Understanding Michael Schumacher

Updated at 2016-03-03 07:56:42 UTC

The following item was the cover story on the first issue of F1 Racing Magazine - March 1996. Donaldson interview with Michael Schumacher took place during a Barcelona test prior to his first season with FerrariImage title

"Sometimes," he says with a heavy sigh, "I get very tired of all the attention. I wish to drive my car, then go home. End of story." 

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But Michael Schumacher's story doesn't end there because the superlative way he drives his car has made him big news around the world. Just turned 27 (on January 3rd), he has already sped into the record books at a faster pace than any of the greatest names in the sport. He is the youngest to have won two consecutive World Driving Championships and, since he is still improving, there is every reason to believe the Michael Schumacher story will eventually become a saga of epic proportions. Yet the hero is in many ways a reluctant one and he would prefer to let his driving do the talking. He insists "I am just a normal guy trying to live a normal life" but he can't because the insatiable demands of the media, and the public it serves, to know everything about the man behind the wheel place him under the closest scrutiny. While he understands and accepts this price of superstardom Schumacher often has difficulty with the apparent lack of understanding on the part of those attempting to tell his tale. "Journalists use 10 minutes of my time, go away and try to judge me. They talk to me about the car set up, or what F1 is all about, and then try to make a complete picture of me. The story they get depends on which mood I am in, which time they get me. I can be free and relaxed but sometimes I am thinking about my car and I am not as free to concentrate on other questions. There is a big difference between the Michael Schumacher on a racing weekend and the private Michael Schumacher. You just wish the journalists had a little more understanding." (While he does not go as far as his new Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine, who claims he has never met a journalist who knows anything about motor racing, one gets the impression that if Ferrari designer John Barnard were to cobble up a version of the new 412T3 chassis with a passenger seat Schumacher would leap at the chance to take certain critical scribes on a terrifyingly fast tour of a circuit such as Spa. Preferably in the rain.) "The advantage for the journalists", he continues, "is that they can judge a person without being judged themselves. But what they write can also be an advantage for a successful sports person because what they write is usually forgotten when something else is written. So I am not too worried about this. The future will show what I am. Time has been too short to really open myself up, to show people what I am really like. I've only been here for five years. Give me a little bit of time and we'll see what the real Michael Schumacher is going to be like." Meanwhile, the current version of Michael Schumacher is shrouded in a whole climate of opinion, much of it distinctly chilly. "This is the worst thing, that people tell stories about me which are not true. A good example is that they say I am a cold person without any feelings." They also say that he is arrogant, ruthless, an automaton - traits that were attributed to the late Ayrton Senna, the driver Schumacher has succeeded as the dominant of his era. But since his death Senna has been elevated to near sainthood by many of those who formerly disparaged him. "Exactly!", Schumacher exclaims. "Ayrton had to go through the same thing. It seems this is part of the procedure." The problem with the procedure for F1 drivers is that they are required by the media to participate in a personality contest, a competition in which the better they are the less chance they have of winning. Nobody feels the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat more than a top driver. It's hard to look humble when you're standing on the top step of the victory podium. It's equally difficult, especially when your're accustomed to winning, to remain a gracious loser. (As the McLaren team owner Ron Dennis once put it: "If I walk around with a grin on my face people say I'm smug. If I walk around with my normal scowl people say I'm miserable.") At first, Schumacher's unrestrained joy on the podium was found to be charming and refreshing. Now, suffering from over exposure, his winning smile is seen by some as pompous and imperious and it is assumed he must personify the 'nice guys finish last' syndrome. Frank Williams, who has employed several World Champions (and also sought Schumacher's services for 1996, but refused to pay his asking price) claims that "The best Grand Prix drivers are driven, motivated, pushy, won't accept second best, immensely competitive people. This is what makes them good, because they're bastards!"Like all the great drivers Schumacher has exceptional ambition, unshakeable confidence, unswerving dedication and fierce determination, characteristics which can easily combine to have them teetering on the bastardly brink. Yet, according to those who know him best, Schumacher may be the first nice guy to finish first. Pat Symonds, Schumacher's race engineer at Benetton, says: "I have the highest regard for Michael, both as a driver and as a person. On a personal level we are friends. I became very close to him, through the enjoyment of working with him and the fact that he is a very nice guy." Symonds enthuses about Schumacher's "British" sense of humour (his jokes over the radio, even in the heat of battle, often had the Benetton personnel convulsed in laughter), his even temper (never, despite several incidents of extreme provocation, did he succumb to road rage on the track, or have temper tantrums off it), his thoughtfulness and consideration (including taking a keen interest in the families of those he worked with) and his unfailing politeness. When this latter characteristic must necessarily come into conflict with his highly developed work ethic Schumacher worries that: "If you are too busy to talk to them people may think you are arrogant." Still, he takes some comfort from the fact that, in his native land at least, his fans appear to have been able to read between the lines of the anti Schumi crusade perpetrated by the media. "I have just become German Sportsman of the Year, in both categories, spectators as well as journalists. This reflects not only my success, but also my personality as people see it. So I guess I really have no reason to be unsatisfied with my public image. I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to the fans. You cannot do it as well as you should in the beginning but I try to adapt to this better each year. Formula 1 is so intense that you go through as much in one year as a normal person does in 10 years. At first, so much was happening to me so soon that it was difficult for me to know who I was. You are always under such pressure and tension. This is especially true in the beginning. Later on, things change less. Personally, I'm not sure if Formula 1 has changed me much. It was difficult at first because I didn't have the chance to be relaxed. I always tried to hide myself and didn't want to cause any trouble because I didn't really understand everything that was happening. Now I can be more open because I am getting a clearer picture about Formula 1." This season the F1 picture will feature Schumacher in a Ferrari, with the legendary Italian team and its sponsors shelling out $25 million for his services. Curiously, Schumacher's acceptance of this offer was entered by some on the debit side of his character ledger, a judgement which is at odds with the quite reasonable truism once pronounced by Jackie Stewart that, given the relatively fleeting and potentially lethal nature of his profession, a racing driver is worth every penny of whatever he can get, as fast as he can get it. While it was accepted that because of his superior driving prowess Schumacher's earning power was undoubtedly higher than that of any of his peers considerable mystification was expressed as to why he should be worth $25 million to any team. Yet the answer, rooted in the commercial nature of the sport, was there for all to see. After the first five races of the 1995 season a survey of the total television air time logged by the teams showed that Benetton was in front of the cameras 28 percent of the time. This was just 2 percentage points less than Williams, which had the best cars and two drivers contributing more equally to the team's frontrunning performance, unlike Benetton whose other driver, Johnny Herbert, was seldom in the limelight. More significantly, Benetton captured 3 percent more exposure than did Ferrari, whose famously red and photogenic cars are traditionally a prime focus of television directors. To sponsors evaluating their F1 investment, the 1 hour, 40 minutes and 54 seconds Michael Schumacher spent driving around in front of a vast international armchair audience of potential consumers made him worth much more than his weight in gold. For the purveyors of the plethora of goods and services given identity on his flying Benetton - 33 of them, including the makers of clothing, cigarettes, automobiles, beer, petroleum products, energy food and drinks, tyres, brakes, sparkplugs, computers and software, tools, gym equipment, industrial cleaning products, vehicle inspection centres, health care products, paint systems, steering wheels, a TV station, model cars, shoes, and so on - Schumacher the superstar was also a supersalesman. Since prime commercial television time is sold at up to $1 million a minute (at events like the annual Super Bowl football game in America) and Schumacher in five races had tallied over 100 minutes of exposure to a cumulative audience of over 1 billion people, his $25 million asking price to move to Ferrari was peanuts to a sponsor like Marlboro. (Marlboro was no doubt further motivated by the fact that the TV air time survey revealed that its principle team, McLaren, had appeared on camera for only 16 minutes and 6 seconds). Also eager to capitalize on Schumacher's high profile was Shell, returning to F1 in 1996 with Ferrari and hoping their alliance with the German hero would help restore their petroleum product market share lost in his native land following the Brent Spar North Sea oil rig controversy. Then, of course, Ferrari was in desperate need of a winner, to restore its racing reputation and in the process sell more cars for its owner, Fiat. So Schumacher's price tag was no problem for the vested interests which would pay it but when he accepted the offer, to move from a winning team to a floundering one, it was concluded that Schumacher's motives must be entirely mercenary. Such thinking does not take into account the fundamental need for winners to have new challenges to be able to keep on winning. They perform best under pressure, indeed they deliberately seek it out in order to inspire themselves to continue to progress. Fresh challenges are vital to maintaining motivation, which is further fueled by the fear of failure factor. Taking risks, pushing themselves beyond established limits to reach new ones, are hallmarks of high achievers in any endeavour. As Bill Gates, the computer guru and risk-taking founder of the Microsoft empire expresses it: "There are two possibilities: success and failure. But it is the possibility of BOTH that creates the best results." The money and the prestige of driving for Ferrari were bonuses for Schumacher, for whom the bottom line is an overpowering need to continue his upward mobility. "Certainly, this is the case for me. With Benetton I achieved everything I could achieve. Two World Championships as a driver and the Constructors' Championship for the team. So it is correct to say that I went to Ferrari to give myself more of a challenge. I took the decision because I believe in myself and I believe in Ferrari, but I must prove it and this new target, to see if I can do the job, is very important to me. I feel that Ferrari is not very far away from the Championships, but I need first to go that last step, together with the team, which I feel I am able to do. The important thing is to keep improving. I think for my education it is going to be very good to work with a new team being able to learn a lot of new things, going in new directions, getting new impressions to build up myself. "I would never be satisfied just to sit in the best car and win all the races. I must have a strong challenge. I love REAL racing and to me that means having to work hard to win. I tried very hard for all my wins in 1995. They were not presents or gifts. They were not easy. When I compare my nine victories last season with the nine victories of Nigel (Mansell, whose 1992 record Schumacher equalled) I think he several times lapped everybody else (He didn't, but easily dominated in his superior Williams machinery). That was not the case with my victories. It was always tough and that is why they were so satisfying for me." It will be even more rewarding to win with the most famous team in racing. Though he is supposed to lack the passion of a true enthusiast and not to be interested in F1 history, the mystique of Ferrari was indeed part of the lure for Schumacher. When he first came to the team's Maranello headquarters, late on a foggy night, he admits he got "goosebumps. And you know that if you are able to win with Ferrari it will mean more than if you win with another team because, in my view, Ferrari is 50 percent of Formula 1 and the rest of the teams have to divide the other 50 percent." While he was able to win over 50 percent of the races last season in an inferior car, and having to fight his ill handling Benetton helped satisfy his desire to have to work hard for his success, Schumacher is quick to deny the widely held belief that he prefers a twitchy chassis. "It's true that the Benetton was more nervous than most. I had to live with it but I didn't really enjoy it. It's a different issue than in karting where you have to throw it around and slide through the corners. You shouldn't have to do this in Formula 1 but I have an adaptable driving style, which I learned in 15 years of karting, so I found I could adjust to this." In his private life he now finds himself also making adjustments to certain of his formerly held beliefs. The progress of his journey of self discovery has been accelerated by the trappings of success, including a stable of exotic cars, but a wistful Schumacher sounds as if he might prefer to slow down and smell the flowers, perhaps even manure. "When you are younger you think a nice car might fulfill your dream. When you have the car you find out very early it doesn't fulfil anything, really. It may be nice to drive, but that's it. What's around us fulfil's my dreams. I am very interested in space, the moon and stars and everything around us. I can be happy just sitting watching the moonlight. I think nature is the most beautiful thing we have and the colour I like most is green, which is related to nature. I love animals and might even like to have a farm some day." The only animal in his life at the moment is Jenny, a West Highland terrier, so named by the most important person in his life: Corinna (formerly the girlfriend of Sauber driver Heinz Harald Frentzen). They were married last summer, after living together for several years, and Schumacher treasures the domestic bliss they enjoy. He describes her as a "fantastic woman, very easy to get along with. Our life in Monaco is not very glamourous but I cherish being at home with her, since I am away so many days of the year. I am a very happy man to have found a woman like Corinna and we think about having a proper family." Schumacher's claim that he "is just a normal guy trying to live a normal life" is borne out by his tastes in reading (John Grisham thrillers, though he has plans to tackle Stephen Hawking's 'Black Holes and Baby Universes') and music (mostly of middle of the road material by Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and the German singer Marianna Rosenberger, though he also likes Tina Turner). "But what I like even more than these people are musicals: Beauty And The Beast, my favourite, Phantom Of The Opera, and so on. When I travel I would like to see more musicals but the problem is that I don't have much time for private life. That is one of the penalties for being successful." But being able to cash in on his success has enabled him to satisfy charitable urges related to his highly developed social conscience. "I have become an ambassador and special adviser to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization) because for me it has always been a dream, a wish, to try and make the world more even. I hate poorness, especially for kids who have little to eat and live in very bad circumstances. I hate this and it has always been a target for me to do something about it, when it was within my possibilities. In my view people have more trust in a person who has enough money for himself and doesn't need any more. Therefore, now that I am a person who earns a lot of money, now and in the future, which is far more than I ever want to spend for myself, it is something I would like to use to try and make the world a better place."

(Michael Schumacher went on to donate many millions of dollars to humanitarian causes around the world, including $10 million to the 2004 tsunami relief fund.)  


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