THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: The human Schumacher

Ferrari's German genius arrives at next Sunday's British Grand Prix chasing his third world title. Derick Allsop met him
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Michael Schumacher accelerated, veered right then turned sharp left and nipped smartly between the two Ferrari trucks to the team's motorhome. A few wide-eyed admirers were left feeling much as the world's grand prix racing drivers do.

Suddenly after months of expressing pessimism to the point of being ridiculed by his opponents - including his younger brother Ralf - Schumacher is willing to concede the world championship might be within his compass and when he chooses to be lucid, he is well-nigh unstoppable. Three wins in four races and a 14-point lead over the faltering Jacques Villeneuve going into Sunday's British Grand Prix would suggest that Williams-Renault do, indeed, have trouble on their hands.

As Schumacher disappeared into his mobile sanctuary, Ross Brawn, the technical director and guru whom Schumacher insisted Ferrari head-hunt, confirmed his driver's shift up the psychological gears.

"He's got the taste," Brawn said with a patron's air. "He never gives less than 100 per cent but there's a difference between believing you have a chance and not believing you have a realistic chance. It's a mental thing."

Or a human thing, which might come as a surprise to some observers of Schumacher's vertical rise in Formula One. Raw material, perhaps, for those who have described him as mechanical, computerised and other things less charitable.

The German smiled as he recollected the jibes during another break from testing at Silverstone. "The point is I'm written dead," he said. "So people have to come up with new stories about me.

"It was a kind of fashion to write about me as a computer. Because one started it, everyone followed it. I don't particularly like it when people call me that but it doesn't hurt because I know what I am and I know it's not true."

What he is now, apart from being extremely wealthy and famous, is a father, Gina Maria having arrived five months ago. The family Schumacher live in splendid isolation near Geneva, but once out of the gate he is captive once more to the fan and the merely curious.

"It is not as private as I would like it to be," he said. "I just want to be known as a very normal person and be treated as that and be able to walk down the street like anyone else."

"People get excited around me and behave differently than they would normally. I don't feel different from anyone else, except that I drive a racing car round in circles faster than somebody else."

He is not, of course, naive enough to miss the point encapsulated in those few words. To be more precise, he drives a racing car round in circles faster than any of his contemporaries and possibly faster than any of his predecessors.

Interviews are part of the routine demanded not only be the media but also by his sponsors, who contribute to an annual income reckoned to be at least pounds 50m. A quick sound-bite here, an in-depth one-to-one there. The thirst for his views and the search for "the real man behind the visor" have intensified with every wondrous deed.

His acknowledgement of the challenge for a third championship at the age of 28 has strained the talking schedule still further. He contends, as many leading sportsmen and women do, that he "does not take the press too seriously" but he has found the media useful in the pursuit of his own needs.

He has proved as adept at manipulating newspapers, magazines, television and radio as he has his cars. Remember his verbal dismantling of Damon Hill at a critical moment of their duel. He is equally capable of playing a straight bat when he chooses to. As any of his rivals will testify, he is not easily lured into a false stroke.

Schumacher has been more selective in his words without stifling his opinion on a range of topics, a lesson he learned after a skirmish early in his Formula One career and one Villeneuve has been advised to take in.

For instance, on the regulations for next season, the source of Villeneuve's clash with the FIA, the sport's governing body, Schumacher is more circumspect. Villeneuve condemned Formula One as "too safe" and has vociferously opposed the concept of narrower cars and grooved tyres. Schumacher favours a diplomatic stance.

"I don't want to argue against the regulations," he says. "I feel we should try it and find out."

And safety? "I feel there is no circuit on earth that is too safe. What is the difference, as far as the spectators are concerned, between a corner where I know that if I go off I can hurt myself and a corner where I won't hurt myself. Why not make it safe? As a racing driver, I want to go at maximum speed through a corner.

"For me there is no greater satisfaction than to run through a corner which I know is dangerous and I have gone through it as fast as I know it is safe to do so. I will always try to drive [to the point] just before the car goes sideways and doesn't actually go off."

Then try him on the thorny subject of entertainment, that element patently lacking in much of modern grand prix racing. Overtaking is largely a spectacle of the past, races decided instead by grid positions and the scheduling of pit stops.

Schumacher, a prime exponent of pit-stop ploys, said: "I agree grands prix should be decided by racing, but since I have been in Formula One overtaking has been almost impossible, so I was pleased we had the possibility of pit stops.

"So far we have not found the rules to get racing back to what it was. We should at least be able to overtake and the best team should be the winner. I would certainly like the opportunity to overtake and race people. That's why I spend all the winter karting because that's how I get the satisfaction I'm losing during the year.

"It shouldn't be that way but it is, and it is even the case to some extent in Formula Three and Formula 3,000. At the moment I feel it is a bit of a fashion to write about this, but to be honest it has been like this for several years."

Maturity has long been evident in Schumacher's driving and general demeanour, but the gap between him and the rest appears to grow by the race. He may well be improving still, but it does appear the opposition is in the process of self-destructing.

As he spells it out: "It would be a different situation if Williams had not made so many mistakes and Villeneuve had finished more races. That is very clear.

"But we have made a good step forward. I was genuinely not expecting to win in France because our test was not good there. Now we look better at Silverstone also, although Williams are still very strong and there are still nine races left and many things can happen yet."

The signs of recovery were sustained in testing at the Northamptonshire circuit last week, and while Williams remain the team to beat, Schumacher is the man to beat.

Few within Formula One doubt that the influence of Brawn has enhanced Schumacher's prospects. The Englishman has been brought in from Benetton to redirect the team operation and Rory Byrne, another former Benetton stalwart, to design the car following Ferrari's split with John Barnard, who declined to abandon his lair in Surrey.

Schumacher said pointedly: "Things happen in one place now instead of two places. In my view, Ross will have a big impact for the future, and he has already in terms of working methods. He is very clear-thinking, logical and organised."

That clear-thinking, logical organisation will, Schumacher believes, achieve fulfilment next season, no matter what transpires this. "The structure is set, the people are there. Things are happening already for next year's car. They have enough time to prepare themselves and get things sorted out so they should be able to do a good car for next season."

This season's car, much maligned by Schumacher and others earlier in the campaign, has become, with a few astute modifications, good enough, in his hands, to out-manoeuvre Williams. His victory in last week's French Grand Prix, supported by Eddie Irvine's third place, delivered a potentially devastating blow to the British team.

Schumacher's status wields almost absolute power. He commands a salary of pounds 20m for his driving - a figure Williams deemed beyond their means - and he calls the shots on everything from executive appointments to testing rotas. Little wonder Irvine, his No 2, emphasises his willingness to toe the Schumacher line as he presents his case for a new contract with the Italians.

A dutiful partner is essential to Schumacher's modus operandi. Any team would accept his terms because he delivers. Benetton are now discovering the full value of his sublime talent; so are Williams; more importantly, so are Ferrari.