On the fast track to immortality

NIRMAL SHEKAR

Forget the drivers' championship. There is just no chance - Gerhard Berger.

MODERN sport, at the highest levels, is full of posturing. It is fuelled by hype. It is packaged in bravura. In an age of show-bizification and media saturation, sport is full of extravagant exaggeration.

AFP

It's all about moving mountains, all about reaching for the moon, all about bringing off the impossible.

Of course, this is not merely about sunny optimism, courage and self-confidence. It goes way beyond that. It is quite often about convincing yourself - and everybody around you, not the least the opposition - that the donkey in your command is actually a thoroughbred race horse!

Half the victory is won away from the field in psychological battles waged in newspaper sports columns, on television and in events leading up to the big day on the field, on the track, in the ring, or wherever.

Even a player ranked 218, one who has made his way through the qualifying minefield, believes, the moment he makes the main draw at Wimbledon, that he has a chance to win the biggest of them all, that he has the game to beat Pete Sampras on grass.

Even the Nagamootoos of this world, when they walk up to the bowling crease, do so in the belief that they have the skills to get Sachin Tendulkar out in a Test match. And sometimes, as we all know, they do so too.

You don't need sports pychologists to tell you that matches/fights/contests are often won and lost in the mind, that believing in your abilities, by itself, gets you halfway to the destination.

Nobody, nobody, really, admits defeat in sport before the event is played out. For, doing so would mean you are negating the basic principle of sport, that you are killing its very soul.

In the event, what is it that prompted a man as experienced in the Formula One business as Berger to say what he did? What kind of force might have moved him to utter those sacrilegious words?

There is no chance!

That is exactly what Berger, Motorsport Director of BMW, and whose engines power the Williams cars of Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher - brilliant young contenders for the drivers' title - said after the Spanish Grand Prix recently, talking about the possibility of either of the Williams drivers ending up as champion this season. And only five races have been run!

Futility. Berger, a pragmatic man, understands futility. He recognises its dark face instantly. In another era, he came face to face with it as a driver starting from a grid that featured a man called Ayrton Senna.

Today, as a behind-the-scenes person, Berger, with a sure sense of deja vu, reads futility for what it is as he attempts to get one of his boys to pose a serious challenge to Michael Schumacher.

In the dog-eat-dog world of professional sport at the highest levels, seldom do you come across such candid assessments. But, then, perhaps, Berger's admission goes way beyond mere candour.

For, once in a long while, in the world of sport, there comes a champion who possesses such a magnificent and rare combination of virtues - skills, courage, technique, reflexes, mental attitude, physical fitness - that even his greatest rivals slowly reconcile themselves to the fact that he is so very special and they have no hope of catching up with him.

Today, in the world of sport, there is no more glittering example of such an all-conquering champion than Michael Schumacher, winner of four drivers' championships and a record 57 Grands Prix, and overwhelming favourite to take a record-equalling (Juan Manuel Fangio won five) fifth this season.

Tiger Woods in golf. Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne in cricket. Pete Sampras in tennis, not long ago. Michael Jordan in basketball in his first and second avatars. All these are dominant champions.

But, it is unlikely that any of these men ever had the aura of invincibility that surrounds Michael Schumacher today.

"The championship is a foregone conclusion," says Eddie Irvine, former Ferrari team-mate of Michael Schumacher. "It won't be good for the show if Schumacher keeps on winning but it will be great the day someone beats him. That will be a bigger show than if he got beat every weekend."

Schumacher getting beat every other weekend is something that would get you the same sort of odds as the possibility of Elvis Presley being sighted alive. Truth to tell, it would be easier to believe that a dead man can come back to life miraculously.

On the other hand, the sport does lose out on drama because of one man's dominance.

"It is boring at the minute but he (Schumacher) could screw up quite easily and storm through the grid and finish second. You never know with F1," says Irvine who now drives for Jaguar.

Of course, the first axiom of sport is that you never know what is going to happen next. If you did, you would much rather not watch it at all. The fun is gone. The pulse-racing sensation is lost. Predictability is sport's worst enemy.

The great German driver has millions of fans around the world who would stay glued to the TV screen even if he was leading by a full minute with 10 laps to go. But there is also a genre of fans that follow the sport for its cutting edge of high-voltage excitement. And if Schumacher wins fortnight after fortnight after fortnight, some of them might lose interest.

In the event, if you asked me, the best way to inject some drama into Formula One would be to have Schumacher start last in the grid in every single Grand Prix. There will still not be any guarantee that the Bavarian maestro would not win, but, in the least, it will make for some drama and thrills!

Just look at the statistics of the last race in Barcelona: Schumacher beat the second placed Montoya by almost 36 seconds and he now leads the championship by 21 points after five races, having won 16 of the last 25 Grands Prix.

Thirty six seconds! That, in a sport where a micro-second can make all the difference, is something of a lifetime. That is like a 124-62 scoreline in basketball or an innings and 400 runs victory in Test cricket.

The moment I saw Schumacher take the chequered flag at Barcelona, what struck me was this: in this age of severe cost cutting in Formula One, it might perhaps be worthwhile for Ferrari to consider not spending money on rear view mirrors for the German's cars, unless he wants to keep track of the back markers who'd be a full lap and more behind! For, surely, Schumacher's chief challengers might seldom be visible in the rear view mirror.

Nobody can win all the time. But great champions win more often than not. And a handful - the greatest - win almost all the time, turning hopeless situations into famous triumphs.

Schumacher, the man with a bull's neck and Bjorn Borg's resting pulse rate, the man with an ascetic lifestyle who doesn't smoke and rarely touches alcohol, the man who can nervelessly control a car with almost godly perfection on the very edge, is, inarguably, among the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen.

"I have to say I am a big fan of Michael's because the success he has is unbelievable," said Berger in Barcelona. "Having such continued success over such a long time is not just down to the materials, it's also himself. He is doing a fantastic job on the circuit and also motivating his people and leading them in the right direction."

Quite the most amazing aspect of Schumacher's success with Ferrari has to do with the way he has motivated the mechanics and the engineers, the way he has vibed with every single member of the Italian team which was the brainchild of the late legendary Enzo Ferrari.

"Ferrari just have a strong package at the moment. There is nothing secret about it," said Berger. "It is just the result of working very hard, having the right people, putting the right commitment in."

Very true. I believe in team-work as much as anybody who's ever had anything to do with sport. But, tell me this: given the same car as Schumacher, and the same level of team support, how many drivers who featured on the grid at Barcelona would have won the race by 35-plus seconds?

The answer is, nobody. Technology and team support play a big role in Formula One, bigger perhaps than in any other sport. But they can only help to a point. They can turn an average driver like Damon Hill into a world champion during a season when things don't go right for the other teams. But they can never, ever, produce a phenomenon quite like Michael Schumacher on their own.

Technology and team-work, while they can make the average look good, can never make the good look great, or the great appear to border on the genius.

My belief is, Schumacher will look just as good in a bad car if you have the ability to tell a great driver from an average one or a mediocre one.

Even when he was struggling to match Jacques Villeneuve and then Mika Hakkinen in Ferrari cars that were not quite as good as they are now, Schumacher was masterly on occasion in the second half of the 1990s. When rain fell to make it a level playing field, so to say, the German genius beat his rivals by a mile and more.

For a connoisseur, there is no greater pleasure than watching a great driver compete in the rain. For there is no greater indicator of greatness than success in wet conditions when pure driving skills and control matter more than ever.

In the last several years, we have not seen a driver who has come anywhere close to Schumacher in wet weather in a Grand Prix. I have only seen one man who was better than the German in similar conditions. And he - Senna - is dead and gone.

Like Schumacher a few years ago, Senna, driving an under-powered car often struggled to match men like Nigel Mansell more often than not but put considerable distance between himself and the rest when it started raining or when the circuit was tight as in Monte Carlo.

"A Formula One car is really an animal because it responds to different kinds of treatment. A highly bred racehorse, a thoroughbred in its sensitivity and nervousness," said Jackie Stewart, three times world champion, many, many years ago.

This is true even today. For all the advantages that can be derived from superior technology, it is still the driver who is the key player. While the Ferrari team's dedication and hard work have played a major role in Schumacher's success, it is the champion's genius that has made for his domination of the sport.

"I think everybody is resigned to the fact that Schumacher is going to be world champion again and everybody is fighting to be second, third or fourth," says Toyota's Allan McNish.

Rarely have so many men spent so much energy and money and time in any sport to gain the No. 2 or No. 3 spot. But, then, rarely has Formula One seen a driver as great as Michael Schumacher is. In the last quarter of a century, we have seen only one driver - Senna - who would have matched Schumacher drive for drive, given similar cars.

Senna and Schumacher starting from pole position and No. 2 on the grid in the last race of the season - in cars of equal strength - with the championship at stake...ah, what a dream! Unfortunately, time, and the harsh realities of sport, will not permit such glorious fantasies.

But what the hell...while you are at it, throw in a spot of rain there, in that dream scenario. It won't hurt.