Franz Tost: Ralf Schumacher could have won titles just like Michael

Thomas Maher
Jordan's Ralf Schumacher and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher in 1998.

Jordan's Ralf Schumacher and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher in 1998.

Franz Tost believes “in the right place, at the right time”, Ralf Schumacher would have won F1 World Championships.

Before Tost was team boss for Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri (formerly Toro Rosso from 2005-2020), the Austrian had worked for BMW as Operations Manager.

With BMW a factory effort working with Williams, this meant Tost worked closely alongside Ralf Schumacher, Michael’s younger brother, who raced for the team between 1999 and 2004.

BMW came on board with Williams at the end of the 1999 season, but Tost had already crossed paths with the younger Schumacher brother during their time in the junior categories.

In the 90s, one of the established routes to Formula 1 was through Japan’s Formula Nippon championship (now known as Super Formula).

Schumacher raced in Formula 3 for Weber-Trella Stuttgart Racing (WTS), a team part-owned by Willi Weber – the man who managed the careers of Michael and Ralf. The team boss of WTS was one Franz Tost, who cut his team management teeth working alongside Weber and Schumacher in the F3 championships before heading to Japan with Ralf.

Ralf was sensationally fast, incredibly talented,” Tost recalled in an interview for Germany’s F1 Insider.

“He learned very quickly and implemented everything very quickly.”

Franz Tost remembers Ralf Schumacher’s rise to F1

“The highlight at the beginning of his career was winning Japanese Formula Nippon. It was an extremely high-quality championship and almost impossible for a European to win. 

“I went to Japan with Ralf but he didn’t enjoy the stay there that much. Because his contract was actually designed for two years, I said to him ‘win the championship in the first year, then you can shorten the time in Japan’. And that’s what he did. 

“Add to that the hard-fought GT championship (referring to Schumacher’s Team Lark entry in the All-Japan GT Championship, in which he finished second). 

“I can still remember his prophecy at Silverstone when he was testing the McLaren-Mercedes [in 1996]. It was fitted with Goodyear tyres. Ralf was already doing tests with Bridgestone in Japan back then. So he leaned out of the window and said ‘if Goodyear don’t come up with something, they will have problems against Bridgestone’. That’s what [happened].

Williams' Ralf Schumacher at the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix. Monte Carlo, May 2003.
Williams' Ralf Schumacher at the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix. Monte Carlo, May 2003.

That showed how extremely sensitive Ralf was early on as a test driver. Regarding his Formula 1 time, he had high-quality, extremely fast team-mates like Juan-Pablo Montoya (2001-2004) or Jenson Button (2000). And he controlled [them]. 

“His problem? He was never in the right place at the right time, otherwise he would have won titles like his brother. What ultimately cost him his speed were two extremely serious accidents. Once when testing in Monza (an unseen testing crash at the second Lesmo in 2003) and the crash at Indianapolis (in 2004). You couldn’t just put that away.”

“Montoya lacked the discipline of Schumacher”

With Schumacher proving to have the measure of the highly-rated Montoya during their tenure together at Williams between 2001 and 2004, both secured their fair share of wins, pole positions and podium finishes.

But it was only Montoya who was able to sustain a title challenge when he took on Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen for outright glory in 2003. He ultimately lost out and never got another opportunity as Williams fell away from the front in 2004 before Montoya departed for an ill-fated stint at McLaren before quitting F1.

But it could have been just as different for Montoya, according to Tost, had he shown more discipline in his approach to racing.

“Like Ralf, Juan was extremely talented, extremely fast,” he said of the 1999 CART Champion and two-time Indy 500 winner.

“But what Montoya, like everyone else, lacked compared to Michael was this total focus on Formula 1. For Michael, there was only Formula 1, nothing else.

“Even Ralf was easily distracted in this regard. In terms of sheer talent, Montoya could easily have won a title. But talent alone is not enough to win titles in Formula 1. You have to have the necessary discipline to use your talent properly.”

Is Tost correct in his assessment of Schumacher?

Given Williams, together with McLaren, were certainly a consistent thorn in the side of the dominant Ferrari squad between 2000 and 2004, it is certainly possible Schumacher could have challenged for a title had he been able to find a little more consistency.

Certainly on his day Schumacher proved he had the measure of everyone else on the grid when the equipment was under him. But if he was not fully at ease with the car, he was just as capable of being particularly anonymous in a race – a trait he shared with Montoya.

But the Colombian driver certainly appeared to have the upper hand in terms of more consistent outright speed and had a certain advantage over his team-mate in that he was not related to Michael. This resulted in several contentious moments between the pair, resulting in an occasionally fractious relationship the Schumacher brothers seemed to be warier of avoiding.

Following his Williams days, Schumacher’s move to Toyota never realised the potential the partnership occasionally hinted at and at the end of a disappointing 2007, he walked away from the sport.