by James Allen Partridge pounds 16.99, hardback
ONCE DESCRIBED by Damon Hill as "robotic", Michael Schumacher warmed up for yesterday's Australian Grand Prix by putting on a football strip and having a kickabout with a local team. It's something he does on a more serious basis, whenever his commitments permit, with an amateur side near his Swiss home. He loves it, so he does it. Same thing with Jacques Villeneuve and his skiing. These guys, paid tens of millions of pounds a year, defy common sense to risk their limbs in search of a spontaneous pleasure. Yet spontaneity is hardly the word most commonly applied to Schumacher's character. Cold, calculating, arrogant - these are the most familiar epithets.
James Allen's portrait of the world champion of 1994 and 1995 attempts to look beneath the tabloid caricature to reveal a man of extreme gifts but relatively normal emotions. Beginning with the last race of 1997, when Schumacher tried to clobber Villeneuve at Jerez and instead put himself into the gravel-trap of public opprobrium, the author ends with the final race of 1998, when Schumacher stalled his car on the start-line at Suzuka and handed the title to Mika Hakkinen. In between he explores as many aspects of Schumacher's background and environment as can be interleaved with the narrative.
There is no doubting Schumacher's talent, his confidence or his aggression. He may lack the late Ayrton Senna's philosophical dimension, but he is every bit as fierce in his belief that he was born to win - and that any other outcome represents a violation of natural law. Allen tries to persuade us that, in the aftermath of Jerez, 1998 represented a year in which Schumacher learnt to control the expression of his desire, but the evidence is not entirely convincing.
The span of the book's narrative is so short that, within 240 pages, there must inevitably be a degree of repetition, and the chronological jumps are sometimes confusing. But Allen, ITV's astute and well-informed pit-lane reporter, comes up with enlightening testimony on the nature of Schumacher's talent, particularly from Ross Brawn, his technical director and strategic co-conspirator first at Benetton and now at Ferrari. Less convincing is the analysis of Schumacher's sense of humour, which depends too heavily on an acceptance that Damon Hill represents the zenith of wit.
But there is some good stuff here, the best of it Allen's own line: "In Formula One, a contract is worth whatever someone is prepared to pay to kill it."