On a Friday morning in August 1991, I was in the Jordan garage at Spa to watch Michael Schumacher take part in his first official session as a Grand Prix driver. Nearly 19 years later I made sure I was at Valencia to witness the start of a new and unexpected chapter in a career story that has already taken more twists and turns than a Hollywood epic.
As Michael edged his Mercedes into the pitlane dozens of photographers and TV cameramen were present to capture the moment, a clear indication of the interest he’s stirred up and a portent of the chaotic scenes that are likely to follow at every race this year. When he stepped out of the car he had a huge smile on his face. Not known for dwelling on the past, he had made the same connection that I had.
“In a way it’s like ’91,” he said. “When I came into Formula 1 I was shocked on the first lap, and I was extremely excited on the second and further laps. It was exactly that today. I feel like a young boy that has a toy in his hands and just enjoys himself!”
For Michael Schmidt of Auto Motor und Sport – a long-time confidante of Schumacher and Germany’s most influential F1 journalist – the comeback is a mixed blessing. He’s pleased the sport is back in the spotlight, but at the same time he’s frustrated by his countrymen’s continued focus on one man.
“The impact is unbelievable,” says Schmidt. “F1 has woken up again! The problem is that Michael is a synonym for F1 in Germany. The old RTL TV boss once said, ‘There are three sports in the world for us: soccer, tennis and Michael Schumacher!’ He didn’t mention the name F1.
“In Michael’s high days they didn’t use him to promote the sport, they only promoted Michael. So obviously they were left in trouble once he had retired. Even with Sebastian Vettel, who had a chance to win the championship last year, the TV numbers came down from 10 to 11 million with Michael, to maybe five to six million.
“We had a good driver, a young guy who is more open to the media, but it didn’t help. All of a sudden Michael comes back, and the whole enthusiasm is back, as if there was no F1 in the last three years.”
Few people know Schumacher better than Sabine Kehm. A former journalist, she has worked with him for 10 years, initially in a press officer role and latterly as managing director of his Swiss-based company. Even she has been stunned by the interest.
“It’s been massive, but not only in Germany,” she says. “A lot of interest from Asia, especially from India, and this time significantly a lot of interest also from the USA. It’s a typical American story, in a way. I think they’re very interested in this story, him coming back and putting himself at risk of losing against the young guys.”
Kehm chose to stay with Michael after his last start with Ferrari at Brazil in 2006. She never expected to accompany him to a GP again.
“I definitely was convinced that was it. And I would have said the same even after the comeback try last summer. I thought then, that was it. Every time I would have been fully convinced, and every time I also think Michael himself was fully convinced…”
So what led Schumacher to sign a contract that will see him at Mercedes until the end of 2012, when he will be just two months short of his 44th birthday? It’s a story that Hollywood would have struggled to invent.
Key is Michael’s decision to retire in the first place. At the time many of us felt he was pushed out, and the man himself reinforced that view by confirming he had made his call early in ’06 so as to let Felipe Massa know he would still have a job. With Kimi Räikkönen coming, there was an awkward three-into-two won’t go scenario. But Kehm insists Schumacher had in any case sensed the time was right.
“It was really one of the first races of 2006 where he felt something. Then there was Felipe, and they got along very well. For him it was ‘giving over my car to somebody I like. He’s good, he’s talented, he’s young, and it’s a nice thing to be able to give a car to a friend’. That was kind of his feeling.”
Usually drivers stop when they realise they no longer wish to explore the limits, or an instinct for self-preservation kicks in. With Michael it was more a question of being worn out by 15 years at the very top of his game.
“There certainly wasn’t an element of suddenly seeing a risk or a danger in driving,” says Kehm. “That I’m sure of. In those days every time you’d come back from a race, you started testing again. He was constantly into it, and he was beginning to get tired from the constant attention.
“That was to a great extent why Michael felt he didn’t have the energy any more to really have himself on the spot for doing that. He was tired for these constant demands from everywhere, where he felt that he couldn’t fulfil all these demands anymore.”
A three-year deal as a Ferrari consultant, with some F1 testing thrown in, made it easier for him to wind down. However as soon as he returned to a Grand Prix weekend he looked a little uncomfortable. He did do a bit of testing, but that stopped when it became obvious that, with ever tighter restrictions, the race drivers needed all the mileage they could get.
The general perception was that he didn’t really have a properly defined role at Ferrari, but Kehm disagrees.
“I can fully understand that to the outside it sometimes looked a bit strange, but his actual work or link to the race car department was not at the races so much. He was present at the pre-race meetings and the after-race meetings. Coming back from a race, on the Tuesday or Wednesday, all the different departments sit together and discuss.”
As the seasons ticked away, and Michael’s insight became less relevant, he became more closely involved in developing Ferrari road cars, something he clearly loved.
But what really caught the attention was his attempt at going bike racing. Calling it a midlife crisis might be an exaggeration, but it was pretty obvious he still needed the buzz of competition, albeit at a modest level. And yet it seemed crazy for him to expose himself to danger.
“I have to say, as with a lot of things around Michael, this was totally exaggerated,” says Kehm. “He did it very carefully. At the start he let himself fall behind, to get out of the casino in the front. One race he didn’t participate in because it started raining. So he did it in a very responsible way. He was really trying to improve himself, and he liked it a lot. He could well understand that he was not at the level of MotoGP or something, but he was improving extremely fast.
“People were counting accidents, but it was just that you are in a corner, and the bike slides away. He came back and maybe his suit was a little scratched, and that was it. It’s exactly what you do when you try to improve, and you try to find out how far you can go. There was literally one accident, which was the famous one.”
The ‘famous one’ occurred when Schumacher fell off his Honda Fireblade at Cartagena, Spain on February 11, 2009. A local doctor initially gave him a clean bill of health, and it was only several days later in Switzerland that four separate neck injuries were diagnosed. The bike racing was put on hold.
Fate then intervened on July 25 when Massa was injured in Hungary – ironically by a spring thrown from a car built by Schumacher’s future team, and driven by his former team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Like I said, Hollywood couldn’t make it up. Michael soon emerged as Ferrari’s replacement of choice.
“We spoke Sunday, Monday and Tuesday,” says Kehm. “But at this time I was more towards the feeling that he wouldn’t do it. He was very sceptical at that point, because he didn’t really have the feeling that he wanted to go back.
“I remember he called me on the Wednesday, when he had the meeting with [Ferrari president] Luca [di Montezemolo]. He said, ‘I’m just coming out of this meeting.’ And I said, ‘What did you say?’ because I really wasn’t sure. He said, ‘I said, OK.’ ‘Really!’ I think he was going into that meeting thinking he’d say no, but in the end he couldn’t say that…”
Ferrari soon announced to the world that Schumacher would stand in for Massa, although in the small print it was acknowledged that he would have to prove to himself that he could do it. A test at Mugello in a 2007-spec car soon indicated that his neck wasn’t ready.
“He was going over a bump, and it was really painful. He thought maybe it would go away, but then over the weekend it didn’t at all, it intensified. So then they knew it wasn’t that the body wasn’t used to driving anymore, but it was really an after-effect of this accident.
“It was a question of time. Three of the four injuries had healed by the summer, but one had probably 20 per cent missing. It was clear to Michael that if Felipe had had his accident two months later, probably no one would even have known about the neck.
“He was extremely disappointed, and I think he was surprised himself how disappointed he was. It was, ‘I wasn’t aware I wanted it.’ It started to make him think. He was in good shape, he felt like he was ready, it was just this one thing which made it impossible. It was hard.”
Schumacher watched as first Luca Badoer and then Giancarlo Fisichella floundered around in what was clearly a difficult car. But while a flame had been reignited, he couldn’t see a way forward. Ferrari already faced a repeat of the 2006 musical chairs scenario, with the arrival of Fernando Alonso causing the team to push out Räikkönen, albeit with a substantial pay-off.
Di Montezemolo made unsubtle noises about the need for top teams to run third cars, but Michael never took the possibility too seriously.
But the seeds of something new were to be sown at a Sunday night party in Abu Dhabi. While Jenson Button celebrated his title success inside, on the outdoor terrace of the same club Schumacher had a long chat with Ross Brawn.
“We wanted to celebrate Ross’s title win,” says Kehm. “And that evening they were talking about him driving, and Michael was kind of making fun of it. Ross was saying come on, and Michael wasn’t taking it seriously. It wasn’t an option, it was a joke – entertaining gossip.”
Brawn himself says there was never any serious discussion about a Mercedes seat. As far as he knew, he already had two drivers for 2010.
“Abu Dhabi was the first time I’d spent much time with Michael since he tried to come back for Ferrari. He told me then how disappointed he was, and how excited he’d become about driving. That registered with me. But we didn’t talk about the future, because I thought at that stage our future was fairly well tied up.
“It would have been wrong from both Michael’s perspective and the team’s and Jenson’s perspectives to get into any discussions. I don’t like doing those things. It really kicked off when Jenson visited McLaren, and we realised things were spiralling in the wrong direction. So at that stage we started discussions with Michael.”
Did Ross literally ring up and say, you’ve seen what’s happened with Jenson, how about it?
“They’re your words, but they’re not far away…”
“I think Ross had seen Michael being very disappointed,” says Kehm. “And he tried a bit maybe in Abu Dhabi to see how he would react. Then when Jenson was leaving he suddenly had a serious offer to make.
“That was mid-November, and very fast I could feel that Michael was reacting. Michael knew it was the team that won the World Championship, plus the Mercedes infrastructure and it was obviously a good partnership. Plus the old Mercedes link, plus the Ross link. There were a lot of things suddenly fitting together.
“He just wanted a bit of time to think about it, talk to his family, reflect,” says Brawn. “He had a few days, and a few days later he called me and said let’s start talking seriously and see whether this can come to a positive conclusion.
“He obviously wanted to know the plans for the team, he wanted to know that I’d be around for a good while, and I was not going to take another sabbatical! He wanted to understand the strength of the team, what we’re going to do. The questions you’d expect Michael to ask, because he’s a logical and intelligent person.
“Most of the conversations I had with him were related to how we were going to do the job, what needed to be done, where the team was going, why we should be able to succeed. There were obviously a number of commercial discussions that had to happen, and they happened in parallel with that.”
Inevitably, it took time to conclude negotiations. There was no legal issue with Ferrari, as a recently announced three-year contract extension had – purely by chance – not been signed. But Brawn went on a much-needed holiday, and Schumacher was travelling to the US and Brazil, so nailing down the details wasn’t easy. The deal was completed on December 22 and announced the following day.
Had that spring not fallen off the Brawn, had Button not been romanced away by McLaren, Schumacher would never have resumed his Formula 1 racing career. To say that all the stars were in alignment is something of an understatement, as Kehm explains.
“By coincidence, everything was fitting together, and it is really by coincidence. If he hadn’t been racing bikes in 2008, he would not have kept himself so fit. If he hadn’t been so fit last summer, when he was trying to substitute for Felipe, he wouldn’t have been able to come to a level which would have enabled him to drive.
“Then, when he had this physical regime, he figured why lose it again? So he kept training, and he kept on doing a lot of karting. Again, the karting helped him. It was all kind of a chain of coincidences coming to a point.
“I’m convinced that if there had not been this Ferrari comeback try in the summer, maybe Michael would have decided differently about Mercedes. In the summer he learned two very important things. The first was that his body would still be up to it if he trained, and second he would still be able to do the driving. Even if there was the pain at Mugello, he had a level, he was constant. So when Ross called he didn’t have these two question marks. He knew from the summer that it would be possible for him.”
Yet another piece in the puzzle is the ban on in-season testing, which makes the job less draining now than it was in 2006.
“That was a big argument,” says Kehm. “I’m not sure what he would’ve done if that was not the way it is, which is also a coincidence. If he had the same amount of testing, I’m not sure he would have said yes.”
There was a clear sign in Spain that Michael intends to remove as much stress from his life as he can. For the first time he stayed in a motorhome at the track – one used by brother Ralf at DTM events – to avoid the daily hassles of commuting, and more importantly the need to be on public view in a hotel.
Last time around he fought Alonso for the championship – this time not only is the Spaniard in his car, but Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are waiting to pounce, not to mention the likes of Massa, Button, Mark Webber and his own team-mate Nico Rosberg. It’s not going to be easy.
“Of course, he’s totally aware of that, and he’s aware of the fact that maybe they’ll beat him,” says Kehm. “He knows the risk.
“I’m convinced that even if he’s not World Champion, he will not damage his reputation, because the reputation he has, nobody can take that away. People may see that differently, but at the moment I think he’s past the point where he can damage it. Of course if he drives in the field and he’s much too slow, that would be embarrassing. But Michael wouldn’t do it if he had the feeling he would not be able to cope.
“He’s practical enough to understand that probably in the first year the championship will be unlikely, because the competition is very high. Of course now the team is new to him. His thinking is more like next year I’ll know the team and everything will be much better, so I’ll have a much bigger chance. For him it’s a three-year project.”
Brawn has no doubts that the spark is still there.
“It’s pretty much the same old Michael. He’s very intense, very close to the detail, very precise. He’s a mature, experienced racing driver, so he adds an enormous amount to what you do. And he’s quick. Within 20 laps he was at what I describe as a good pace. I think there’s more to come – it would be illogical for a driver who has not driven for three years to be as quick as he’s going to be after a few days of testing.
“I’m excited about the greater potential that’s going to come from him. Even in Valencia he was pretty much straight on it, and his fitness was impressive because he drove a full day, and did some race simulations. And we didn’t see a bead of sweat…”