Motor Racing: Inside Line: Schumacher's exquisite talent elevates him among the elite: Derick Allsop's pit-lane analysis of a year with Benetton-Ford sees their No 1 driver go from strength to strength before a home audience

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The Independent Online
SILVERSTONE was like this last year, packed to the rafters, reverberating to the supplications of an unashamedly nationalistic crowd. Just as Nigel Mansell was exalted by British fans, so now Michael Schumacher is the idol of a 150,000 Hockenheim crowd.

The recession and disenchantment may have eaten into attendances elsewhere, but box office returns and the atmosphere at the German Grand Prix are a reminder that the masses will always turn out for a home- grown superstar, and that is what the Camel Benetton-Ford driver is.

At the age of 24, Schumacher is acknowledged as a rare, exquisite talent. According to his former team- mate, Martin Brundle, he is currently the outstanding performer in Formula One. Ron Dennis, team principal at McLaren-Ford, likens him to Jochen Rindt. Those who remember the sublime Austrian will know there could scarcely be a greater tribute.

In Germany he has ascended to the realms of the sporting elite. He is there with Becker, Graf and Langer. Few doubt he will be his country's first motor racing world champion.

The man who unearthed this gem and became his manager is Willi Weber, a former racing driver. He says: 'I had a Formula Three team and in 1988 was looking for young drivers. I saw a young driver at Salzburg, driving Formula Ford 1600, and immediately knew I had to have him. The way he handled the car was completely impressive. He started seventh on the grid and before the end of the first lap led by seven seconds.

'I asked him to test a Formula Three car. After eight laps Michael was one and a half seconds quicker than the driver I had in my team. This was the green light for me and we have been together ever since.'

Weber steered Schumacher towards sports cars rather than Formula 3000, then seized the opportunity to place him in a Jordan Formula One car, less than two years ago. For the following race, he was a Benetton driver.

'Getting the Benetton car was the best chance we had and we did it immediately,' Weber says. 'The rest we know. We expected a three-year learning period. It's not learning to drive, it's learning to handle himself and the situation and politics around Formula One. In '95 it will be time to go for the championship.

'It's 100 per cent my job to protect him. I was a driver for 20 years, so I know the problems. I keep all the pressure away to leave him happy. If you are happy, you are strong and better for racing or whatever you do.

'His popularity now in Germany is very strong and there are demands from the media. Sometimes when there are 20 or 30 journalists waiting for him I ask him if he would prefer it to be only one and he understands. He's a young man but he knows what he wants. He's very strong and he needs to be, otherwise he will never be at the front, on top. It means hard work and he is willing. We are both surprised how quickly things have happened. The first time he was on the podium I cried. Now it's normal.

'Michael is a man who could change immediately. Sometimes I think he is two persons. After he leaves the racetrack he is completely relaxed and this is one of his strongest points. Other drivers can take a week to get over a race, whatever the result. The next day Michael is out of it, and this makes him strong. His fitness and enthusiasm come back like a battery charging up very quickly.'

Schumacher is charged up for his home race. In the first qualifying session he splits the Williams and in the second ignites a firework celebration in the stands by beating Ayrton Senna to third place on the grid.

This is also a special occasion for the other Camel Benetton-Ford driver, Riccardo Patrese. The most experienced driver in Formula One has reached the landmark of his 250th grand prix and has been revitalised by his third place at Silverstone. The Italian says: 'Perhaps after the big fight I had there, people will stop asking me if I am ready to retire.'

Hockenheim is the most severe test on engines in Formula One, with 70 per cent of the 4.235 mile circuit covered at full throttle. Benetton run the latest Ford Cosworth engines on the second day of practice, yet stay with the tried and trusted series VII units for the race.

Jim Brett, Cosworth's chief engineer with Benetton, says: 'The road car driver will never approach the limit of an engine's capabilities. A racing driver is on full throttle whenever he can. At this level, if you're not on the absolute limit of everything, you are not doing your job properly.

'These engines have a maximum usage of 400km, which gets us through Sunday morning warm-up and the race, and that's it, it's worn out. It needs a total rebuild. About half of it is just dropped into a bin. The cost of a rebuild can range from about pounds 20,000 to pounds 40,000.'

Patrese is in the points again here, with fifth place and Schumacher, to the delight of his countrymen, and, despite having switched to his spare car, is second. He says: 'Last year I was third here, so maybe next year it will be my turn to be first.'

Now wouldn't that go down well. . .

Designs on Victory, the inside story of Camel Benetton-Ford, by Derick Allsop, is to be published by Stanley Paul later in the year.