I had a telephone call in the summer of 1991from a contact within the
Jordan team, about a young German who had just begun secretly testing
for them. The team was a man short because one of their drivers, the Belgian
Bertrand Gachot, was in Brixton Prison, having sprayed CS gas in the face
of a London cabbie. No one else knew about the driver, my contact told
me, but the team were very excited by his results. The boy was very special.
I had never heard of him. His name was Michael Schumacher.
In the race itself, three days later, Schumacher's car broke down and he retired after one lap. It didn't matter. Within hours of the race the Benetton team were in contact; within days they had signed him up.
'He could easily turn out to be another Senna,' Bernie Ecclestone, the most astute observer of talent, noted soon afterwards. 'I'm absolutely sure of it.'
Twelve years later, Michael Schumacher has more than lived up to
'Ayrton always kept a close watch on him, from the very first days,' Jo Ramirez, Senna's closest friend at the time, told me recently. 'Right from the beginning he considered Schumacher as the next big threat, way ahead of all the other drivers around at the time.'
But with the respect came a rivalry and the great Brazilian used every means possible to maintain his pre-eminence - and, Ramirez reveals, was not averse to a little psychological warfare.
Whatever the Brazilian did, however, failed to slow his new rival down very much, and some observers feel the pressure Schumacher exerted on Senna during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix played a significant part in driving the Brazilian that little bit too close to the edge. Senna crashed and died that day at Imola. Schumacher was just 25 and Senna's death robbed F1 of perhaps its greatest rivalry.
Schumacher won the world title that year and, in Senna's absence, became the benchmark as the Brazilian had. In 1996 he joined Ferrari, then a moribund team, struggling to live up to its past, but in time Schumacher (and an influx of engineers and designers) transformed it into a title-winning machine.
In 2000, after 21 barren years, Ferrari boasted the world drivers' champion again - and they have refused to relinquish the title since. Schumacher - winning 29 of the 50 races in the past three years - has been the dominant force. And with the dominance has come the dosh. He is reported to earn $25m a season from Ferrari, but that is just a basic salary. Forbes magazine recently estimated his annual income at $42m, second only among sportsmen to Tiger Woods's $43m. Forbes ranked him as the sixth best-paid world celebrity.
The problem now is that Schumacher is, quite simply, too good and the sport is suffering as a result. The television ratings are dropping, interest is waning. A couple of months ago the teams were forced by Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, into a series of sweeping rule changes aimed at making F1 more exciting. The official reason behind taking electronic aids and traction control out of the sport is to make it cheaper and simpler. But, in a sense, all the changes could be said to be aimed at one core problem - Michael Schumacher.
To find out whether Schumacher does indeed feel put upon, I travelled to Barcelona on a cold winter's morning as Ferrari began pre-season testing in earnest. Schumacher insists he is happy with the rule changes. When he started out, he says, he was driving cars with very little electronics built into them. So he'll be fine when he has to drive like that again. But he wonders how some of the younger drivers will cope.
'Those who have come into Formula One without experiencing cars devoid of electronic aids will find it tough,' he says. 'To control 800 horse power relying just on arm muscles and foot sensitivity can turn out to be a dangerous exercise.'
He is just back from a family skiing holiday in Norway and is continually shuttling to and fro from the gleaming red motor home to the pits. He is not a big man - a shade over 5ft 7in, a little over 10 stone - yet there seems to be more of him. If he is unworried by the changes about to occur within his sport, he bridles at the suggestion that last year, when he won 11 of 17 races, was easy for him.
'In sport there is never any moment that is the same as the other. I have been in Formula One for 12 years, and out of that I had one year with the perfect car,' he says with a hint of irritation. 'Maybe we should have a chat about the years when there wasn't a perfect car and I needed to drive them in a very different way.'
When his cars were much less than perfect, he had to drive them, and himself, beyond limitations. His uncompromising style did not go down well with his rivals, nor did it impress the sport's authorities. He clashed with Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard and in 1997 he was disqualified from the championship.
Now the one he falls out with on a regular basis is the brilliant young Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, who drives for Williams-BMW. In fact their colourful rivalry was just about the one newsworthy aspect to last season (though it barely constituted a rivalry, with Montoya failing to win a single race).
Does he still regard the Colombian as his biggest threat when the new season starts in Melbourne next Sunday?
'That is what people think.'
Have we got it wrong then?
'No, not completely. But I would not focus on that single person. My team-mate Rubens Barrichello has picked up his game quite a lot. Then there is my brother Ralf, and Kimi Raikkonen. I would mention all of these in the same bracket as Montoya. But the media seems to have picked out one over the others.'
The championship last year was Schumacher's third in a Ferrari and his success has seen the team reclaim its traditional aura of glamorous invincibility. Not that the aura, or the tradition, were his motives for joining.
'I did not know what Ferrari was when I joined,' he insists, 'and I had to learn that. It was a challenge to go there because they had been so unsuccessful. But now I feel that I understand the brand and know what it feels to drive for them. It is amazing to see how the Italian people are involved with their team. For them it's like a parent or the Pope. The whole country is behind us, not just a city, like for a football club. The way they love their Ferrari makes it clear it is something very special. They are very happy and proud for what you have achieved. And it feels as if you have achieved it together with them.'
'I have had a great time at Ferrari and there is no reason to change. They have offered me to stay as long as I feel like driving. And that is the best compliment a team can give a driver.'
His big break came in 1989 when he met Willi Weber, who ran a Formula Three team. Schumacher's impact was immediate and Weber remained a valued adviser long after Schumacher had moved on from his team. At 21, he earned his first big bonus - DM20,000. He gave it, in cash, in a suitcase to his father.
'My family were really in debt,' he said. 'So I gave my father this suitcase full of money. He couldn't believe it. That was something very special.'
A year later Schumacher was a Formula One driver, and as he became successful in a high profile, highly critical world, so the prejudice began to surface. People joked about his accent. They resented his emphasis on fitness, characterising him as some kind of freak. He was seen as the epitome of a new, ruthlessly efficient kind of driver, in contrast to the colourful, playboy image of the sport's past.
'I'm a pretty relaxed person,' he says, 'and this makes me the way I am. People try to look for more than there is. A simple explanation sometimes doesn't justify the success you have. It all depends what you feel you are. I know what I am, and what I have to do in my profession, so I can handle the pressure. It's the way I think.'
What's the secret of his success? Some say the key is his quite phenomenal level of fitness. He has always played lots of sports, and incorporates football, skiing, one-on-one basketball and mountain-biking into his fearsome schedule. Others think it's his mental powers, but he smiles at any suggestion he might benefit from mental exercises, like visualisation and meditation.
'People have suggested that I go for these kind of things, but I'm not sure. I have done some relaxation therapy, and I didn't find that any significant help. Maybe there are other areas I should experiment more with.'
My view is that Schumacher's greatest talent is his ability to adapt
Yet as we talk I can see why some (myself included, perhaps) are tempted to over-analyse Schumacher. He is refreshingly modest. His body language is reserved, he doesn't physically take up much space. He is blessed with extraordinary ability, both physical and mental, and finds it hard to articulate what sets him apart. To him, it is all just natural and instinctive. As he repeats, throughout our interview, 'People try to look for more than there is.'
Motor racing's rich history is littered with tales of daring, danger and death. Today's stringent safety requirements mean there are now significantly fewer fatalities, but it remains a high-risk profession.
Ayrton Senna once told me that he dealt with his fears by overcoming each instance at the time, and then building up his courage through each small victory over fear. 'As if they are bricks,' he said. And each year he had more bricks, because each year he overcame more fear. I wondered if Schumacher ever got scared.
'No. People may struggle to understand or believe this. This is the sport I love, and in some ways it's my job, and accidents happen every so often, and for me it's natural. Driving a car on the road is for me at times more dangerous than what I'm doing. I'm confident in what I'm doing, and the rest is fate.'
Almost certainly the fears are greater for Schumacher's wife Corinna than for him. Theirs is one of the strongest relationships on the circuit. They met in 1990 when she was going out with his team-mate in the Mercedes Junior Team, Heinz-Harald Frentzen. After she and Frentzen split up, she became involved with Schumacher and they married in 1995. Even as a young man in an exotic world, he was keen to settle down.
'I was looking for the life I started to live together with Corinna,'
The couple have two children, Gina-Maria, who is six, and Mick, four. For a while they lived in the Formula One ghetto of Monte Carlo, but seven years ago moved to Switzerland, to a farm in Vufflens-le-Chteau, near Lake Geneva. Schumacher plays for the nearby Aubonne football team and often strolls through the village streets, sometimes with Alain Prost, who lives nearby. He likes it so much he even donated a park to the village children.
One reason for the move was to maintain the family's privacy. 'My kids are not known, and I think that is very important. So far they have lived a normal life, and will continue to do so. I feel they should have the possibility to live a free life without the burden of fame I have created.'
The quest for normality includes sending Gina-Maria to the local state school. They live on a farm so the family can indulge its passion for animals, and they share their home with horses, turtles, birds and rabbits. Schumacher is hardly ostentatious about his wealth. There are properties in Norway and near Lake Geneva, and he does own his own plane - a Falcon 200, a nine-seater jet which he uses to fly to and from the races - but he does not have a helicopter, or a yacht.
He has invested in the family karting track in his hometown, Kerpen, but his interest is far more than financial. His childhood friends are now working at the track. Schumacher still loves race karts and he can sometimes still be found at the track tuning the engines, mucking in.
He makes a point of remembering his friends and those he admires. When Jo Ramirez retired from McLaren and from F1 last year, Ferrari offered him any job he wanted in the Italian team. Ramirez declined and Schumacher later told him that one of his regrets was that he would not be able to work with the popular Mexican. He then handed him a photograph of Ramirez, wearing McLaren's grey track uniform on which he had written in felt tip: 'You'd have looked much better in red.'
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