Book review: Taming of a driving force

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The Independent Online
On a plane to Buenos Aires last April the Schumacher brothers apparently continued to watch their video screens while the rest of the first-class passengers cried with laughter. Damon Hill, the British racing driver, was cavorting round the aisle wearing a pair of cabin socks on his ears and pretending to be Deputy Dawg.

This little incident on a British Airways flight probably says as much about all three parties, not to mention the sense of humour of those in the posh end. On balance, the Schumachers, especially Michael, will probably go up in your own estimation and Hill will slip down. Maybe you had to be there.

The anecdote is one of those told in the most fascinating chapter of James Allen's book (Partridge, pounds 16.99) about the best driver in the world, who has now gone four years since he was last crowned Formula One champion. This volume sets out to tell from the inside the story of his years from the last race of 1997 to the last race of 1998.

In both he could have reclaimed the title, in both he failed to do so. The difference is his reaction to defeat and Allen attempts to show - hence the subtitle - how his subject changed in 12 months. At Jerez in October 1997, Schumacher, in an instinctive moment of apparent madness, steered his Ferrari into the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve.

In the event, it was the German whose car was debilitated and Villeneuve was able to go on to complete the race and win the championship. Schumacher was reviled, not least in Italy by the tifosi who follow the fortunes of Ferrari everywhere and crave another grand prix title. His immediate reaction was ill-considered and churlish and he was later disciplined.

A year later at Suzuka the German driver once more failed to finish the course. Mika Hakkinen won the title. But this time Schumacher went over to the victor at the end, put his hand through the cockpit and congratulated his opponent. Allen, who works on ITV's Formula One coverage, doubtless relates the story not only to demonstrate how the elder Schumacher had changed in a year but also to justify the quest for redemption.

There is not quite sufficient evidence to back him up. That, however, does not detract from a well-stocked tale enthusiastically told. Allen likes his sport and is determined not to fall into the trap of castigating Schumacher because it is fashionable to dislike him.

If you were the cynical type you might suggest this might be because he wants to write more books about him. But at least he offers a balanced view of the man. Driven for sure, ambitious for sure, old in outlook apparently (although, since the Damon as Deputy Dawg is cited as evidence for this it might be that he is simply mature in outlook) but not without a sense of humour of his own.

Schumacher is a private man as Allen is at pains to point out. He also tries to convey what it must be like to be that famous after coming from such an ordinary background and his sympathy is not found wanting.

The story is rarely riveting when it is describing the ins and outs, the ups and downs of the season. But Allen has tapped his sources and if it is blandly written in parts it manages to add something to the Schumacher legend.