Schumacher's drive for fulfilment

This season will test Germany's world champion, says Derick Allsop
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Michael Schumacher fixed his eyes on the old newspaper cutting and smiled resignedly. Had he changed since he first appeared in Formula One, four and a half years ago? "I certainly change my hair, and my face," said the leaner, sleeker German.

The expression of the 27-year-old altered as he acknowledged the sport had accelerated the ageing process. "I have got older a lot quicker during my Formula One career," he said. "And sure, I have changed as a person. I have grown up, and developed myself. Some people think in the right direction, some the wrong direction, but I have developed the way I wanted to. I have more understanding about things."

Schumacher has experienced the emotional extremes of a lifetime since he made his Formula One debut, for Jordan-Ford, in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. He has been catapulted to the peak of his profession, becoming Germany's first world champion and the youngest double winner of motor racing's ultimate prize. A contract with Ferrari understood to be worth pounds 25m (pounds 16.8m) a year is testimony to his stature.

There has, however, been a heavy burden to bear. He soon discovered that privacy is a priceless and unattainable luxury at this level. Controversy and suspicion, on the other hand, have been constant companions. He has had confrontations with the authorities and his main rival, Damon Hill.

And yet these incidents have been little more than irritations compared with the traumatic realisation that grand prix racing can still kill. The death of Ayrton Senna made him agonise over his future. So, too, did Mika Hakkinen's serious accident in practice for the final race of last season, in Australia.

Schumacher admits he had to be persuaded by his boss at Benetton-Renault, Flavio Briatore, and Formula One's impresario, Bernie Ecclestone, to get back into his car at Adelaide. "Flavio was afraid I wouldn't get into the car at all," he said, "and took me to Bernie, who showed me the pictures from the on-board camera.

"This showed me Mika had a mechanical failure and therefore I was able to get in the car again. But I had seen that if a driver as good as Mika could make a mistake and the result was so serious, then I could make a mistake as well. I would have the same risk as Mika. When you get older you think more about these things."

That revelation should not be misinterpreted as a loss of nerve. Schumacher has always known his limits and insists he has yet to fulfil himself. Hence the engagement in a fresh challenge at Ferrari, the team who last had a champion driver in 1979.

Schumacher, who makes his debut in the scarlet car at Melbourne tomorrow, has prepared himself and everyone else for reliability problems this season, propelled as he is by a new V10 engine. "We cannot expect to win the championship this year," he said. "We have been getting to know each other and learning how to work with each other. We have a new car and engine, but putting all these things together takes time. It is more realistic to think about the championship in 1997."

Already, however, you sense Schumacher is galvanising the team the way he did at Benetton. John Barnard, Ferrari's English designer, has been coaxed out from his Surrey lair to involve himself more in on-track activity in compliance with the No 1 driver's requirements.

Order, restraint and efficiency threaten to take over the fabled emotional, tempestuous stable of the Prancing Horse. All of which may well alienate Ferrari's disciples and reinforce the belief of Schumacher's detractors that he is a soulless, arrogant, ruthless automaton. Or words to that effect.

He takes the view he is straight talking. He makes no apologies, especially to Damon Hill, for being ruthless. "Sure I am," he said. "I am also twice world champion and Damon has twice been second."

The British driver, outfought in the verbal skirmishes as well as in the racing, has declared himself uninterested in anything Schumacher has to say, but the flow of words coming towards him has not dried up.

"Damon has to be the favourite this season," Schumacher said. "He has the best car, he knows the team and everything is there for him. It all depends on how he handles the pressure. Damon is quick. But if he has problems and things do not go as well as he would like, he may not be able to take the pressure. We shall see."

Briatore, under pressure to keep Benetton at the top without Schumacher, suggests his former driver has manoeuvred himself into a snug position this year: "If Michael wins the championship, he will get all the credit for it. If he doesn't, it will be Ferrari's fault."

He is right, of course. But then that is a measure of Schumacher's reputation. No other current driver commands comparable respect.

Ferrari's public teething problems with their new car have further eased the expectations. There are, however, precedents for an unlikely first-race victory. Schumacher managed very little running with Ford's Zetec R engine before the 1994 season, but won the opener in Brazil. Nigel Mansell was so convinced his Ferrari would fail in his debut with the team at Brazil in 1989 he booked an early flight home. He missed it because the car kept going and finished first.

It appears highly improbable, but if Schumacher wins the championship again this year it will, as Briatore says, be down to him. It will also be just about the greatest success of them all.