Schumacher the hate figure takes strife in his stride

Ferrari's No 1 refuses to buckle under the pressure of controversy and believes he is fated to win the drivers' championship
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The pitch of the engine's screech never wavered as the scarlet car went by, lap after lap, holding in awe those at the perimeter fencing. And when at last the sonorous sound ceased, the man at the controls of the scarlet car strolled over with a radiant countenance, the picture of serenity and cordiality.

The pitch of the engine's screech never wavered as the scarlet car went by, lap after lap, holding in awe those at the perimeter fencing. And when at last the sonorous sound ceased, the man at the controls of the scarlet car strolled over with a radiant countenance, the picture of serenity and cordiality.

Could this really be the most reviled person in Formula One? A man under attack and pressure from all quarters? A driver so despised by his opponents he is the subject of a hate campaign? A figure so cold and aloof the most passionate fan club in motor racing are reluctant to embrace him? These and many more questions pursue Michael Schumacher as earnestly as any rival. They rush at him with such intensity and frequency you feel they must consume his thoughts and energies more than any number of races or test sessions, rendering the job untenable and life unbearable.

Bad enough that he should have come to grief at the first corner in his last two outings, failed to finish four out of the last five grands prix and had a 22-point lead in the drivers' championship reduced to two, he has also had to endure public debate over his driving ethics and morals. However, far from buckling under the weight of the scrutiny and polemics, he draws strength from it, interpreting this as reaffirmation of his status as the world's preeminent driver.

There remains too much to achieve, too much to relish for the 31-year-old German. The challenge, after winning two titles with Benetton, to become Ferrari's first champion since 1979 is, of course, a crusade and a matter of pride. The more fundamental satisfaction is evident here, at the team's test track, around the corner from the factory and emotional epicentre at Maranello. "It's quite a long time since I won my last championship, five years, so that provides motivation to go on," he says. "And then the goal is very high to win it with Ferrari. These are the two main factors.

"Plus I enjoy it. There is so much pleasure testing, trying to get it right, always trying to improve. This last run I did, these 10 laps, they were within a few hundredths of a second and you just feel so good and you say to yourself: 'Oh, great'. It is fun and if you have fun your job is easy."

The recent past, as well as other spells in his nine years in Formula One, cannot have been fun. And the recurring questions cannot be ignored. "In life you never get all the people to agree with what you feel, what you think, what you do," he says, sitting in the shade of a tree. "There will always be people, whatever you do, who will not agree with you. I have learnt that."

The lessons have palpably reinforced his immune system. He finds reason, if not logic, in his troubles, and moulds it into a protective cell. "Sure, it would be more pleasant if there were none of these polemics, but the guys who are always at the front have not been there without being in this kind of situation. If I am in this situation it means I am up at the front so I honestly prefer it.

"Any job brings controversy. A doctor's job, a footballer's job. They all have side-effects. There is no job in the world without a bad side. Naturally, I sometimes feel unhappy and things could be better. I have my bad moods. But nothing has gone far enough to make me want to stop, to say that's enough. I can deal with what is going on around me in the negative sense.

"There are too many opportunities to get out in your car and feel you are doing a good job. There may come a time when there won't be enough opportunities to prove myself and feel the happiness anymore, when the unhappy side is too much in relation to the rest. That may be the sign for me. But right now I'm not close to that."

His detractors may be saddened to hear this. David Coulthard, Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve have been his most vociferous critics this year. In his own country reaction in sections of the media has turned into rampant paranoia, to the extent that Giancarlo Fisichella, the Italian driver who collided with Schumacher in the German Grand Prix, has been implicated in the so-called "hate campaign". Schumacher disassociates himself with the theory, insisting that Fisichella is among his friends and not his enemies in Formula One. "What happened at Hockenheim was a racing accident. Both Giancarlo and I went off the track. It was unfortunate for both of us and that's about it.

"I hear all these theories about jealousies and so on. I would say I have quite a lot of friends in Formula One but there are also those I don't have a relationship with and others who don't like me in particular. But then those guys who maybe don't like me will have other drivers who don't like them. So it's nothing unusual."

Schumacher's grand prix career has been unusual, not to say phenomenal, from the start. It was clear he was out of the ordinary the moment he set foot in the Formula One paddock and, since the death of Ayrton Senna, six years ago, he has been a cut above all others.

"I have always been in a kind of spotlight. I was rather successful from the start, and the first German to win the championship. Certain impressions of me were fixed early in my career, without being true, and when something comes along which fits the impression, people will say: 'Ah well, he has always been like this'."

Many people will say, as they have always said, that it is his arrogance they find intolerable. Schumacher confronts this charge with candour and, perhaps, a hint of humility. "It depends who it comes from. If it comes from your enemies then you don't bother, it's not worth thinking about. But if not then it makes you think. I try to look at myself and see what is true and not true. I believe what I see is not an arrogant person.

"I appear sometimes to people like this because I have to build up a kind of protection and block up. I have to concentrate on my job and if that means I cannot be available to everyone then I'm sorry, but it has to be this way.

"Most of the people understand that and don't call me arrogant. There are a few that do and maybe sometimes they are right, and maybe sometimes they are wrong. But when I say maybe sometimes they are right, maybe they haven't actually looked deep into the situation and why it is like this. Our life is quite artificial. Basically these people do not know me.

"I have my wife, my two kids, my family, my friends. I have enough people close to me whom I trust and who know me and what is going on."

Some in his position might court the affection of the public, especially an Italian public for whom affinity to Ferrari is both a birthright and an obligation. Schumacher cannot bring himself to do that, and so may never be as popular here as drivers such as Gilles Villeneuve, Jean Alesi or even the man occupying the team's other car, Rubens Barrichello. You could not, for instance, envisage Schumacher on the podium in tears, as the Brazilian was at Hockenheim.

"I'm probably too German for a lot of the tifosi," he acknowledges. "Too serious, not enough ups and downs, not enough emotions. Not like Alesi. People love that, particularly in Italy. Plus there is the language barrier, although I have improved my Italian quite a bit.

"But again, how many tifosi actually know me? They see me in the racing car and that's about it. It's not in my nature to go out to them. I'm a person who likes the quiet and the balance between business and privacy. That may not attract the tifosi to my side but then you have to keep the balance for yourself and find out what is right for you."

Delivery of the championship would doubtless draw him closer to the bosom of the tifosi and he shows few indications that he is losing his appetite for the constant grind of racing, testing and training the cause demands. He continues to seek improvement, analysing and re-analysing his every lap, recognising he does have weaknesses.

"I'm not perfect, not at all. There are areas where I may sometimes lean back a little. It comes to my attention and I raise myself again. But there are certain important things and disciplines which are simply natural. You do it and go through it without thinking about it. It's part of the game, so I don't need to force myself to do it.

"There are other things, like training, where maybe I take a day off. It does not happen very often, but here and there it does happen, and then I feel bad afterwards, which is good because it keeps me doing it."

The McLaren-Mercedes pair Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen are level in second place in the drivers' championship but Schumacher suspects the Finn, champion for the past two years, rather than the Scotsman will emerge as his main challenger in the six grands prix that are left this season. "Mika was a bit down or slow for a while. It will help if he stays that way!"

On the face of it Barrichello, now only 10 points behind, is also a contender, but Ferrari's No 1 driver reminds us: "Although Rubens has been the fastest team-mate I have ever had, I'm faster."

Schumacher suggests that, when there appears on the scene a younger driver capable of threatening him as the fastest in this business, he will see that as a sign he should take his leave. Physically, he believes, he is capable of going on until he is 40. "Whether I will do it until then, we will have to see."

He is adamant he will not follow Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost into team management when he retires. "You have to have certain abilities," he says. "I have the ability to drive a racing car fast, I don't see myself having the ability to run a team. Plus, I do not have the passion to do that. I want to have a different life with my family afterwards."

The ravages of the job seem not to be hastening the prospect of retirement. Medical checks during a recent test at Mugello, Ferrari's other circuit, in Tuscany, perhaps provided further ammunition for those who contend he is barely human.

"They measured my heart beat and it was below 100, and I was doing good times on a long run," he says. "In the 1995 Benetton it was 130 to 140, because that was a difficult car. But even that was low compared with Ayrton, who was measured in Brazil at 160 to 170. So I was surprised at these figures. But then this Ferrari is a good car and you don't have to fight that much with it to be fast. That obviously helps you to be relaxed."

Schumacher could be forgiven acute anxiety, fighting for five years as he has to win the championship with Ferrari. If only he had gone to McLaren... "I decided when I came to Ferrari that was the way to go, this was the challenge I wanted, so there is no point thinking about anything else. It has been hard, harder than I thought, but the balance, especially this year, has been in my favour and enjoyable. We have had a bad spell, but again, there is no point in thinking about what has happened. Maybe when the season is finished you think back, but I believe I am fated to win it this year. I am relaxed because I feel we will turn it around.

"It is a team sport, more so than in the past. We haven't won the championship together so far because we have all failed to some degree and have paid the price. I hope this time we get what we deserve."

The cynics would put a twist on that sentiment but he presses on regardless. He was still on the circuit at nine o'clock in the evening. One man and his car, in near-perfect harmony, playing to the gallery, still awe struck, still clinging to the fencing.