Ice Man of Formula One beginning to thaw

At the end of the final race of 2002 — with the world championship sewn up in record time four months beforehand — the Ferrari mechanics were hanging around in the Suzuka paddock itching to party.

SARAH EDWORTHY

At the end of the final race of 2002 — with the world championship sewn up in record time four months beforehand — the Ferrari mechanics were hanging around in the Suzuka paddock itching to party. Michael Schumacher had ordered 12 bottles of Bacardi (mixing Cuba Libres, cigar dangling from lips, is his end-of-season speciality), but celebrations were delayed. And delayed further. The champion remained absorbed in discussion in a briefing room, buzzing with ideas for next year's car. Hadn't he asked for an additional function on one of the 19 buttons on his steering wheel? This would give a small advantage if it were fitted now before the winter break.

"At the moment, very clearly, I could not imagine this (racing) passion to stop. It has always been part of my life, and I never had a feeling it is weakening. To me, a life without motorsport is unthinkable _ having four wheels around me is perfect," says Michael Schumacher. -- Pic. AFP-

Schumacher's success stems from his groundedness, his focus, the fact that his motivation remains the same: he simply loves the challenge of taking a car to its limits. Ask about his dreams, his secret wishes, and the man now deemed the equal of Juan Manuel Fangio responds swiftly and always with the same word: anonymity.

After 11 full seasons in Formula One, five of which have seen him crowned world champion, the trained mechanic from Kerpen who concedes he would be equally happy fixing go-karts for a living is uncomfortable with global hero status. "I don't want it, I have a problem with it. I am just like everyone else, I just happen to be able to drive fast,'' he says.

The longest stretch of invisibility he has achieved was the winter break in 2001, when he, his wife, Corinna, and family retreated to Norway. "Or maybe the time after the accident I had in Silverstone 1999, when I stayed at home in Switzerland with a broken leg for around three months,'' he ponders.

Schumacher, conducting the interview a month after his mother's death, also admits that the environment which has put his image in petrol stations and on advertising billboards the world over is not one to which he wants to introduce his young children. He never brings Gina and Mick into the F-1 paddock lest they mistake this "artificial world,'' as he dubs it, for normality. If little Mick grows up to announce a passion for racing, will the legendary father be happy to guide his son?

"If I could, I would prefer to steer him away from a racing track on to some golf course because I have seen with Jacques Villeneuve or Damon Hill, or even with my brother, Ralf, what burden a name can be, and I would not want him to be constantly compared with me or to not be able to establish his own name,'' he says.

"But then, if he has a passion — you know, like our parents who always supported Ralf and myself in anything we really wanted — I would support my son as well.''

Schumacher was talking on the publication of a book he has collaborated on with journalist Sabine Kehm. Gloriously unguarded — the German recalls how nothing in life has outraged him as much as the incident at Spa in 1998 which caused him to accuse David Coulthard of wanting to kill him; Corinna talks about her fears, her raceday rituals, even how they bathe together — it teems with insightful anecdotes and gives a genuine sense of how Schumacher, the icon of his sport, functions as a human being.

As a competitor, Kehm likens Schumacher's philosophy to that of Sepp Herberger, coach of the 1954 World Cup-winning German football team:

"After the game, the game is only beginning.'' He has never been a dreamer. He doesn't even do hope. His starting point is a fundamental pessimism. In the car he is immaculately precise, the embodiment of control, but, surprisingly race weekends are often marred with sleeplessness.

He travelled to Japan in 2000 — where he ultimately brought Ferrari their emotional first championship crown for 21 years — with this attitude: "It could have been on the cards that I would leave Japan two points behind the winner. That's the way I have to approach such matters. It's simply the way I am: I always start by being pessimistic.''

Schumacher's F-1 debut at Spa in 1991 came after a blistering test at Silverstone in a Jordan to see whether he was good enough to stand in for absent driver Bertrand Gachot. Only now does Schumacher reveal how he squirmed as his manager, Willi Weber, told a "little white lie,'' confirming the difficult Belgian circuit was part of Schumacher's repertoire when in fact the 22-year-old had no experience of the track at all. However, Schumacher's tendency to worry has never extended to his ability inside a cockpit.

"Of course I was concerned! I mean, as I had this test in Silverstone before I was okay, I knew I could handle the car, but still I had the vague feeling of F-1 as a `superior' racing class and wondered if I could be a part of it — testing is different from racing. On the other hand I was calm as I knew worrying about would not change anything in the way I drove.''

Equally fulfilling as a qualifying lap that puts him on pole can be the perfect testing lap. As Ferrari principal Jean Todt puts it: "The track is his drug.''

Can the driver himself foresee a time when he loses his addiction to the challenge?

"To be honest, I don't know. At the moment, very clearly, I could not imagine this passion to stop. It has always been part of my life, and I never had a feeling it is weakening. To me, a life without motorsport is unthinkable — having four wheels around me is perfect. You know, in the end I am crazy enough to participate in karting races against boys who have half my age after a long season. No, I cannot foresee such a time when this is gone.''

A black spot on this boyish enthusiasm remains Jerez 1997, the championship-deciding race in which Schumacher turned his car into Jacques Villeneuve's — described in the book as an "act of desperation'' for which he was punished by the FIA. Were his children to ask about it in years ahead, how would he describe it? A moment of impetuosity, or madness? A mistake? Something he is ashamed of? A lesson learnt?

"Maybe all of this? I could not describe it better than you did here now. It was clearly a mistake, and if I could re-do something in my racing-life, that would be it,'' he agrees.

If this act betrayed the hot-headed human behind the cool tactician, his show of tears at Monza 2000 prompted a re-assessment of Schumacher, the otherwise robotic performer. That was the race in which he equalled Senna's 41 wins but also saw a marshall fatally injured. The German newspaper, Bild, ran the headline "Schumi we have seen your heart.'' Was it a relief, after all, to be seen as someone who harbours admirable emotions?

"Yes and no. Sure I felt better because of this, but on the other hand I had anyway never really understood that perception of me being cold, so at the same time I did not feel the need to "prove'' I am just a bloke like others. Actually I had difficulties with this attitude: OK, he cried, so he is human, so he must have emotions. Strange, isn't it? I mean just because I don't show them in public it does not mean I don't have them.''

Corinna Schumacher tells how her husband, the glue of the Ferrari team, has the same role at home.

"With Michael, everything is so harmonious,'' she says. "It feels as if there is a link between us, at all times. We are always touching each other, we do it automatically. We simply have to. Our children now do it, too. When we are eating, for example, we all sit very close together. Sometimes, I have to laugh, because we are pressed up so closely together that we can hardly eat. And it's not as if we don't have a large table.''

At the end of 2002, the relentless success of Schumacher and Ferrari bored spectators. Putting himself in the place of an average paying spectator, would he have decried the lack of excitement too? "I think this opinion was also partly down to the fact that many people concentrated very much on the top of the drivers' field. But motorsport is not only about the top, there were a lot of fascinating battles in the area behind which too few people were concerned with. I think I would have watched the race from out of the eyes of a motorsport-enthusiast and enjoyed the level of battling for positions.''

Schumacher left Benetton after two world championships saying he needed fresh motivation. Where does he get that now he has collected three more world titles at Ferrari?

"There is always a new race to come, so there is always new motivation. You know, I love what I do, so I do wonder why people wonder why I am motivated in doing this. Plus, why should I be less motivated because I have had success? It's the other way around, especially — and this is the nice thing about sport — as it is always only the next race that counts. The last one is over. You do not win something because you won in the past.''

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003 Schumacher: Driving Force is published in Britain by Ebury Press.