Schumacher confronts the demons of disaster

*

AS HE took the decision to return to the Formula One grid at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia this weekend, three and a half months after breaking the tibia and fibula of his right leg in a crash at the start of the British Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher's thoughts may at some point have turned to the story of his great German predecessor, Rudi Caracciola.

AS HE took the decision to return to the Formula One grid at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia this weekend, three and a half months after breaking the tibia and fibula of his right leg in a crash at the start of the British Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher's thoughts may at some point have turned to the story of his great German predecessor, Rudi Caracciola.

The star of the pre-war Mercedes team, Caracciola was the Schumacher of his day. His first bad crash came in 1933, at Monaco, when he hit a stone wall and fractured a thigh socket after his brakes failed. His recovery was slow, and during the winter his convalescence was interrupted by the death of his young wife in a skiing accident. He returned to the cockpit of a car only when a team-mate invited him to drive a lap of Monaco before the 1934 Grand Prix, a year after his smash.

Reluctantly, he accepted. And as he drove slowly past the waving crowds at the place where the accident had taken place, he could think only of the persistent pain in his leg. But when he got out, and watched the start of the Grand Prix, he was overcome by another sensation.

"This was my world," he said. "This was where I belonged. One is a driver in the same way that one hunts, by instinct, from an inner impulse that is stronger than mere thought. I had to drive again. It was the only way I could live."

Two weeks later, Mercedes invited him to a test on the high-speed Avus track in Berlin. He needed a stick to walk to the car, but he lapped the track at 145mph. Two weeks later he was battling for the lead at the Nürburgring when his engine broke. Gradually the pain disappeared, and the following year he won the grands prix of Tripoli, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain and Germany, which would have brought him the world championship, had there been one in those days.

Michael Schumacher, too, has shown a hint of reluctance, and his decision to race on Sunday represents a sudden change of mind. A few days earlier, he had announced that he did not feel up to it and would not return until next season. Pressure from his Ferrari team bosses, apparently keen to have him back to help revive Eddie Irvine's challenge for the world title, seems to have been the decisive factor. His show of uncertainty is unusual for a driver of his calibre, and has led to speculation about whether or not he really wants to help Irvine to win a championship which, no doubt, he believes would otherwise have been his own.

In general, the motivation that drives the greatest champions is just the thing to accelerate recovery from physical injury. Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss and Niki Lauda are among those who made remarkable comebacks from terrible accidents, and who overcame whatever demons confront those returning to the wheel after such an experience.

One weekend in June 1952, Fangio found himself committed to drive a BRM at Dundrod in Ireland on the Saturday and a Maserati at Monza in Italy the following day. He had been promised a lift in another driver's private plane, but it took off without him. He grabbed a commercial flight to London and then another to Paris, where he discovered that storms had forced the cancellation of all night flights to Italy. So he got a lift with another driver as far as Clermont-Ferrand and then, borrowing the car, drove the rest of the night and through the morning across France and over the Alps without stopping for so much as a sandwich.

"I arrived at Monza at two in the afternoon," he remembered. "At half past two I was racing and at three I was in hospital. Simple as that." He started from the back row, not having practised, passed six cars on the first lap, made a tiny mistake - no doubt through exhaustion - on the second lap,and was thrown out of the cartwheeling Maserati. Immobilised for three weeks with concussion and spinal injuries, he missed the remainder of the season. But in 1953 he was back, and the following year he began a run of four consecutive championships.

But there is not much doubt about the two most dramatic recoveries in Formula One history. The first was that of Stirling Moss, whose Lotus shed a wheel at 140mph at Spa in 1960. His diary entry for that day, 18 June, reads simply: "Shunt. Nose. Back. Legs. Bruises. Bugger!" He had broken both his legs and his nose, and crushed three spinal vertebrae.

His treatment was, for the time, unorthodox. He came back from Belgium in plaster, but the specialist at St Thomas's cut it away and told him to spend an hour a day bicycling around the hospital. "After two or three days of that," Moss said this week: "I asked him, 'Look, why don't you let me go dancing?' So at eight o'clock I'd check out of the hospital, spend the evening at the Colony restaurant or somewhere, and get back around half past one in the morning. Remedial dancing, I called it."

Moss's recovery was aided by the fact that, unusually for his era, he was as notoriously fanatical about physical fitness as Schumacher is today. Six weeks after the accident, he was back in a car. After seven weeks he won a sports car race in Sweden. And exactly eight weeks after breaking both legs and crushing three vertebrae, he was driving in the Portuguese Grand Prix, and being disqualified after stalling his car and trying to push-start it against the direction of the circuit. He won the next grand prix, in the United States, and in the following year went on to some of the greatest triumphs of his career.

The other legendary recovery was that of Niki Lauda, who had been heading for his second world championship in a row when he crashed at the Nürburgring in 1976 and was so badly burned that a priest read him the last rites. Inhaling smoke and fumes had damaged his lungs, but what the public noticed when he returned to the cockpit of his Ferrari was the result of half-completed plastic surgery to his face, ears and neck. He missed only two races before returning, six weeks later, to resume the defence of his title, his burns still weeping. He didn't quite manage it, but he recaptured the championship in 1977, and won it again in 1984.

"Basically, my talent for overriding my emotions by staying detatched and objective served me well," Lauda concluded. "There is really no point in having a complex about losing half an ear. Take a good look in the mirror: that's you, that's the way you are. And if people don't like you that way, you might as well forget them."

Lauda's swift return to the Ferrari team was even more politically fraught than Schumacher's. "What I really needed from the squad was a sense of composure, a feeling of continuity, trust. Fat chance. To the outside world, Enzo Ferrari and his company were standing by their slightly singed world champion but, from the inside, the pitiful insecurity of each and every one of them was palpable."

The true thoughts of a driver returning from serious injury can only be guessed at by those outside the cockpit. "When I crashed at Monza," Fangio said, "I felt nothing. I didn't have time to feel fear or pain. The pain came later, when I was in hospital. When I came round I began remembering the things that had led up to the accident. I said to myself: 'How easy it is to die!' I had gone from life to a kind of death in no time at all, without feeling a thing. At that time I had seen some of my friends die in races, and I would see many more of them do so before I retired. But I never let these tragedies influence my actions. If you start imagining that you're going to get killed in your next race, you might as well give up."

Even the outwardly insouciant Moss felt a twinge of doubt. "I crashed at Spa because a wheel came off," he said this week, "and when I got into the car at Oporto and drove at 150mph down a straight with trees on either side, I thought to myself, my God, what's going to happen if a wheel comes off here. I just had to put it out of my mind."

Mika Hakkinen, who suffered serious head injuries at Adelaide in 1995 and came back to win last year's title, says he expects Schumacher to be like a downhill skier returning after a big accident, a little bit anxious and tentative until he has re-established the whereabouts of his personal limits and rebuilt the confidence to push against them. Moss, however, doesn't expect to see any change in the performance of a driver whom he believes to be the only one worthy of a mention in the same breath as Fangio and Senna. "I personally believe, knowing the man he is, that when he gets in the car his adrenalin will start flowing and he'll go like hell, quite frankly."

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