Motor racing: Excitement boils over at Ferrari

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Michael Schumacher was in full flow to the huddle of journalists and took no heed of the mobile phone ringing in the pocket of an Italian reporter.

"Pronto... si."

"It's for you," the reporter said, pressing the phone into Schumacher's hand. "It's the president."

"Hello... thanks... my pleasure."

"He's unbelievable," Schumacher said, handing back the phone. "You don't see the president of another company being so interested in Formula One."

But then it is difficult to imagine another president like Luca di Montezemolo and another company like Ferrari. This has been a generally frustrating and embarrassing season for their Formula One team and the merciless Italian media have intensified their discomfiture.

Schumacher's masterful victory in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix changed the mood at a stroke, and for the PR-conscious Di Montezemolo it was an opportunity too good to miss.

The mood is likely to be turned into rampant euphoria by Di Montezemolo's compatriots over the next two weeks, reaching a frenzied climax of anticipation at the Italian Grand Prix. Schumacher realised that, and the concern became evident in his countenance.

"I am quite worried about Monza," he said. "Especially after winning this race. Expectations will be high. I feel a little uneasy. I'm not sure we'll be able to do the same job as here. I'm afraid we will not be as competitive. The people then become hysterical if things go wrong. Please keep it calm, " he exhorted the Italian journalists.

He should know they cannot. His first season with the Italian team - for that read Team Italia - ought to have given him a clear enough picture of the Ferrari phenomenon. And Monza will be bedlam.

"It is always like this in life," he said philosophically. "There are good things and not so good things. I feel that people are giving me respect but they are so emotional. They lost control. They like to kiss you and take you."

He was referring to an incident at a recent test, when an admirer had an apparently irresistible compulsion to lunge at Schumacher as he posed for photographers, and planted a kiss on him.

"He could at least have shaved," the champion joked. "And, anyway, it wouldn't have been so bad if it had been a girl."

But have not the Germans also gone wild for Schumacher? At this race they had turned up in their scores of thousands, as they had elsewhere throughout Europe, spreading the campsites across the Ardennes landscape as never before. We had known Mansell mania, we had seen Senna's fan club all around the world, yet nothing like this. It makes the Germany of the 1930s eerily easy to comprehend.

"Yes," he conceded, "also Germans, but not in the same way. I am not so sure of Italians." Schumacher has never overtly courted the public. He enjoys the support, and patently revels in it. Hero worship, however, he finds difficult to cope with. He recoils when people touch and grab him. He craves just to be one of the people, yet he knows it is no longer possible. That is why his traditional, "impromptu" walk into the woods here to meet his fans has become a stage-managed production.

For all his reservations about life with Ferrari, Schumacher is already well down the road to negotiating an extension of his contract to the end of 1998. He insists money is not the issue. It is thought he is seeking another $10m (pounds 6.5m) a year on top of his current $25m, but then money does not appear to be an issue with Ferrari either. He maintains he is more concerned with "other details".

Those may well include the identity of his team-mate. He is content to keep Eddie Irvine alongside him, arguing the benefits of continuity and understanding. Besides, he said, he had always been quicker than his team- mates. "I could try to slow down," he added.

There is, however, a lobby in Italian circles for a stronger second driver who might enable them to aspire to the constructors' championship as well as the driver's title in future seasons. No less a source than Gianni Agnelli, patriarch of the Fiat empire, has fuelled suggestions that Irvine could yet be dropped for next season by remarking on the talent of Mika Hakkinen, whose contract with McLaren-Mercedes expires at the end of the year. As an experienced observer of Ferrari affairs pointed out, Agnelli is not noted for making gratuitous statements.

Despite the seemingly endless test sessions Ferrari have had at Monza - they were at work again there yesterday - Schumacher implies Williams -Renault should be better equipped for the Italian Grand Prix. Over, then, to Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to resume their championship tussle. But you cannot help feel Schumacher will still interfere with Williams's strategy before the title is decided.

Given the cost of keeping Schumacher, it is perhaps convenient for Ferrari that Marlboro, one of their sponsors, are ending their 23-year association with McLaren after this season. The Woking-based team yesterday announced a five-year deal involving another tobacco brand, West.