Is Schumacher a worthy champion? Can he win over the tifosi next season? As ever, Niki Lauda pulls no punches
Even as Michael Schumacher, drink in hand, celebrated becoming the sport’s youngest double world champion, somebody introduced a sobering thought. ‘What did you think when you lapped both Ferraris?’
The answer, of course, was nothing. For one thing, it doesn’t pay to let your mind wander for too long at 200 mph. But those who believe that Schumacher indulges in such flights of fancy also underestimate the approach he brings to his racing.
“Ferrari is no different to any other team,” he insists. “Yes, it’s different when you go through the factory or when you see the emotion and attention people pay to the team at Maranello. But, at the end of the day, when you drive a car it’s the same job whatever team you belong to.”
The same job, yes. But not with the same pressures. “The Italians love you when you win and hate you when you lose,” counsels Ferrari advisor Niki Lauda. “And whatever you do, win, lose, or simply break wind, everyone in Italy wants to know about it!”
Hundreds lined the fence bordering the Fiorano test facility when Schumacher drove his first exploratory laps for the team. But the talk was about the German long before he arrived, and not all of it was glowing.
Some lament the Italian giant’s pursuit of Schumacher as its saviour, arguing that in the old days Ferrari used to make a driver champion, rather than the other way around.
Lauda is well aware that, like so much of the mythology which hangs like a fog over Maranello, the assertion is rooted more in romance than it is reality. He knows, too, that if anyone presently possesses the qualities which could restore the glory days, it is Schumacher.
“When Michael’s in trouble, he’s a good guy because he has the brainpower it takes to develop his own speed,” he explains. “It’s that ability which makes the difference. Sure, there are other guys who are quick, but being the best driver is about more than just producing one quick lap.
“First of all he is quick; born quick. Then he has been able to pick up all the rest you need to develop your speed: things like getting the team behind you; getting them to develop the right sort of car you need.”
The move from Benetton to Ferrari has made the 27-year-old the highest paid driver in Formula One history. But it is worth remembering that he has succumbed not only to the lure of the lira, but to that of a new challenge. Lauda, who confesses he sometimes enjoyed negotiating the contracts more than he did the racing itself, suggests that the world champion has made his move at exactly the right time.
“During the time of the active suspension, the team fell behind. But now we are back in the ballpark,” he maintains, “and Schumacher’s performance is right at its best. You don’t see any signs of weakness, as Damon showed last season by getting beaten by Coulthard.
“If you’re going to win the championship, at the end of the year you need to have collected all the points possible. Even if you make one mistake, out of 17 races, that could cost you the championship. So when you suddenly end up not even being the quickest in your own team, the whole thing goes wrong.
“Coulthard proved that the Williams was good, but the end result was simply that Schumacher showed fewer weaknesses than Damon. Maybe Damon had his problems, I don’t know, but at the end of the season nobody cares. All they care about is the points you have.”
Just as Lauda revived the legendary marque’s fortunes in 1974, so Ferrari has long quested for the man who could lead it out of the wilderness into which it wandered after the Old Man’s death. After a long courtship of Ayrton Senna, it was only logical that it should woo the heir — Herr if you live on Fleet Street — to the Brazilian’s throne. “I’m sure Ayrton would have loved to have gone to Ferrari, and in some ways it was made for him,” suggests Schumacher. “But the situation was never right. Things are different now for me.”
Like Senna, Schumacher’s talent is reinforced by intimidatory tactics which have consistently drawn criticism. Lauda remains underwhelmed by the amount of racing on offer in modern-day Formula One, and on the subject of the FIA’s treatment of his new driver he displays all the diplomacy of Suddam Hussein. On a bad day.
“At one point I was getting worried because if those stupid decisions kept on going we would destroy motor racing,” he says bluntly. “We all pay to watch a man-to-man fight to be the winner. Very rarely do we see this kind of fight. And when we did, as in Spa, they penalise the guy.
“Suddenly the direction of things seemed to have swung completely against the principle of the sport. The officials should only have got involved if somebody did something obviously stupid. If anybody had any idea of what it takes to drive a car in the wet — don’t forget in race conditions, on slicks — they would not have acted as they did after the race. Schumacher was defending his position against Hill, who was on wet tyres, and it was the most incredible drive. To penalise him for that was unbelievable. He did nothing wrong.
“To blame him for Silverstone, where they collided, was also ridiculous. And then you hear things like Monza, where they said Michael made Damon take him off . . . That was the most stupid thing I’ve heard in my life.”
You wonder what Lauda sees when he ponders his team’s new recruit. Here is someone who is apparently immune to the emotions which disrupt his rivals’ concentration, who commands a huge salary but says money isn’t that important, and insists that by the time he is 30 he will walk away from the sport with no regrets. And, just like Lauda, Schumacher’s calculating approach does not endear him to people.
Tellingly, perhaps, the Austrian is quick to refute suggestions that Schumacher’s behaviour, oft-perceived to be arrogant, is not that of a true champion.
“His way of driving is simply the German way,” he says, with an air of incredulity. “And that is the correct way: without emotions. You do the job; get it done as quickly as possible. What’s wrong with that?
“You cannot easily judge people on how they appear with the press and the public, because they are young kids. They come out of nowhere, and suddenly they are in the focus of the whole world.
“Some handle it in one way, some in another — it depends on their personality. You have to give him the credit for handling it his own way. If that way is not the way other people think, that is their problem. When you are under a lot of pressure you cannot do everything right in everybody’s eyes.”
Asked if he had a Christmas wish, Schumacher jested that it was for things to be easier at Ferrari than everyone had made out. He continues to play down expectations for the coming season, at the same time emphasising that the world title could be within his grasp in 1997.
The lukewarm reception he received at Monza last season, whilst still a Benetton driver, suggested that winning races is one thing, winning over the tifosi quite another. “If Mansell could, I’m sure I can,” he smirks mischievously
“Ferrari is a particularly difficult team to drive for,” warns Lauda. “It’s not as easy as an English team. An English team is straightforward; Ferrari is an emotional battle. There is a big difference.
“How the fans will react to him will be down to success. That’s the main thing. After you’ve won, when you lose maybe they can still get the emotions going for you. But first you have to prove yourself. If you can prove that you can be strong, and have the mental toughness and speed too, they will adore you. I never had a problem with the fans at Ferrari. They were always good to me.”
It is 12 years now since the Scuderia won even a constructors’ title, 16 since Jody Scheckter scooped the coveted drivers’ crown. People have begun to ask whether, after so many false dawns, Ferrari really is a spent force? Lauda was hired by Luca di Montezemolo to help restructure the team but his own dismissal, and subsequent reinstatement, last season illustrates that as much as ever, political strife comes with the territory. You have to ask which will be the quickest in 1996: the new V10 engine or the search for a scapegoat if the huge investment is not immediately repaid in the form of success?
On top of that, even Lauda concedes that one question mark still hangs over Formula One’s reigning world champion: “Michael went through the racing driver’s school very quickly; he never stayed in each class long enough. He was always on the uphill. On the evidence of 1995, he could go on to dominate Formula One for perhaps five years. The only thing he has not proved yet, is how will he handle it when he doesn’t have everything going for him? “That will be something worth watching, because some guys can handle it and others simply can’t. I’ve no idea what his reaction will be, because 1 have never seen him in that situation. That is perhaps the one thing which still remains to be proved . . . ” MS