Atlas F1 Head Games - Leg Games

  by Roger Horton, England

The decision by Michael Schumacher to race in the last two events of the year after all, adds yet another bizarre twist to a season already full of surprises, both on and off the track. In the six races since that fateful British Grand Prix in July we have had five different winners, seen more tears flow than in the last ten years, watched a former world champion race rather reluctantly, and now this.

If Michael Schumacher's injuries prevented him from driving again this season then the situation should have been cut and dried. After testing his Ferrari prior to the Italian race he stated, "I tried today, but my leg hurt too much. It's impossible to race. I made a test day today and the problems in my leg are too big to do a proper job and it is basically impossible for me to run more than five laps at the moment and especially on this circuit. After the first lap I already felt pain in the broken leg, and after five, the pain was almost unbearable. Thus I realised it would be impossible for me to start in the next races."

So Schumacher sat out the Italian and European events but again tested for Ferrari last week. Prior to this test he was examined by his doctors in Paris and later stated, "It's true the doctors have said I am ready to resume normal activities, but I am not yet capable of tackling a Grand Prix. I have a problem with one of my knees which prevents me from training in the way I would like. Today, I can do a series of runs of several laps, but I could not drive a Grand Prix at my usual pace."

On Monday, October 4th, his testing was halted by a spin into the barriers. On Tuesday (October 5th) he flew to Rome to meet the Pope, and Wednesday (October 6th) reportedly saw him dining with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli. On Thursday (October 7th) he was back in action at Fiorano where his speed was impressive and he covered some 68 laps during the day. On Friday ( October 8th) came the dramatic announcement that he would after all compete at the last two events of the '99 season.

If this sudden turnaround is strange so too is the exact timing of events, as Schumacher, his advisers, and team fed the news to an increasing hostile media. In a further interview with Enrico Chiara on October 5th, prior to his meeting with the Pope, Schumacher lamented: "The press releases after my visit in Paris created a false impression about my condition. The doctors said that I am okay, 'okay' as an average man. 'Okay' to make breakfast or to go to the office, but not to drive 300 kms in row at a pace 300 km/h. Unfortunately my physical condition does not allow me to do this."

When asked whether he was still shocked by his previous day's spin into the barriers at Mugello Schumacher replied, "Yes I am. I must admit that I was really scared right after the accident. For a moment I thought about Silverstone again and felt myself fragile." These are human emotions perhaps, but not the sentiments that one would normally associate with the super confident Michael Schumacher.

Thursday saw his confidence sufficiently restored to venture out onto Ferrari's test track at Fiorano where the "old" Schumacher blew away the lap record with the fastest lap ever recorded with an F399, 1:00.941. In another strange twist of this hard- to-fathom tale, Ferrari - normally the fastest of all the teams at releasing their testing and race news - chose to wait over two days before going public with this feat. Indeed, it did not see the light of day until after the news of Schumacher's return itself had been released.

Just which of these events in his crowded week caused the double world champion to do a complete U-turn is not clear. Probably the pressure that Agnelli and Montezemolo brought to bear was crucial, aware as both must have been of the gathering media storm. Formula One is above all a commercial exercise and unhappy fans can quickly translate into reluctant consumers. The image of a spoilt superstar leaving his team in the lurch clearly would have been hard to sell.

Ferrari, more than any other Formula One racing team, are subjected to almost constant and unremitting media pressure. With speculation that some men of the Ferrari team have been giving lukewarm support at best to Eddie Irvine's efforts to secure his first ever world championship, the Italian media's knives have long been well and truly sharpened. Only the victim or victims remained to be selected. As Michael Schumacher pounded around the Ferrari test track at Fiorano setting an all time record along the way, the victim more or less picked himself. Just how, the press howled, could he be fit enough to drive so fast and yet remain resolutely on the sidelines, as perhaps Ferrari's title hopes were dashed again.

The comments that greeted his decision to do an about face and return to the cockpit were somewhat harsh but to the point. "Schumacher's shares which were in a free fall will skyrocket again. The big egotist Schumacher turned into a big hero again with a little announcement," said Turin's La Stampa newspaper. Whilst the Messaggero daily opined: "Schumacher understood he could no longer hide, that everyone was against him - the Ferrari people, the fans, the world-wide media and even those who know nothing about Formula One. That's why he changed his mind."

Michael Schumacher may have been reprieved by sections of the European media but perhaps not yet forgiven entirely. There must remain a question mark over a racing driver's motives if he agrees to return to the track due to a combination of media pressure and pleas from his team. Usually, a recuperating driver is driven by such an overwhelming desire to race again that it is his doctors' and team bosses' role to restrain him until he is ready. That Schumacher chose to make a statement ruling out any return in '99 prior to these latest round of tests would surely now look to have been a major error, fuelling as it did the impression that no matter how well he performed he would not assist his team in their fight against their common enemy - McLaren.

Nothing of course stands still in life, and in Formula One it is not only the cars that move fast. Since Schumacher's accident we have seen the continuing rise and rise of two other German drivers. Ralf Schumacher's progress this season has been dramatic. He is clearly ready to win races and win regularly. For Heinz-Harald Frentzen - so often in Schumacher Senior's shadow - this season has seen him at last deliver performances that his supporters always knew he could deliver, but had almost despaired in ever actually seeing. Now this changing scene will not have been lost on Michael Schumacher's management team, paid as they are to be aware of the commercial realities that even the biggest names must adhere to.

For Schumacher that means the all important German and Italian markets. In Italy the name Ferrari will still be gracing race-tracks when the Schumacher name is but a memory. For Schumacher to have dishonoured the Ferrari legend through simple lack of perceived effort would have been, perhaps, the final fatal error. For Michael Schumacher, with the memories of Jerez '97 and the earlier "Schumel Shumi" tag, a relic of his Benetton days ("schumel" in German translates into a person deemed to be somewhere between being crafty or a cheat) the last thing he needed is yet another controversy centred around his off-track character rather than his on-track performances.

The Tifosi expect their drivers to almost literally lay down their lives for the Scuderia, and with good reason. If three time world champion and Ferrari legend Niki Lauda can return to the race track just 33 days after a fiery crash - where his injuries were so severe he was administered the last rites - they can surely expect Michael Schumacher to drive through the pain barrier at Sepang. That he will have to support the title interests of Eddie Irvine is now clear. Failure may lead to defeat on the race track, but failure is not the same thing as dishonour.

Schumacher will prove an invaluable asset to Ferrari and Irvine in Malaysia - that is without question. Eddie Irvine has shown that he can perform well in a car Michael Schumacher has set up, but he seems unable to instigate the developments to extract the maximum from the car by himself. Even if Schumacher gets no further than half distance in the race due to his lack of fitness, he will have served the team well if he can deliver a competitive race car into Eddie Irvine's hands.

So as the teams make their way to Malaysia for the first ever Formula One race to be held in South East Asia, the reappearance of Schumacher in the Ferrari line up will add a new and dramatic twist to a '99 title contest. A title contest that, although close, was increasingly looking to be a contest to determine just who wanted to lose least - rather than win most - so poor has been the form of the two leading contenders. For Michael Schumacher it is another chance to do what he does best of all - drive a racing car faster and further than all his rivals - team orders and Irvine's needs not withstanding.

Lets just hope for all our sakes, it all does not end in yet more tears...

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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