Motor Racing: Reluctant hero with a driving ambition: Derick Allsop reports on Michael Schumacher, who carries Benetton's hopes as the Formula One season starts on Sunday

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The Independent Online
FOR A young man whose self-assurance is as evident as his talent for driving racing cars at astounding speeds, Michael Schumacher is a strangely reluctant recruit to the Formula One world championship short list.

Most observers of the winter's sparring sessions are of the opinion that Schumacher and his Benetton-Ford could represent a genuine threat to the aspirations of Alain Prost and Damon Hill, the two drivers occupying the seats at the defending champions and favourites, Williams-Renault, this year.

Benetton's hierarchy are positively bullish about their prospects for a season which opens at Kyalami, South Africa, on Sunday. They expect race wins, increasing momentum and a serious assault on Williams.

Schumacher is more circumspect. 'I just won't say stupid things,' he reasons. 'I will only be realistic and it is not realistic at the moment to talk about the championship. Williams are in front. I hope we are closer, but still Williams are in front and until we are in front it is not enough. I do believe we can put pressure on Williams, but even that does not mean we can win the championship. OK, maybe we can be lucky. If they make mistakes and have lots of problems, perhaps we can win. Anything is possible. But we should not expect that.'

Schumacher talks down a good game, but then he has been talking down his potential impact on Formula One since his spectacular arrival in the late summer of 1991.

One race weekend with Jordan was enough to convince Benetton he was worth poaching, whatever the controversial circumstances, and sufficient to forewarn the German of the expectations about to be draped over his shoulders. He was adamant he would not contemplate superstardom and be subjected to the 'intolerable pressures' which had burdened and buckled his compatriots, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Eighteen months on he has completed his first full season, won his first race and finished third in the championship. There is no question about it, at the age of 24 Schumacher is a star. Yet still he resists. 'I don't want to see all over the media that I am the next hero,' he insisted.

He has, in any case, apparently rendered himself immune to such a threat by rediscovering himself - and not reading the papers. 'Last year was a difficult year for me,' he said. 'So much has happened so quickly and I took notice of what was being said in the newspapers and on television. Now I don't read the papers. I believe only what I know to be true.

'This way there is not so much pressure. I don't feel it and I won't accept it. It is a question of attitude. Because of this attitude I am much more self-confident this year.

'Last year I was not so much myself as I am now. You have to come back to yourself. I have realised this. A little experience helps, of course, and I feel more mature. There is a German expression which, roughly translated, goes: 'What you call in the wood comes back'.'

Listening to Schumacher you cannot help but discern echoes of Ayrton Senna, that other high- speed philosopher. Schumacher, like the Brazilian, is committed to combative driving and has acquired a pad in Monaco where he can escape the hero-worshippers of his own land.

Schumacher, who had his skirmishes with Senna last season, makes no apologies for his aggression then, and warns he has no intention of becoming a shrinking violet this time. 'I try to race, to compete, to fight,' he says. 'That is what we are here for and if that is a problem for people they must learn to live with it.'

For all that, Schumacher contends the world of Formula One is not quite the jungle it is often portrayed as. 'It's not as cold as some people try to represent it,' he said. 'Sure, in the case of a couple of drivers, it is not so good, but in general the relationships between us are good. We're not all at war.'

Schumacher is greatly for the home comforts he has found at Benetton. 'Without this team I could not have had the success I have had already,' he said. 'It is not just the car. It is the people. That is just as important.

'When I was younger I had the right school at Mercedes. I made the right decision to move from Jordan to Benetton. I had good advice, but the decision was mindful. I have always made the right decision in my career, so I should say I am a lucky boy.'

There is, however, nothing lucky about Schumacher's performances on the track and he leads the new generation of drivers confronting the old order. A fresh season beckons; perhaps a different era, too.

'It is the natural way of things for new heroes to come through,' he acknowledges. 'Last year Alain Prost went away, this year Nigel Mansell has gone away. We still do not know whether Senna will have a full season.

'But there has to be change. If Damon Hill wins races he will be the next hero for Britain.'

(Photograph omitted)