In 1996, Schumacher joined Ferrari, a team that had last won the Drivers' Championship in 1979 and the Constructors' Championship in 1983, for a salary of $60 million over two years. He left Benetton a year before his contract with them expired; he later cited the team's damaging actions in 1994 as his reason for opting out of his deal. A year later, Schumacher lured Benetton employees Rory Byrne (designer) and Ross Brawn (technical director) to Ferrari.
Ferrari had previously come close to the championship in 1982 and 1990. The team had suffered a disastrous downturn in the early 1990s, partially as its famous V12 engine was no longer competitive against the smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient V10s of its competitors.
Another issue plaguing the team was the Ferrari pit crews, which was considered a running joke amongst those in the sport. At the end of 1995, although the team had improved into a solid competitor, it was still considered inferior to front-running teams such as Benetton and Williams. However, Schumacher declared the Ferrari F310 good enough to win a championship and was determined to get results for his team.
With Benetton ally Ross Brawn rejoining him for 1997 Schumacher was ready for another crack at the title. He persistently took points off rival Jacques Villeneuve despite his Williams often enjoying a considerable performance advantage. When rain fell at Monaco and Spa Schumacher was untouchable.At Jerez events took a familiar turn. Villeneuve reeled Schumacher in and pounced – only to find the Ferrari swerving unavoidably into his path. This time the contact proved terminal only for Schumacher – Villeneuve was able to limp to the flag and claim the championship. The race stewards did not initially award any penalty, but two weeks after the race Schumacher was disqualified from the entire 1997 Drivers' Championship after an FIA disciplinary hearing found that his maneuver was an instinctive reaction and although deliberate, it was a serious error. Schumacher accepted the decision and admitted having made a mistake. His actions were widely condemned in Europe.
In 1998 Schumacher faced a stronger opponent in the form of his old F3 rival Mika Hakkinen. Equipped with a fearsomely fast McLaren, Hakkinen began the year with a pair of wins. Schumacher hit back and the two pushed each other hard all season. The championship went down to the wire at Suzuka where Schumacher started from pole position – only to face demotion to the back of the grid after his car overheated on the line and wouldn’t start. Schumacher battled his way through the field but a puncture finally ended his hopes and confirmed Hakkinen as the champion.
Schumacher’s 1999 championship bid ended when his right-rear brake failed on the Hangar straight at Silverstone on the first lap of the race. His car hurtled off the track at Stowe, plunging head-on into the barrier. He suffered a broken leg.
Ferrari’s wait for their next drivers’ champion finally ended in 2000. Now partnered by Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher won the first three races of the year leaving Hakkinen with a lot of catching-up to do. At the middle part of the season it looked as though Schumacher was going to be denied again. First-lap crashes in Austria and Germany handed golden opportunities to McLaren. And at Spa Hakkinen triumphed in gripping battle with his Ferrari nemesis. Schumacher’s attempts to fend off Hakkinen’s attacks by pushing him onto the grass at 200mph drew fierce criticism from many – not least his rival.
But that race marked a turning point in the season. Schumacher came back stronger and won the final four races, putting the title beyond Hakkinen’s grasp. He wouldn’t let go of the trophy for five years.