INTERVIEW

Michael Schumacher

Earlier this year Michael Schumacher did not really believe that he could win a Grand Prix in 1992. He would not even dare to dream that such a thing was possible.

"I am a realistic man," he said. "I don't dream about this. That is something for the future. It's a bit too early to say."

Schumacher was wrong. He might only have scored his first F1 podium in Mexico - third behind the all-conquering Williams-Renaults in just his eighth Grand Prix - but in Spa he won his 18th race. An amazing achievement.

"At the start of the year," explains Michael, "my aim was to finish as many races as possible and get experience - which I really need. I have surprised myself, but I am quite happy about it.

"But," he adds carefully, "you should not expect too much."

It is typically Schumacher. The old head on young shoulders. It seems that everything comes easy to Michael for he has a confidence and assuredness that few of his age possess. Sometimes it borders on arrogance, but then he seems to have the skills to back up the brash way he sometimes comes across.

He was well trained, of course, as a member of the Mercedes-Benz Junior team, being groomed for stardom with the Silver Arrows. He had good teachers in experienced veterans Jochen Mass (Germany's last Grand Prix winner), Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi. As it turned out, plans changed: Michael was signed by Benetton - although there were clauses for his release to Mercedes included in the original contract; and then Mercedes-Benz decided that it did not wish to embark publicly on an F1 programme.

And so Michael remains with Benetton-Ford for 1993 - and he's quite happy with the arrangement as it stands.

"I never could have imagined that I could work with an F1 team as it is now. The real reason why it is going so well is the work between me and the team. It is fantastic. Really fantastic. I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I also have a lot in the team. When you start out in a team, you have to get the teamwork going and then you get something back. That is what has happened. I think that our success is because it is really a good and well-managed team."

The problem, of course, is that the Benetton-Ford B192 is not a match for the Williams fw14bs, with their Renault V10 engines and active-suspension.

"There is no question," says Michael, "that the active suspension is very different. I knew that from my time at Mercedes because we worked on a similar system. It is a lot quicker. At the moment we have a good package. The V8 is really light and the car is reliable and easy to work on."

But it isn't really enough to take on the Williams-Renaults... Michael doesn't say it, but the inference is there.

So what for the future? The Benetton team guards is guarding its 1993 plans carefully. Over the winter the team is moving into one single factory at Enstone in Oxfordshire, England. Finally Benetton will be under one roof rather than dotted round at a number of different locations in Witney and Godalming.

The technical team under Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne have been busy working away on a number of advanced programmes from 1993 and beyond with an active suspension programme, a semi-automatic transmission and such refinements as traction control. Williams, however, has the advantage of being ahead and everyone else has to run harder to catch up and overtake.

On the engine front it seems ever more unlikely that the Ford V12 will be seen racing for some time. Earlier in the summer Benetton announced that it had signed up Alessandro Zanardi to be the V12 test driver, but the Italian has not driven a car with the new engine - the date of its appearance is put further and further back.

Rumours suggest that Benetton engineers have already made it clear that they are not really interested in the V12 and reckon that the V8 will be more and more competitive in comparison to the V10s and the V12s, particularly in the light of the new regulations for the narrower bodywork, reduced wings and narrower tyres. These, the engineers believe, will favour the V8 users.

One of the keys to the Benetton success this year - apart from the fact that McLaren and Ferrari have not done as well as was expected - is that the cars have been extremely reliable. Benetton hopes that a winter of extensive testing will mean that the team begins next year with new electronic systems up and running and reliable, thus avoiding the mistakes made by Williams at the start of 1991 with the semi-automatic gearbox.

Schumacher is being joined, however, by a man who loves to test - and has more experience in F1 than any other driver in the history of the sport - Italian veteran Riccardo Patrese.

Many in F1 were mystified by the choice of Patrese, but for Michael it is good news. Riccardo is a well-established Number Two. He is quick, but has been quicker. He is a tireless test driver and a team player. He is not likely to be able to challenged Michael for outright pace - but will make sure that the young German keeps up his high level of performance.

Schumacher could not have asked for more...

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