Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Schumacher has relaxed air of a king in waiting: Benetton's self-assured German charger is aiming to extend an impressive sequence at Silverstone tomorrow. Derick Allsop reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HE MOVES about the garage with an air of absolute self-assurance and when he stops to talk, others stop to listen. Intently, heads nodding. When he climbs into his Benetton-Ford he moves with equal conviction and others watch. Intently and usually from a distance.

However you define it, however you analyse it, Michael Schumacher has that something, that presence, that stature of a world champion. Later this year, possibly in a few weeks, the title will assuredly be his. And this at the age of 25, in only his third full Formula One season.

Victory in tomorrow's British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, would be his seventh in eight races, and impressive by any standard. Perhaps most impressive of all was his drive in the one that got away. At Barcelona, he finished second, behind Damon Hill's Williams-Renault, despite being stuck in fifth gear for more than two-thirds of the race.

And yet how can we gauge his talent with any precision now the ultimate examiner is no longer with us. The prospect of a Titanic duel for the championship and the opportunity to position Schumacher accurately in the annals of motor racing were gone when Ayrton Senna died at Imola 10 weeks ago.

Senna had won their contest for pole position three times out of three. Schumacher had won two races out of two. The season, like that fateful San Marino Grand Prix, was tantalisingly poised. It might have been one of the all- time classic encounters. Instead, we can only surmise and there are those who are satisfied that sound evidence had already been placed before us: that Senna had met his match, that Schumacher was the genuine article.

Eddie Jordan, the team owner who tested Senna in a Formula Three car 12 years ago and gave Schumacher his Formula One debut in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, believes even Senna, three times a world champion, could not have contained the German this year.

Jordan said: 'For me Senna was the best driver I have ever seen in Formula One, but you are talking about a different age already and I believe Michael has the potential to rise to that level. I think in years to come Michael will regret, for a different reason than the obvious, that Ayrton is no longer with us.

'I honestly thought, after the second race, that Schumacher would win the championship. Ayrton was with a different team, different bunch of engineers, different engine, it all needed time to gel. Schumacher knew the people, knew what he could do, how to move, to motivate and create. And they knew him. There was that strong bond.

'Ayrton was in trouble because of that package. It would have been an interesting championship but I just felt Schumacher had him. And now no one can touch him, just as once no one could touch Senna.

'I first started talking to Michael before that 1991 season but I was a bit apprehensive, perhaps, because he was stuck in sports cars. Then we got another chance to give him a crack at Spa but it was still a serious risk. No one had really heard of him, no one knew how to spell his name.

'We all learned how to spell his name after that Belgian Grand Prix. His pace was instant and beguiling. He lined up for his debut seventh on the grid. The car failed virtually from the start of the race, but Schumacher had arrived.

'What he did at Spa has to be one of the highlights of my racing experience,' Jordan said. 'Another highlight was when Senna tested our Formula Three car for the first time and within 25 laps he was quicker than James Weaver had been in it the previous Sunday at Silverstone. And Weaver was on pole.'

Benetton's team principal, Flavio Briatore, snatched the uncut gem from under Jordan's nose and has watched it sparkle with growing intensity ever since. 'I suppose it was a gamble because you can never know how good a driver can be, but yes, it was worth it,' said Briatore, unable to restrain the grin. 'For his age, Michael is a very complete driver, and the gamble has turned out to be good for the team and the sponsors. But I also think the team is good for Michael. We make him happy here, he grows up with us, and in the end it's about people, about relationships, about trust.

'It is, absolutely, a big pity Senna is not here for Michael to fight. The championship was going to be fantastic. All I know is that in the two races Ayrton was there, Michael won. After that, it is difficult to say what would have happened.'

There is much of Senna in Schumacher's make-up and much that is different. Both started with a sublime talent and had the same willingness and intelligence to learn: to learn about technical aspects, to learn English, the motor racing language. Both were serious, often cocooned with their own thoughts, and both were winners.

Schumacher is less intense than Senna but perhaps more committed to a fitness regime. Senna could be aloof; in Schumacher there is a touch of arrogance. Senna paused before answering, now Schumacher is tending to do likewise.

Schumacher has been involved in much discussion of late as an official representative of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, which was revamped following Senna's death.

He accepted the responsibility conscious it would take more of his diminishing time and might affect his championship campaign. However it feels inside, it does not show.

He said: 'The pressure is certainly more, but this is something I felt I had to do. I would rather try to help. People say I look cool and calm, but I do not always feel like that.'

Then he has self-control, too. Senna was still vulnerable to pressure, at the age of 34. Schumacher has grown up quickly, eliminating most mistakes on the track and conducting himself with enormous dignity off it.

Temperament is a vital part of his armoury, according to Ken Tyrrell, the doyen of team owners. He said: 'It's a British type of temperament. If you look back at previous champions, with the possible exception of Nigel Mansell, they were all calm and composed. Like (Jim) Clark and (Jackie) Stewart. You need someone in control of what he's doing.'

Schumacher's own mechanics still marvel at his capacity for producing a competitive time within three laps. To Schumacher, it comes naturally. 'It is just that I have a good feeling for the car straight away,' he said. 'It is just a general characteristic of myself.'

Martin Brundle, the McLaren-Peugeot driver, competed against Senna back in the 1983 British Formula Three Championship and partnered Schumacher at Benetton two seasons ago. The Englishman said: 'Schumacher does have this gift, a sixth sense of grip, as Senna. Yeah, it takes him one lap to warm up the car, a second to find the grip and a third to do the lap time, and that's a gift, a gift you're born with.

'The guy is awesome. He has a maturity beyond his years and demonstrates an ability to have an input and understanding of the other factors outside of driving the car, and still gets in the car and drives it without any problem. That's very difficult to do. I can tell you that from personal experience.

'I think in the early part of the season you saw the true situation with Senna and Schumacher. The whole team are focused on Schumacher, they made the car very good and when push came to shove he pulled away from Senna. Sadly, I think it put Senna under a lot of pressure that he wouldn't normally have been subjected to. Tragically, I think he was pushing himself harder than ever before. It would be wrong of me to say that was the cause of the accident.

'I can't see anyone else stopping Schumacher. He's got everything going for him: qualifying, starts, races, reliability. He's got his head together. He knows what he wants and how to go about it. And when he's got there I don't think he'll stick around long. I get the impression he'll perform and get out.'

Does Briatore think anyone can stop his driver? The Italian responded: 'I believe Michael can be stopped only by himself. Nobody else.'

Somehow, that does not seem likely.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments