Man or Machine?

Oliver Holt, Grand Prix correspondent of The Times, examines the psyche of the double world champion

Just when there was a chink of light, a fleeting, fleeing glimpse of vulnerability, a little shred of hope that maybe the guy was not as good as all that, Michael Schumacher cut it all to ribbons and drove the race of his life in Barcelona. It always seems to be that way with him. Just when you think you have found a weakness, a character flaw even, he slaps a full house down on the table.

It goes like this. You try and write him off as some sort of goosestepping Teuton who eats black bread and sauerkraut for breakfast and collects trombones from oompah bands in his spare time. He has admitted, after all, that he likes his mother's apple strudel. But then he ups and hires himself some sort of Indian fakir to help keep him in shape and you find out he's more Boris Becker than bigoted Brownshirt.

You try and say the guy has got no feelings, that he's some kind of automaton, who works all the hours God sends and cares only for his career and his cars. Then his wife, Corinna, takes it upon herself to adopt a Brazilian stray dog called Flea and not only does he go along with it, he likes it and he's not embarrassed about it even though the rest of the pit lane is practically bent double.

You even have a crack at saying Schumacher might be a formidable driver but he's got no passion, no flair, a bit like the accusations you level at the German football team, really, and then he pulls out a drive like the Spanish Grand Prix and jumps around on the podium like a loon, spraying Jean Todt with champagne, oblivious for a few moments of what is going on around him.

Anyone who can drive like that, you know in an instant, has to be an interesting man. Just like Michael Jordan or Diego Maradona or Miguel lndurain. Not necessarily a nice man but, through their very genius, intrinsically fascinating and absorbing. Schumacher suffers because we all love to hate the favourite and root for the underdog. It's his fault, we say, for being so good.

In the end, though, you give up and shut your mouth and let yourself come round. When you speak to him and kick your preconceptions into touch, Schumacher is a decent bloke. He is a football nut, for a start, so he can't be all bad, and he's unfailingly polite and courteous which is more than can be said for some of the other top drivers.

Granted, it's a bit of a struggle to find the beef, to talk about anything except motor racing, but,that is a common problem with today's drivers. It's is easy to talk to Damon Hill about the latest movies, about music, about politics, because he knows of a life outside motor racing. Schumacher does not. He has been doing it since he was tiny. He has lived and breathed it with room for nothing else. It is limiting.

But he is still pleasant company. Before the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, he went for dinner with a group of English journalists at an open-air restaurant in the hills above Budapest. He was late because he had had a row with the German television company, RTL, about footage they had shown of his wedding to Corinna, but he did not show his displeasure.

Instead, he talked about his love of the English countryside and of English country houses and the factors that were pulling him first one way and then the other as he tried to make up his mind whether to stay at Benetton or leave for Ferrari. Later that weekend, he made his final choice.

His critics pounced on that, too, said the dollar signs had come down over his eyes and that he was forsaking his destiny, the chance to win three successive world drivers' titles, for a lot of lolly. They said he was spending wildly and getting hooked on new toys like private planes. The figures quoted for his Ferrari salary have been as much as £20m a year.

Last month, I sat across a desk from Todt in the Ferrari sporting director's office at Maranello and watched him smile in his wry, secretive way as he played with the figures in his mind. "You are all very interested in these numbers," he said. "But the money is nothing like that. He did not come here for the money. He could have had more money from another team."

That, presumably, was McLaren, but that is irrelevant now. What is instructive is that Schumacher has managed that rare trick of having his cake and eating it. He is on a handsome salary however many millions either side of 20 it really is, and yet his reputation is not suffering by being with a team many thought might destroy him. If anything, his asking price is going up with every race.

That one glimmer of mortality, of ordinariness, came in Monaco when he lost control of his car on the first lap on a damp circuit as he tried to keep up with Hill.

He was furious with himself for throwing away an afternoon's work after he had wrestled the car to pole position. Maybe, everyone thought, he is cracking under the strain of being an also-ran.

Then, he went to Barcelona, set early lap times that were four or five seconds quicker than anybody else in the field, won his first Grand Prix for Ferrari, his first in a car that was not a Benetton, and silenced those who doubted his supreme skill for ever. It was a masterful drive even by the most exalted standards.

"That was not a race," Stirling Moss said after he watched in awe. "That was a demonstration of brilliance. The man is in a class of his own. There is no one in the world anywhere near him. I do not think there has ever been a driver who is so far clear of the field in terms of ability. It was one of the most fantastic demonstrations of skill I have ever seen, up there with Senna and Fangio. The Ferrari is not comparable with the Williams or probably even the Benetton but the difference was Schumacher."

The move to Ferrari is, in fact, looking more and more like a master stroke. Gradually, he is shedding the controversy and suspicion that seemed to cling to him when he was at Benetton. If, then, he appeared cold and aloof, the emotions that rage around the team of the Prancing Horse are bringing out the caring, sharing Schumacher, the side of his character that was always there but was rarely seen.

More than that, it has proved that the world champion is not a one-team wonder. We know now that it is Schumacher who makes the difference, that he alone among the current crop of drivers is more important than the machinery he drives in. He represents a victory for man over machines and in Motor racing, that is the ultimate achievement, a feat that makes him more worthy of hero-worship than any other.

"I think people respect what I have done with Ferrari so far," Schumacher says. "I have not tried to take the easy route. Together, we have worked hard and made it competitive. Before, people did not know how much the success at Benetton was my part and how much was the team's. The respect I have from the drivers this year is different, so the respect outside is different, too.

Which brings us to Eddie Irvine, Schumacher's team-mate. If Schumacher really was the dweeb that many would have us believe, the total Germanic square who is just a dull boy, do you think Irvine would have any time for him? Quite. Irvine, who is about as hedonistic as they come, actually seems to like him. He has even suggested they are quite alike.

Part of this regard obviously sterns from admiration for his driving. "I always thought he was the bees' knees," Irvine says, "and now, since I have become his team-mate, I know he is. I can see the telemetry and what he does is amazing. Some of the things he has done with our car have been fantastic."

The rest of it, though, seems to be a genuine compatibility. "He works very, very hard," Irvine says, "but you need to in this game now. He and I get on very well. There are absolutely no problems. At the circuit, he concentrates on his job, away from the circuit you can have a laugh with him like anyone else."

Schumacher has a slightly different view of the dynamics of his relationship with Irvine, the sort of thing that fuels the fires of the critics who complain of his arrogance. "Eddie is a very, very big support," he says. "It's not easy to find a team-mate who handles so well his, let's say, lack of success in terms of fighting against me. I have had other team-mates who couldn't accept that someone can be quicker."

Okay, so the guy is super-confident and, like Jacques Villeneuve, probably like most of the rest of the Formula One drivers, he has never doubted his ability to be the best. There is a difference between his kind of confidence and the boorishness that strays into arrogance, and, even if we think the worst of him, he has got plenty to be arrogant about.

He, more than any other driver, more than Senna, more than Prost, has redefined the qualities needed to be a modern Formula One world champion. His attention to physical fitness has set new standards for the rest, changed the way they live their lives, in fact, adhering to strict diets, working with personal trainers both at the circuit and away from it. Those who shy away from the discipline, like Jean Alesi, suffer because of it.

There is his sheer speed, of course, his untouchability in fast corners which is a product of his supreme confidence. And above all, there is his pragmatism, his quick-thinking ability to react to changing circumstances and gain crucial advantages at pit stops, his attention to the finest details if fractions of a second can be gained.

Michael Schumacher, in short, is a modern man's racing driver, just like Gazza, for all his foibles, is a modern man's footballer. We can see the faults sitting there as clear as day and we watch them being exaggerated by the tabloid media, in particular.

But we know these men better than we ever knew Bobby Charlton or Jim Clark. Their images have been enhanced by sepia; Schumacher's is still in our face in glorious technicolour. That should not be allowed to dull his attraction, lessen the fascination we feel for him. Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, likes comparing soccer and motor racing, too, and his opinion is clear.

"Schumacher," he says, "is the Pele of Formula One."