Michael Schumacher: Big wheel

No career in motor racing has been underpinned by such consistent brilliance on the track
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When they brought the body of motor-racing legend Ayrton Senna back to Sao Paulo, where this weekend Michael Schumacher makes his last run for glory, the gridlocked streets were awash with tears. Brazilian flags were unfurled from balconies as the funeral cortège passed, on its way to a grave which was already a shrine. Inevitably such indelible images came to mind this week when the mayoress of Michael Schumacher's home town of Kerpen, near Cologne, made it clear that, whatever the outcome of her local hero's 250th and final Grand Prix, there was unlikely to be any official civic recognition.

The reason, explained Marlies Sieburg, was that the townsfolk would have liked to have seen more "social commitment" from a billionaire sportsman. Unlike his brother and fellow Formula One driver, Ralf, Michael had not invested in the town - "or built shops". A banal postscript, no doubt, to an unprecedented career; one that has shattered every record and persuaded another great champion, Austria's Niki Lauda, to declare this week: "If the best guy in the world retires, it is certainly a sad day. You can say whatever you like, Michael won seven world titles and he may yet win another one. There is simply no one like him in the world." Yet even in Lauda's tribute there is more than a hint of ambivalence, enough certainly to suggest that in the bleak appraisal of the mayoress of Kerpen there was a broader truth.

It is that Schumacher, despite the brilliance of so much of his work, has never touched the heart of Formula One's followers remotely in the way of Senna, who crashed fatally while leading the San Marino Grand Prix 16 years ago. Senna occupied the spirit of his sport and Schumacher its pit lanes and its boardrooms - at times, it seemed, even its very entrails.

The difference is not hard to define. Senna raced from his heart, his passion, his almost surreal belief that he was destined to be the greatest racer of them of all. Schumacher has always applied his brain rather than his heart. It is one that is opportunistic to an extraordinary and, some say, highly cynical degree.

Senna, who won three world titles, was ruthless in his assumption that it was his destiny to win. In this he created a cult. Schumacher has attended to every detail of his own success, and the consequence is not a cult but a grudging recognition that no one ever mastered the varied challenges of modern racing more completely. But there will be no tears on the balcony or in the street, in Kerpen or anywhere else, when Schumacher finishes his last race on the Interlagos track, a track he likes so much because of the strain it puts on both a driver's mind and his body - pressures which he has always believed increases his own advantages.

If Schumacher guides his Ferrari to victory, and the reigning champion and current leader, 25-year-old Spaniard Fernando Alonso fails to score a point - an unlikely but far from discountable prospect - the German will complete his most astonishing triumph at the age of 37.

But he will not be enveloped in love. No one has drawn the dichotomy between respect and suspicion more finely than Schumacher's former rival Mark Blundell, who says, "He is the perfect example of the most focused Formula One driver - in and out of the car - there has ever been. It means a lot to me that I stood on the same podium with him because I can say I stood in the company of someone who is probably untouchable in his achievements, but the way he has got to this point has never been straightforward.

"There has always been a tale to go with it that leaves a slightly sour taste. He has been involved in several collisions that have counted a great deal. He is very calculating." Calculating? For some, this an ultimate euphemism - and even Blundell admits, "I would love to cut him and look inside just to see how he ticks."

The motivation for such a procedure would be less cerebral for some of Schumacher's other rivals - not least the young pretender Alonso and former challengers Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill. Alonso, along with much of the rest of Formula One, was appalled this season in Monte Carlo when Schumacher parked his car on the qualifying tracking after stealing pole position. In 1994, on his way to his first world title, he wrecked the chances of Hill in a collision which some doubted was accidental. Three years later, in Spain, a similar episode occurred invoving Jacques Villeneuve, though this time unavailingly. The Canadian will never forgive him. He says, "I will not miss Michael Schumacher when he goes. I don't believe he represented the sport well. He was concerned only with himself."

This week Schumacher offered just a hint of a mea culpa, telling a Brazilian audience: "There have been some bad times and I'm sorry," he said. "If I had the chance to do certain things a second time, I would do them differently." As confessions go, it was somewhat less than heart-searching and certainly it did not provoke a collapse of scepticism about any depth of feelings the great champion might have for a sport he has dominated so profoundly since he moved from a Benetton team he had led brilliantly to an ailing Ferrari 10 years ago. Indeed some of the more ambivalent judgements, including that of Blundell, carried reference to certain shadows that accompanied Schumacher's arrival in Formula One in 1991.

He won his first ride with Eddie Jordan at the Belgian Grand Prix after a brilliant test drive at Silverstone a week earlier. Against all expectations, the new man qualified the Jordan in seventh place. Yet mysteriously, after the sensational progress to the grid, Schumacher's clutch burned out on the first lap of the race. There was a theory, quite egregious at the time but perhaps less so today, that the young German had calculated his impact was already made and it would not be augmented by a struggle to look good in a mediocre car.

However, no career in motor racing has been underpinned by such consistent brilliance on the track. Unlike Senna, his boyhood was not filled with privilege. Like the Brazilian, he was driving a go-kart at the age of four and was a German and European champion within a few years - stunning, in that his machine was built at home by his father Rolf, a bricklayer who also ran the local kart track, where Schumacher's mother worked in the canteen.

Another mark of his greatness is his vision - and the supporting self-confidence. When Senna was winning titles with McLaren it was put to him that he might make a huge impact by moving to Ferrari and reviving the sleeping Italian giant. But he said no. He lived for the present - and he wanted the best car now. Schumacher saw the potential at Ferrari and went there despite winning two titles with Benetton. He was prepared to invest in a property in which he believed, absolutely. It was his own talent and his own belief that he could be the man to enslave the tifosi, the great yearning legion of Ferrari supporters.

His prescience could scarcely have been confirmed more spectacularly than in 1996, when he won his first race for Ferrari in a rainstorm at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona. It was a performance which earned the title Regenmeister - the Rainmaster. While his rivals shrivelled in the appalling conditions, Schumacher drove one of the races of his life. The bedraggled tifosi were exultant and Ferrari was back in the big race which had appeared to have consigned it to history.

Among this week's tributes, the one from Britain's David Coulthard contained the now typical balance of praise and reservation. He said: "Irrespective of whether people believe in Michael's race ethics or not, he has been a great champion and we are at the end of an era." Coulthard had plenty of reasons to make such an assessment after spending all his career under the shadow of Schumacher, but aficionados were agreed that one stood out above all others.

It was the German's winning performance in Hungary eight years ago, when Coulthard finished second. Some believe that it was Schumacher's supreme example of sublime racecraft. When Ferrari decided it must take an extra pit stop, technical director Ross Brawn sent a demanding radio message. "Michael," it said, "you must make up 18 seconds in 22 laps." Schumacher did so with an exquisitely intense verve. It was with such performances in mind that Rory Byrne, who designed all of Schumacher's winning Ferraris, said: "There is only one thing you can really say about Michael. He has simply been the ultimate professional."

When the race is over, Schumacher says he will return to the shores of Lake Geneva, where he lives with his wife Corinna, daughter Gina-Maria and son Mick. He will do some work with Ferrari, relax and perhaps play a little football.

The team's president Luca di Montezemolo, who some believed angered Schumacher in his speed to sign the new number one driver, the Finn Kimi Raikkonen, said: "I feel sadness. We have been through unforgettable times, good and bad, and it will be hard, if not impossible, to equal them."

Such an accolade, we know now, is not likely to come from the burghers of Kerpen, but then it is also true that Schumacher could hardly care less. He made his own world - on his own terms - and he leaves it with the overwhelming sense that it is quite unique. He never wanted anyone's tears. It was enough to win more than anyone had ever dreamed - or can now reasonably contemplate.

A Life in Brief

BORN 3 January 1969 in Hürth-Hermülheim (near Cologne), West Germany, to Rolf and Elisabeth Schumacher and grew up in nearby Kerpen-Mannheim. His younger brother, Ralf Schumacher, born 30 June 1975, is also a Formula One driver, representing Toyota.

FAMILY Married to Corinna Betsch in 1995. They have two children, Gina-Marie, born in February 1997 and Mick, born in March 1999. They live in Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva.

EDUCATION Left school in 1987 to work as a mechanic.

CAREER German Junior Karting Champion (1984, 1985); German and European Karting Champion (1987); German Formula 3 Champion (1990); Formula one World Champion (1994, 1995, 2000). Teams: Jordan (1991), Benetton (1991-1995), Ferrari (1996-2006).

HE SAYS "I always said I would do this right up until I believed I could no longer do it as well as I wanted. Then I would go away."

THEY SAY "Michael has one flaw - he stretches the elastic a tad too far." Sir Jackie Stewart, former Formula One World Champion