The View from the Top: Exclusive Interview with Michael Schumacher

By Biranit Goren, Israel
Atlas F1 Editor in Chief

When Michael Schumacher was barely a teenager, he used to go to the karting circuit where his dad worked, and wait until the "Rich, older boys" would crash their fancy karts. Then, after they would leave, he'd go to the location of the accident and rummage through the debris, looking for parts he could use in his own-made karting car. "My karts were built from 10th-hand parts," he recalls laughing some two decades later, now that he is the highest paid athlete in the world, and the most successful Formula One driver ever.

Michael SchumacherHe meets hundreds of journalists every year, answers thousands of questions. There is hardly any question imaginable that he wasn't already asked, and you wouldn't believe some of the questions he's asked at times. In Hungary this year, for example, just a couple of days before he would write another chapter in F1 history - equalling Alain Prost's record of 51 Grand Prix victories, while clinching his second World Championship with Ferrari - he sat down with a bunch of reporters for his traditional 'media briefing' - something no other driver holds with such masterly as Schumacher.

"What is your IQ, Michael?" came the question from one writer. "Did you ever take the Mensa test?" came another.

Schumacher's eyes run wide when someone tackles him with a question he doesn't know how to answer. "I don't really know, nor care," he answered on that occasion. "I'm just a normal guy who can probably drive a little faster than others."

Fair enough. He is, after all, just a normal guy - hell, he doesn't even look special or dress well - and yet, in the realm of motor racing, it doesn't get more special than him. Not currently, anyway. Love him or hate him - and everyone either loves him or not - you couldn't ignore him. Not after he's single-handedly ruled the sport in the past seven years; not after he's won the 2001 World Championship with the biggest points-gap ever, with a record-equalling number of wins per season. And not after he's placed himself at the top of almost every record chart.

From Rags to Riches

The biography of Schumacher is well known by now. Born January 3rd, 1969, in Hurth-Hermuhlheim, he grew up in what is the rural part of Germany. His mother Elisabeth was a housewife and later ran a fast food stand in the local karting circuit, where his father Rolf, a bricklayer by profession, had worked initially as a repairman.

Schumacher's childhood was a modest one. He says he grew up on family values, hard-work discipline and a sense of strong community. He would take these values with him into his adulthood: Schumacher was never to become a glamour boy, spending his time in St. Tropez parties or fooling around with supermodels. Instead, he worked hard, really hard, to support himself at the early stages of what was to become his racing career, starting at the age of six (!), when he won the local karting club's championship.

"I was never intending to become what I am," he says today. "I was just doing it for the fun, as a hobby, and I did it with very poor equipment." But then, he quickly adds, "I had the advantage that I was very young and very light. So maybe that's why I was winning at a young age..."

With wife Corinna and his dogsThat is a typical answer from Schumacher. People think of Schumacher as an arrogant person, but in reality he constantly excuses his success - he won when he was young because he was light-weight; he wins today because he has the best car, or because he was lucky. The interview with him is full of answers like that. Could he be mellowing?

His relationship with wife Corinna is too well known: she was Heinz Harald Frentzen's girlfriend when Schumacher first met her, and soon she was to become his girlfriend. They haven't separated since 1991, and the couple genuinely live a private, simple family life in their rented estate in Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. They have two children - Gina Maria, aged 4 (already driving a kart built especially for her, but Daddy says it's too early to tell if she would be at all interested in pursuing a driving career), and Mick, aged 2. The couple also own numerous horses (Corinna's biggest love) and several dogs (two of them named Bernie and Max, in fact).

But despite the fact that he earns more than 50 million dollars a year, despite the fact that he owns a jet plane (soon to be upgraded to a Falcon 2000), is about to purchase land in the German part of Switzerland (so the kids can go to a German-speaking school and the parents could help them with their homework), Schumacher says he's not yet enjoying the full extent of being rich, really rich.

"The good thing is that I have the financial security and independence," he says, "but the bad thing is that I can't use it very often. You have to hide yourself sometimes of using it and doing certain things. For example, once I could afford it I bought a boat - but I didn't enjoy it at all, because everywhere I went there were paparazzi photographers, there were people coming to my boat, and that's not how I want to live.

"But in the end of the day, and in all honesty, I am in a very good position because I can choose what I want to do so there's no need to complain. And, there will come a time when I will be less known and recognised, and then I think I will be able walk freely again. Not now, not in the next five years, but after that sometime, I guess."

BG: Considering your modest childhood, I'm curious: what was the first thing you did when you got a substantial sum of money for the first time?

Schumacher: "Actually, the first thing I did was give it to my father."

BG: Oh? When was that?

Schumacher: "After I won the F3 race in Macau. You know, when I got that money I was surprised - I didn't expect it and that was the first time I ever got prize money. I didn't need that money at the time, because I was earning just about enough to pay my rent and life costs, but my father and my family were not in good condition in terms of money, and I knew they had debts. So instead of paying the interest, I gave my father the money so he can deduct it."

Needless to say, Schumacher's parents are well off for several years now. It does say something, however, about Schumacher's upbringing and the sheer modesty of the environment he grew up in, that neither his mother nor his father changed their life routine significantly since their son became so famous. Rolf, for example, could have taken a more active role in his son's career but refused to, leaving the work to Schumacher's long time manager Willie Weber. Instead, Rolf continues to run the karting track - now Schumacher's karting track - while mother Elisabeth continues to live in their home town (the couple are now divorced).

The Centre of Attention

At one of Schumacher's lowest career point - after he ran into Jacques Villeneuve at the Championship-deciding race at Jerez, 1997, there was hardly a single race fan to be found that didn't condemn Schumacher, and newspapers were filled with inches of editorials calling for the FIA to sentence Schumacher to several race bans at the start of the following season.

The infamous incident with Villeneuve in 1997In that environment, it was rather surprising to hear a top executive in one of Ferrari's rival teams explaining - off the record - why none of the people actually involved in the sport (and the business) would want to see the German missing races. "He promotes our sponsors too," said the executive, to my sheer amazement. "Like it or not, that's business. We get higher exposure when he's around: people tune in to see the races on TV, because they either want to see him win, or because they want to see him beaten."

"That's true," Schumacher says wearily, when I run that story by him. It seems to irritate him, in fact, but I press the point on.

BG: Any way you look at it, you are the centre of attention, the star of the show. That's a big burden; how do you feel about that?

Schumacher: "I don't think about it like that, honestly. I do this sport because I love this sport. I'm responsible for Ferrari's doing and I take away whatever burden I take - which is a small proportion compared to what Jean Todt or other people have to carry on their shoulders. But I don't look further than that."

BG: You don't feel the burden of being such a big star? It almost feels as if Formula One has been evolving around you for the last few years

Schumacher: "Well, I do feel it in the environment, but not to the extent that you describe. If the show we do or the attention we get means Formula One prospers then it's not something I feel responsible for. Although I may have some effect on it, it's not something I think about."

BG: But does it change the way that you behave? perhaps you take more precaution with what you say or do

Schumacher: "Yes, certainly. But in all honesty, the worst mistakes I made were the ones I did in the beginning and in the middle of my career. I guess that's natural, because you are still unfamiliar and learning to know the media and the people around you, and everything you say will very often be turned around and used against you, whereas the older you get, the more you know these people, the more the media knows you, and you can be a little bit more open to them, and that creates a little bit of freedom again, where you don't need to always watch out for what you say."

Indeed, the journalists in general seem to be more comfortable with Schumacher nowadays, trusting him more than they used to. That may not mean they all admire him but they seem to pay much more respect to him when meeting him face to face. Take for example a certain British journalist, who was an avid Damon Hill fan and very much disliked Schumacher. He met the German for the first time last year. "He's not so terrible," he told me later, smiling. "In fact, I think I could actually like him."

Many journalists do, in fact. In Italy this year, when Schumacher looked genuinely distressed by the events of September 11th in the United States, he called off all media meetings for the weekend, stating that "I will do my job, which is to race, but nothing beyond that." Not one journalist condemned him for that - and yet you could easily find fans on the outside of the fence questioning Schumacher's sincerity that weekend.

But nowhere in the paddock is Schumacher more admired than among the Ferrari team.

Celebrating the 2000 titlePeople tend to criticise Ferrari for becoming 'Team Schumacher'. To a large extent, it has indeed become that: the racing operation revolves primarily around him, but you would need to see his contribution to the team off-track to realise just why Jean Todt allows the German to become such central figure to the team's existence and well being.

Take the Belgian Grand Prix last year, for example: the team had one of its worst qualifying sessions in the year, with Schumacher ending 4th and teammate Rubens Barrichello 10th. More so, there was a genuine feeling in the red camp - if not everywhere else - that the pendulum of luck and good fortunes had turned McLaren's and Mika Hakkinen's way. It was to become yet another year of "almost there" for the Scuderia.

The sighting around the Ferrari motorhomes was of sheer grief. On the faces of the mechanics - even that of technical director Ross Brawn - you could read defeat: they had looked like they already lost. Barrichello, for one, looked dumbfounded. And yet, among all that, Schumacher went about with an air of superior belief - he walked from one mechanic to another, from Barrichello to Brawn, and offered words of encouragement, mingled with personal chitchat about the family and kids. "We will make it, don't worry," he told each and every one of them. Brawn later recalled that Schumacher might have been the only one around who still believed it, and his belief pushed them all. And, having seen this "pep talk" round with my own eyes, I can only say his leadership was awe-inspiring.

I asked Schumacher about that Spa afternoon a few weeks later, curious as I was if he actually believed his own words as well. "Oh yes," he said back then. "We had a bad setup for the car in Spa," he explained, "and when it's just a matter of setup, then I'm not worried. If you have a bad car, then there's nothing you can do about it really, but if it's just a matter of a bad setup, then that can be easily fixed."

Either way, Schumacher left Spa in second place, behind Hakkinen, in the World Championship standings. Yet he won the next four races, and he won the Championship - the first Ferrari Drivers' Championship in 21 years. Can anyone really wonder, then, why the team is so devoted to him, when they themselves were ready to call it quits?

The High Season

I've never seen Schumacher as relaxed as he was this season. Having followed his career for the past decade, it was an interesting change in the man who once used to bite his nails to the core (and now has groomed them to perfection!). Little wonder, really, when you take into account the fact that he tests less nowadays (he set a record in 1998, by the way, with most testing kilometers than any other driver before him); that he doesn't drive on the edge at all time (nor needs to, considering how good his car has been this year); and that he really has accomplished every possible goal he could have set for himself, even if he says he only started racing for the fun of it.

Having met Schumacher several times in the past, primarily during Grand Prix weekends, I've finally sat down with him for a 101 interview a few days before the Italian Grand Prix, at his motorhome in Mugello, on one of his final testing days of the year. The interview itself was arranged for a weekend magazine in Israel, not one whose readers really follow Formula One, but inevitably the conversation ran wide into subjects that would invariably interest only Formula One followers.

He already clinched the Championship - both Drivers and Constructors - several weeks before the interview; he was but a week after breaking the record for most career wins, and just a few weeks away from breaking the all-time record for total WC points. And yet, when I ask Schumacher about his season, he insists on making it sound a lot harder than it looks.

Hungary 2001, another title"It looked like this year you hardly had any competition," I tell him. "In some races you had fought with Ralf or Coulthard, but in general you didn't really have a challenge..."

Schumacher stops me abruptly. "You really think so?" he says, looking almost surprised.

"Oh absolutely," I reply. "It was a cakewalk. I mean, look at the gap in the Championship points!"

"Yeah, when you look at the points that's true," he says. "But I think that's not the right way to look at it. You have to look at the lap times to see what the competition was really like. The fact that I score 10 points for a win and somebody who finishes 2nd only gets 6 - that doesn't say how I got that win, it doesn't say I dominated.

"Look at the Williams of '92 - nobody could touch it. Nigel Mansell was a second faster than the rest, only in exceptional circumstances somebody came close to Nigel. That's what I call domination. But right now? I don't think we can say we dominate in terms of the pace. We do dominate in terms of the points and the final result, that's true. But in terms of the pace? Look in Hungary, I mean..."

BG: Yes, let's look in Hungary - you were a second faster than anyone else!

Schumacher: "In qualifying, yes, but not in the race. If you look at the fastest lap times, the fastest lap was done by Hakkinen. OK, he had a different strategy, but even Coulthard was faster than me. So if you really look at it - we make the best out of our situation, but not in a way that we're miles ahead and we do that in a walk. I have to give 100% to achieve it."

BG: Still, I can't help but look back at last year, where you had to really fight with Hakkinen and it was much tougher to achieve the goal. Don't you miss having a contender, to battle with someone?

Schumacher: "Well the reason you see it that way, is because we have now 3, 4 or 5 people who are able to win on a regular basis. In the past it was only two. So this makes it look like I don't have competition. I'm there consistently, but the others change their position all the time. But for me, I always had somebody that I have to beat and I have to work hard, it's not like a safe drive home.

"Races like Spa or Monaco were an exceptional situation, because we had somebody there blocking Coulthard, or he stalled on the grid. We don't know how strong he could have been if he would have been on a normal and free run, for sure it would have been much more difficult. So, in some degree we have been lucky, because our opponents couldn't start the race, so I got a couple of the wins in this respect in easy style. But if you look and analyse the situation accurately, then to me it doesn't appear to be an easy, dominated season."

BG: Well either way, you made history this season so let's talk about that. When did you start being conscious of it - that you will be breaking those records, or did you not think about it at all?

Schumacher: "Of course I thought about it - it's not like I ignore these things. And I am very happy that I achieved those records, I won't deny that. You know, during the race at Spa-Francorchamps (where I broke the records for the number of wins), I was thinking, 'well, this seems to be my day to fulfill this', but in reality I was originally expecting it to be more difficult.

"I knew that Hungary is a perfect circuit for us, but then I thought the next track to suit us might be Suzuka. So I was coming to Spa with a little bit of a difficult feeling from our point of view and not thinking I will be winning my 51.."

BG: 52...

Schumacher, smiling: "sorry, yes, 52nd victory. But as it happened, I was obviously pleased because honestly, even though records are not my first priority, it does mean quite a lot to me - to have finally done this, and maybe write a piece of history."

BG: Prost once said that after you achieve a record number of wins, victories become less significant, almost tasteless. Do you think this will now happen to you too?

Schumacher: "I hope not, I hope not. I mean, it hasn't happened until 52, so..."

BG: But does it feel the same way - is the feeling different than in your earlier stages of your career?

Schumacher: "You know, each win feels different. Each victory. And there is no kind of getting used to it involved. In Budapest, if I take that as an example, I won the Championship and the race - so it was an extreme feeling. Spa was a little bit less emotional due to the accident we have had with Luciano Burti. So each win is so different, and still you are somehow delighted about it in a different way.

"In the end of last year I won four races and at the start of this year two races, so people made a lot of the fact that it was six in a row. But for me it was four, and then two, and then it stopped. So it's not like I just won ten in a row. Maybe if I win 10 in a row it will become meaningless, I don't know because I've never had that experience. For me it was always two or three and then a difficult moment again, so you always have this up and down, up and down, and that makes it special. If you're always up, then for sure it will be a little less exciting. But that's what I was trying to say before - I don't feel I'm really dominating. I'm not always really for sure up there, I've had difficulties as well."

The Chink in the Armour

To say that everyone admires Schumacher would be a gross inaccuracy. In olden years, it would be hard to get a real grasp of how popular or hated a driver is globally. But Schumacher is performing at an era where every single move of his is recorded and aired for all to see, and every reaction can be read and perceived on the thousands of Formula One Bulletin Boards to be found on the Internet, where Schumacher is the hero and anti-hero of almost every discussion.

Senna and SchumacherSchumacher knows he'd never win the all-time popularity award, and despite his insistence that it doesn't trouble him, there is an undertone of bitterness in his voice when I present him with some of the notions held against him. To his credit, however, he doesn't bash away from questions as such, nor does he let me get away with it that easily - even if we end up agreeing to disagree.

"Look, I know that not everyone is my fan," he tells me at some point. "Once you arrive where I arrive, I have my fans that support me with everything, and there are other people which support other drivers or don't like me. That's natural and I am not going to try to change that."

Sober view, no doubt, but there's another side to the story. I always wanted to ask Schumacher two questions about his career: one, if he believes he would have achieved all these records and accomplishments had Ayrton Senna lived, and two, why he never had a competitive teammate. But when I came around to asking these questions, I thought I'd soften them first with a compliment. Little did I know that even that wouldn't get past him that easily.

"There is a general consensus that you are the best driver of the last decade," I began my question, when Schumacher interrupted me, saying: "No, I don't agree about that."

"You don't?" I ask, taken by surprise.

"No," he says firmly. "What I would agree with, is that I am the most consistent over the past ten years."

"You really don't think that you're the best?" I insist.

He takes a long sigh before he replies. "look, me saying that I'm the best sounds very arrogant; I would never say that, and I don't even know if it's true. I'm the most successful driver - to that I agree with. But I don't really know if I'm the best or the fastest. I don't even know how you can measure that."

Well, I'm glad he brought that up!

BG: OK, I'll tell you something: if there is one thing to be said against you, it's that you never really had a truly competitive teammate, like Prost had Senna and Senna had Prost. Wouldn't you like to put that to the test one day? Wouldn't you like to team up with Hakkinen or Villeneuve, or Fisichella or Trulli for that matter?

Schumacher smiles. "As if I haven't heard that before!" he says, and thereafter he talks faster, almost furious. "You know, each one likes to argue his own way. The people who argue the way you just put the question - they have forgotten that I drove next to Patrese and next to Piquet, and next to Herbert and next to Lehto and next to Verstappen, etc. etc. etc. I mean, I had quite a range of teammates. I don't think you can say that Piquet wasn't a challenge."

BG: Piquet? Seriously? He was in the end of his career though

Schumacher follows Nelson Piquet, in 1991Schumacher: "Of course, but he was only 35. Look, I don't think it's fair to say that I have never had a strong teammate. Because, imagine back then - I'm arriving at Benetton and at that stage I have no say in the team. Now, when Ferrari wants a teammate, they look at the best option they can take. And it's not me who is saying, 'no I don't want Coulthard' or 'I don't want Villeneuve' - it's them who said, 'No, I don't want to drive next to Michael'. So what can I do??? It's not my responsibility if they don't want to come and join us because they are c... No, I don't want to use the word I just had in my mouth, no. But just know that a lot of that is not because of me."

BG: So what you are saying is that from your standpoint you would welcome the challenge?

Schumacher: "Oh, I have no problem with the challenge. But I think I had enough challenge to prove myself. If somebody wants to see that, there's enough evidence to see that. If someone wants to see it the other way, then OK. But in my view Piquet, for example, was very quick, and in fact he beat me at Adelaide in qualifying and in Estoril, in the race, so I think there was a reasonable competition there. And he was quite angry - me arriving at the team at the expense of his friend Roberto Moreno who was thrown out of the team, so I don't think he took it too easy at that time or gave me any discounts."

BG: There's something I am curious about, nonetheless. Do you think that you would have still won four Championships if you were driving against Senna, Prost or Mansell? Do you think you'd have been where you are now if Senna had not been killed?

The mention of Senna as if turns a light off in Schumacher's eyes. Cynical as one may be, there's no doubt he aches Senna's death more than any of us could fathom. Last year, in the weekend he equalled Senna's wins' tally of 41, at the Italian Grand Prix, the Brazilian was very much on his mind, and little wonder that he broke down and cried at the post-race press conference.

Back then, as early as Thursday afternoon, he was talking about Senna with a strange yearning in his voice. "Obviously, he was my idol," he said in a cracked voice, when asked how he felt about the Brazilian. And later, when someone asked him who he rates as the fastest driver (other than himself), he asked: "you mean of the current drivers? ever?" The baffled journalist said, "Well I mean among Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Hill..." "Why aren't you mentioning Senna?" Schumacher snapped, "For sure he was the fastest. Definitely."

Bearing that in mind, it might be unfair to ask Schumacher whether he'd have been able to beat his own hero.

"Who knows?" he replies to my question, somewhat quietly. "I don't know. I mean, look at it this way: I think my first World Championship in '94, I would have had for sure much more difficulties to win it against Senna than to win it against Hill, because Senna was much faster than Hill.

"On the other side of the question mark, my engine wasn't so strong and yet I was able to beat Senna in Brazil in a very clear fight. But then the car was difficult for him at that stage. The Williams improved, but I only took 12 races out of 16 races that year - so maybe I would never have won it, and maybe I would. We will never find out, sadly, so each one will keep his own view if I would have done it or not. Personally, I just don't want to think about it because I will never know the answer."

And Now, The End is Near...

How long can Schumacher maintain his supremacy in the sport, and why would he want to continue, given the fact that he really has attained every possible achievement the sport has to offer?

The 2001 Japanese GPMika Hakkinen says Schumacher will retire soon; Ross Brawn revealed there was talk of retirement at the Italian Grand Prix this year. Those who've seen him that weekend clearly admit he was behaving and thinking differently than his usual self. Perhaps for the first time he was thinking like a father and not a racer.

But Schumacher remains adamant that his time has not yet come and deflects any suggestion that he ought to clear the stage for new stars. I tell him that the great Juan Manuel Fangio said, when he retired, that he achieved more than anything he ever dreamed he could achieve, and that it's not good for the sport to have the same star at the top for so long, that it's time for him to move aside and give others the limelight. "Don't you feel that this now applies to you too?" I ask.

"One day it will, but not yet, no," he says. "I still love it and I still feel I have the right to be here and to enjoy the competition, and as long as I feel that, I will keep racing. Certainly there will be the day when I feel it's time to go, but that day is not here yet."

BG: You once said that you would retire if you found some young, upcoming driver that would push you beyond your limit. Do you see someone with the potential to become this driver among the current crop?

Schumacher: "You know, since what has happened to Jenson Button, I am a bit more careful in judging that. Because everybody thought he is the coming superstar and that he is going to beat everybody, and now it's turned around. So now you have two sides to look at it - either Jenson is still as good as he is, but Fisichella is soooo much better, or Jenson has broken down. So you have two ways of looking at it. We now have new and promising guys like Montoya, Raikkonen, and Heidfeld, which seem to be very good. But then, what would happen in the future we will have to wait and see."

BG: Michael, when it's all done, when you hang up the cap and retire, how do you think people will remember you?

Schumacher: "Honestly? It doesn't matter. Some people will want to see me like this and others like that. What's important is that I know what I am, who I am and where I am. And if people see me the way I am - then I'm happy. But I can't control how everyone sees me. I can only be proud of myself and happy with what I achieved."

And who could ask for more!

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 42
October 17th 2001

Atlas F1 Exclusive

Exclusive Interview with Michael Schumacher
by Biranit Goren

Japanese GP Review

The Japanese GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Changing Tactics
by Richard Barnes

He is the Champion
by Karl Ludvigsen


The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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