Motor Racing: Driven man who went too far

He left for work in a Ferrari, and caught a lift back on a scooter. It was the day Michael Schumacher cut one corner too many; David Tremayne says things can never be the same for the hero of the modern era
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The Independent Online
"I think the manoeuvre surprised him a little bit because when he looked in his mirror I was way behind him. Then suddenly I was inside of him, so that's probably why he didn't turn in earlier." Jacques Villeneuve was speaking after securing the World Championship in Jerez last Sunday despite that controversial attempt by his rival Michael Schumacher to drive him off the track. "I wasn't really surprised when Michael finally decided to turn in on me," he continued. "I knew I was taking a big risk. Either Michael had his eyes closed or his hands slipped on the steering wheel."

Despite its significance to his World Championship aspirations, Villeneuve's move was the more palatable surprise that Schumacher faced last week While the Canadian could joke about the incident, Schumacher will have cause to regret it for the rest of a career that has been undermined. Predictably, he initially denied culpability for what the world deemed a low blow. But come Monday morning, when the Italian and German newspapers had censured him, he could no longer hide behind his arrogant summation of the moment when the championship had changed hands: "I was called to see the stewards after the race, but that is just normal procedure. As expected, no action was taken against me."

Schumacher had lost a third world title, which was bad enough. And his manager, Willi Weber, was wondering what to do with 100,000 redundant "Michael Schumacher - World Champion 1997" caps. But compared with the maelstrom that followed, these were trifles. For when he awoke on Monday it was to read calls for Ferrari to sack him unless he apologised both to the team and to Villeneuve. The man used to the adulation of his countrymen and the Ferrari-mad Italian tifosi was being pilloried as the bad loser whose underhand tactics had failed in full public view.

This unaccustomed humiliation was only the start, for by the end of the day the FIA belatedly realised that its stewards had dropped the ball in Jerez by trying feebly to dismiss the incident as a racing accident. Cynics had accused the governing body of favouring Schumacher to win the title, but now it provided another body blow by announcing that he was to be summoned to Paris next Tuesday week to explain his actions. Compounding Schumacher's deserved discomfort, there is speculation not so much of a massive fine (and it would have to be astronomical to affect one of the world's wealthiest sportsmen) but of a ban from the opening races of 1998, which would hurt him far more.

This is an uneasy time for Schumacher as the ghosts of Adelaide 1994 return to haunt him, and already his brief public appearances since the 48th lap of the GP of Europe have revealed a meek and mild individual, stripped of his usual haughtiness. A rabbit caught in the headlights of the FIA's oncoming car. But what demon is it within the German that has led him to this dramatic crossroads, and stripped him of the heroic status that his drives for Ferrari had so enhanced?

In his early days racing for the Mercedes-Benz sportscar team Schumacher was reserved, the only outward sign of the arrogant tag that would dog him later manifesting itself at a race in 1991 when he carved up Derek Warwick and was saved from a pounding only when the normally unflappable Englishman was restrained. The former F1 driver Jochen Mass, who was part of the senior pairing with Jean-Louis Schlesser, was a mentor to whom Schumacher frequently turned for advice. "Michael wasn't arrogant," Mass said. "He was always very keen to learn whatever he could about racing, and had one of those enquiring minds. He was forever asking questions, wanting to know more." Norbert Haug, the former journalist who went on to become Mercedes' director of motorsport, concurred.

When he made his F1 debut at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium for the Jordan team in 1991 Schumacher looked like a schoolboy, bemused by the spotlight that seventh fastest qualifying time instantly focused upon him. It was not until 1994, that catalytic season, that the arrogance seemed to take over. As he ignored a black flag at Silverstone, and then clashed with his arch-rival Damon Hill as they fought for the championship in the final race in Australia, he appeared to believe that he could get away with anything.

After hitting a wall while leading in Adelaide he had wandered back on to the track, then cut sharply into Hill's path as the Englishman moved to overtake. Both of them were forced out of a race that many felt had already ended for Schumacher, and with a single point lead he clinched the title. "I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt in Adelaide," the Swiss racing journalist Jabby Crombac, a veteran observer of well over 500 grands prix, said in Jerez, "but this was completely unacceptable."

Now it no longer matters that he has won 27 GPs in 102 starts, or that he is the yardstick of the late Nineties. Nor that his underdog performances for Ferrari had polished off the tarnish of Adelaide. Now the world has seen the dark side of him, like Tyson biting Holyfield's ear. The feral reaction of one heated moment when, his critics say, he reverted to type and fought back with an animal instinct unbecoming a true champion. For Michael Schumacher nothing can be the same again.