ralf was joined by future World Champion Jenson Button.
Another second consecutive podium in Australia opened the season for Ralf, again following up with consistent points finishes, including a brace of back-to-back podiums at home in Germany and next time out in Hungary, en-route to fifth in the WDC, comfortably ahead of his rookie team-mate in 8th.
But he was still without a Grand Prix win to his name, in his fourth full-time campaign.
That would change in 2001. Ralf was joined at Williams by Indycar champ Juan-Pablo Montoya, and the pair’s chances of maiden wins were enhanced by BMW’s updated powerplant and a super quick FW23.
Montoya was cruelly denied a win at the third round of the season in Brazil when he was clattered by Jos Verstappen whilst lapping him from the lead, but opportunity soon came knocking for Ralf and he wasn’t to be denied, taking the win at Imola, five races in.
A couple of DNFs followed before Ralf was able to take his second Grand Prix win in Canada – a race that was notable for being F1’s only ever 1-2 finish for siblings, with Ralf for once getting the better of Michael and beating him into second place.
More points and podiums were to come before the end of the season, and Ralf finished in fourth position in the title race once again. But Williams had signalled their intention to play a big part in the outcome of the championship in 2002, and Ralf was perfectly placed to capitalise.
Forgoing his customary strong opening race in exchange for a win in round two in Malaysia, a further three podiums in quick succession put Ralf in the mix for a championship tilt in 2002.
But by now team-mate Montoya was beginning to find his F1 feet, and Ralf was starting to look second best. Despite ending the season winless Montoya finished the season ahead of his more experienced team-mate largely as a result of his metronomic consistency, as Williams looked ahead to more progress in 2003.
Scoring points in every one of the first ten races of 2003, culminating in a double win at the Nurburgring for the European GP and the French GP, Ralf entered the second half of the season very much in with a shout of the title and just eleven points behind his brother at the top of the table.
But a sloppy second half of the campaign that included a ninth place at Silverstone, retirement in Germany, withdrawal from the Italian Grand Prix as a result of a testing accident, a DNF at Indy and a 12th place finish in the season finale in Japan, put paid to any ambitions he might have had of beating MSC to the title.
Meanwhile, team-mate Montoya was able to sustain a title charge right up until the penultimate round in the USA where he eventually lost out.
For the second season in a row, Schumacher had come out second best to his Colombian stablemate.
“I can say that we’ll come up with a car that will be competitive from the very first race of the new season” said Schumacher ahead of the 2004 Formula 1 season.
But it was not to be. Ralf’s season was defined by a huge accident at Indianapolis that resulted in fractured vertebrae and concussion that would keep him out of the next six races of the season, during which time he announced he’d signed for Toyota for 2005 and beyond.
However, all of Toyota’s promise and expectations came to very little and Ralf managed just three podiums in as many years.
His performances began to drop off too, and he was publicly urged to raise his game by Toyota President Tadashi Yamashina.
He didn’t, or couldn’t and he was ousted from Toyota at the end of 2007, despite offering to drop his salary by $17m for 2008 if Toyota were willing to keep him on.
They weren’t and Ralf sailed off into F1 retirement.
He joined DTM, where he picked up a couple of podiums in his largely unremarkable five year stint, but not much to write home about. By then it seemed like his mojo had gone.