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r

At just 25, Michael Schumacher has the world at his feet. The loss of Ayrton Senna, allied to Prost’s abdication and Mansell’s ‘exile’, leaves the German the brightest star in the Fl firmament, heir apparent to the Formula One throne.

Understandably, perhaps, he grants fewer interviews these days. On the evidence of his devastating performances since the ’94 season commenced, his opposition’s opportunities are likely to be more limited still than those of the media.

The mistral is gusting hard when we track him down in testing at Paul Ricard. A makeshift chicane, hastily constructed from straw bales at the daunting Signes curve, bears testimony to the chill wind of change also blowing through Formula One as a whole. For once the Benetton is upstaged, a crowd instead gathering to admire a bright yellow Bugatti EBI 10 in the paddock. No prizes for guessing the owner, who also possesses a Mercedes 500 and can often be found cruising the Monte Carlo streets on a Harley Davidson. But if the spoils of war are lucrative, the last few months have taught that his sport may also demand the ultimate price.

Schumacher has always driven with a maturity which belied his lack of years. Nor, as somebody feted in Germany as Stefan Bellof’s successor, is he any stranger to pressure. It was as much the attentions of his countrymen, as those of the tax man, which drove him to exile in Monaco. Yet the sudden manner of his elevation not just to championship leader, but the figure to whom many look as the mouthpiece of Formula One, has occurred at shocking speed. The mantle does not rest easily upon shoulders so young. “I’ve always had my targets, which I’ve tried to follow,” he says. “That is the pressure I always give to myself. This hasn’t changed. But I don’t see me as the leading person just because I’m leading the championship. I think when you talk of a spokesman you do not need someone who is leading, but

someone with good inputs and who can help in some areas. The experience I have gained in these last three months has been enormous, and this shows me how much more I have to learn before becoming a person like, say, Gerhard or Martin, who have all those experiences already, who can see things differently and can judge them better.

“But I don’t want to separate myself and say, ‘Okay, I don’t need this. I want to be involved in the GPDA and I feel I have to be involved. I have a good view, I understand things very well, I think, and I can help. We need to keep together at the moment.”

Schumacher is perhaps the finest product of an Age of Innocence, a generation for whom death had become little more than a dusty page in the history books. The transition to the Age of Experience has been a particularly brutal one. On track, the turbulence seems only to have heightened his skills. Yet far from enhancing his reputation, the German’s composure in a time of crisis has been noted by some with dark overtones. After all, unfazed by witnessing Senna’s fatal accident, he proceeded to dominate from the restart at Imola. There is a suggestion that he was even prepared to test there the week afterwards.

At Monaco, even though friend and former team-mate Karl Wendlinger lay in a coma, Schumacher went straight out and demolished the field in qualifying. While his rivals’ nerves have jangled at every subsequent incident, the German has merely capitalised upon their uncertainty. Has this man no feelings? “I believe there isn’t one driver who hasn’t had a lot of problems with what

has happened,” he responds quietly, stressing that on neither occasion he initially aware of the gravity of situation. “Myself, I had so many sleepless nights, where I had to think all through. Before I tested at after Imola I was really doubting I could be the same person as I before…” “Some times to the outside Michael looks arrogant,” acknowl

edges Willi Weber, his manager since the early days of his career, and the man who broke the news of Senna’s death. “After the deaths, and to see him drive at Monaco, you would think this man has no nerves. But that’s not true… The death of Ayrton hurt him so much. I have never seen him like this in six years. He was crying like a little boy. He was very shocked. Don’t tell me this is a man without nerve and feeling.”

While Schumacher shed his tears in private, furtive whispers did the rounds. No more so than when he failed to attend the Brazilian’s funeral.

“I believe in God, but I believe I don’t have to go to church to prove that,” he says, with the slightest hint of exasperation. “If I have strong feelings for Ayrton, I can have them everywhere. I don’t need to go to the funeral and show myself to be there.

“I had my own feelings about this. One reason why I didn’t go was safety: the team told me not to go there; we have seen things happen in Germany, and all over the world, where people have got attacked. I don’t know how my situation would have been. Not just in Brazil either, because let’s say a German Ayrton Senna fan may have thought I was the cause of it…” One thriller short of a full library? Think again. The shock of Monica Seles’ stabbing, at the hands of a Steffi Graff fan, has reverberated throughout Ger

many. Furthermore, some sections of the Brazilian media went so far as to lay the blame for their hero’s death directly at Schumacher’s door. Had he not pressed the Williams so hard, they suggested, Ayrton may never have gone off. Such astonishing resentment perhaps the legacy of a number of well-publicised clashes is

between the two since Schumacher burst into F I . Never one to be over-awed by reputations, he speaks as he finds. Senna too, called a spade a spade, and on occasions called the young pretender far worse. Did any enmity linger between the two?

“To call us friends is maybe too much,” the German concedes, “but we were much closer at the end than we were at the beginning. After the drivers briefing at Imola we had a discussion Gerhard, myself, Michele, JI and Ayrton about safety and we had agreed to see each other again in Monte Carlo. This was a very easy discussion, as we had before in Japan.

“Certainly Ayrton was under a lot of pressure and he had the situation in Brazil where people tried to build up a fighting situation between us which didn’t exist. He came to me and said, ‘Hey what’s going on? Do you have the same problem in Germany?’ and we talked about this. We were much closer than anybody expected.”

That such an accident could claim Senna, around whom an aura of invincibility seemed to have descended, unsettled many drivers to the extent that they experienced a very public crisis of conscience. Privately, Schumacher was tormented by the same doubts.

“They are not 26 idiots out there there are a lot of clever guys. They think they know what they do. We always believed that if we had a problem like a broken wing, as we saw with Ratzenberger, and it happened in the wrong area, we could die. But we didn’t believe that the accidents that happened to Ayrton and Karl could happen. At least, I didn’t. We are growing up.

“I know now that I can still sit in the car and concentrate in my natural way, but at first I wasn’t sure if I could continue like this. I made the point to myself, said, ‘If this is not going to be in me any more, if I don’t have this feeling for just getting in the car and driving it like I do, this is the point to stop.’ For me, Silverstone was the big question mark: Is it the same, or iSFI’t it?

“Whether I would have finished the season, then quit, I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that through. I just knew that if I didn’t have this feeling I had to make a decision. “I wasn’t fine the first day. It was wet and I just did the two laps and said, ‘Okay, these are not the circumstances I like to drive in.’ Sometimes at Silverstone when it is wet it can be a bit dangerous. I didn’t want to prove myself in an already-dangerous situation. So I said, ‘No, I don’t want to continue.’ We stopped for the day. It was dry the day after and immediately when I went out it

was fine from the first moment. Don’t ask me how this is possible.”

His performance from that moment on suggests he has as little cause to examine his conscience as he has to examine the mirrors of his Benetton.

“I have learned quite a lot out of these things,” he says, “and I think that is why I still do the job I do. I don’t need to sit there thinking about the accidents and stuff like this. Once I am in the car I can take away all other things and just concentrate on driving.” He concedes that it has been harder to exorcise the horror of the past few months when away from the circuit. Sadly, though, these are times when xenophobia is no longer a word confined to a desperate moment on the scrabble board, but instead increasingly invades the media. For some, Schumacher’s domination smacks too much of the

machine rather than the man. That he is German merely embroiders the story nicely.

Not one to shirk a challenge on the circuit, neither is he inclined to evade one away from it.

“I think this has nothing to do with being a machine,” he responds with a shake of the head. “All the people who know me know I am not a machine. The point is I have a bloody good car which is why I am able to do this job. If, let’s say, Ayrton had this car, he would have done the same or even a better job I don’t know because I didn’t have a proper comparison between me and Ayrton. But we have this good car and since Ayrton left us it seems to have been a lot easier for us to have won races and that’s why people straight away like to turn this over into a different situation.” Wary of the sycophants drawn to his

star in its ascendancy, the German has also noted an increasing number willing him to fall to earth.

“When I started climbing up the stairs three years ago I was nobody, and anybody who was nobody seemed to be welcome! If you do a good job everybody is behind you. As soon as you start to go further up, you still have a lot of people there behind you, pushing you, and these are the people you have to believe in. But in the same way, because you get so much more crowd, there will be people there who are jealous. That is difficult to understand sometimes, but that’s the way it is.”

Does this bother him? “I shouldn’t let it. But…” The response betrays a trace of irritation. Not with his detractors, but with himself, for he is perhaps his own biggest critic. He is well aware that survival

in Formula One’s rarefied atmosphere requires as much mental strength as it does physical. How is it, you wonder, that with Fl in turmoil from Imola onwards, the German has remained rooted, like a great tree in the wind?

“I think the biggest shock was Imola, where we had the accidents of Roland and Ayrton, plus the mechanics, plus the spectator,” he says. “Nothing worse could have happened. I think if I made this decision Ito keep racing’ after this, 1 had to stick with my decision. If Karl has the possibility to go straight back in the car, I’m sure he would do. I would too, because the feeling that we can excite is what drives us all down this road. We all love this sport, we all live for this sport…” If his words have a chilling ring at times, they merely indicate an ability to compartmentalise a mental survival instinct, if you like that also char

acterised Senna. Like the Brazilian, he pays great attention to detail and is likely to be as demanding at a windswept test session as he is on race day at a GP. Nor is his self-confidence a commodity in short supply. Some cynics may ask where you draw the line between confidence and arrogance? Martin Brundle, Schumacher’s team-mate at Benetton in 1992, reckons the German draws the line pretty well.

“I can understand his situation,” he says. “I’ve had it to some extent after Monaco as well. Everybody, and I mean everybody, wants a slice of your time. But if you can’t give them that they immediately turn round and call you arrogant.”

The bottom line is that the media can call Schumacher what it likes, but by the year’s end everyone expects to be calling him champion. It gives him immense satisfaction that his success is being achieved with Benetton.

“We have grown together,” he beams. “1 always believed in this team, even when particularly last year everybody was saying, ‘You should go away, you should go to Ferrari or whoever, there is no chance at Benetton.’ I don’t know why, but I felt comfortable. I was not sure 1 had reason to be comfortable, because last year we didn’t look as if we could succeed like we do now. But I didn’t have any real feeling to move away from this team. 1 always said 1 would rather come second with a team which 1 feel 1 gave some input to, than winning in a team where I didn’t do this, where I just got into a car which was the best just stepped in and won.” Benetton’s success at the start of the season, with Lehto out injured and Ver

stappen still a novice, endorsed Schumacher’s assertion that he is still learning. Two years ago, the team was still reliant upon a second driver’s input; now, Schumacher’s prowess in this area has developed dramatically. So too he has tempered the erratic edge he occasionally displayed when he entered Formula One. Add this to natural speed in qualifying, good racecraft, and a grooming in PR by Mercedes, and you have a driver at his peak.

Has he any weak points?

“In his heart he is a winning driver,” admits Willi Weber. “If he enters a race he wants only to win it. He has nothing to do with Olympian ideals, you know! His whole life is for winning. Sometimes you have to do only as much as you need, like Prost. That is not in his character, but he needs to learn it if he is to survive at the top in Formula One. You can’t always be a winner… I think the only man who can stop him winning the championship is himself.”

Brundle is inclined to agree: “He deserves to be World Champion. In a way it is sad that he will have won it this year without Ayrton, and that the season will be remembered for Ayrton’s death. But I’m sure he will win more. Like Ayrton, Michael is blessed with a natural speed.”

The parallels between the two are, for that matter, inescapable. “I tell you something he doesn’t like to hear,” says Weber, who also knew Senna. “1 never say this when Michael is around, but there are so many things that remind me of Ayrton. So many things. Oh, lesus Christ. They could almost be brothers.” Now that Senna’s throne lies empty, there seems only one man qualified to ascend. MARK SKEWIS

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