Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, August 26, 1998

'Schumi' Reignites Hopes for Ferrari

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MONZA, Italy - Behind the garage during testing last week, Michael Schumacher juggled a soccer ball with his mechanics, while out of sight nearly 10,000 Italian fans waited in the grandstands for a fleeting glance of their idol. When finally ''Schumi'' appeared at trackside they cheered, honked horns and ignited firecrackers.

Somewhere between the two scenes is the real Schumacher, the undisputed star of Formula One but also a surprisingly down-to-earth and modest man.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix last week and coming within seven points of leading the drivers' title with four races left, Schumacher reignited Italian fans' hope that Ferrari may win its first drivers' title since 1979. The race also put the bricklayer's son from Kerpen, Germany, into third place in all-time career victories. He has 32 victories, to 41 for Ayrton Senna and 51 for Alain Prost. No other driver has won so many by the age of 29.

This week Schumacher returns to the track where his Formula One career began in 1991, at Spa-Francorchamps, for the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday. It is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Kerpen, and Schumacher has won the race four times, so he may have a psychological edge over his rival, Mika Hakkinen, even if Hakkinen has a faster car.

Schumacher has a dubious public image. He is the highest-paid driver ever and is seen by many as arrogant, a cheater or a dirty player. Few deny his genius for driving. But once he is out of the car, and his helmet is off, Schumacher is simple, direct and sensitive to what people say about him.

''When I won the race in Hungary, people spoke to me like I'm a god,'' he said over lunch at Monza last week just a few days after his victory in Budapest on Aug. 16. ''I'm still the same human being I was before. I don't take the big blame and I don't take the big compliments. I'm somewhere in the middle.''

In the last race of 1997, the title came down to a duel with Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix. Schumacher attempted to knock Villeneuve's car off the track but he went off himself, losing the title and starting a media uproar. But whatever his flaws, Schumacher has an uncommon capacity for blocking out the world and concentrating on his work.

'''Work' is the wrong word,'' he said. ''It's more 'passion' you have doing these things.''

That passion began when he was 4 years old and found an old chassis with plastic wheels in someone's garbage, and his dad put an engine on it. Later the boy turned his hobby into money by breaking in new go-kart engines.

''In any weather conditions, at any time, I was running in other people's engines,'' he said. ''The most fun was driving in the wet. Because you could spin around, and do 360s.''

That is how the greatest wet-driver since Senna developed his talent. It is how he won his first race for Ferrari at the rain-drenched Spanish Grand Prix in 1996, and this year's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, where he beat Hakkinen, who slipped off the soaked track.

''I was basically lucky. I didn't make a mistake, and the other guy did make a mistake,'' he said. ''It's always said that if it rains I'm going to win. It's not really like that.''

He made his debut in Formula One as a replacement for another driver on the Jordan team at Spa in 1991. His first victory came a year later, again at Spa in a Benetton in the rain.

He would cross the finish line first four more times at Spa. By 1994, Schumacher was the dominant driver in Formula One and the accusations of cheating began. His engineers were accused of putting illegal electronic devices in his car -- which was never proved.

Flavio Briatore, the Benetton team manager at the time, brushed off the accusations of phantom electronic devices by saying that the only phantom in the car was Schumacher, with his otherworldly talent.

Then Schumacher ignored a warning flag at Silverstone. At Spa, after driving brilliantly, he was disqualified again. He was also suspended for two races.

''I found out in 1994, with people claiming you're doing illegal things,'' Schumacher said, ''that if they talk long enough people start to believe it.''

But he is proud of winning the 1994 title with only 12 races, when other drivers had 16 opportunities to amass points. He added, though, that ''There was the tragic situation with Ayrton. I'm not sure I would have won the championship if he had been there.'' Senna was killed in the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

He won it again in 1995. Then he joined Ferrari in 1996, ''for the challenge'' of breaking the team's title drought. Last month he extended the contract until 2002. But if he wins the title now, what motivation will be left?

''The motivation of having the luxury of not just the best team around you, but as well having the best car,'' he answered.

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