MIND GAMES

Fight or flight for Schumacher at Spa?

Michael Schumacher, British GP 2003

Michael Schumacher, British GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

True colours seem increasingly hard to camouflage in Formula 1 this year. One week after F1's most successful team reminded us how they tarnished their mystique, F1's most successful driver reminds us why he so lacked such mystique in the first place.

Michael Schumacher's move on Rubens Barrichello at the Hungarian Grand Prix was flinch-inducing for all race fans and 'horrible' in the Brazilian's accurate description. Such a close call at 180mph makes you wonder what it was about his wing man for five titles that so incensed Schumacher. Talk about an ever-expanding karmic debt.

Schumacher has since 'apologised', apparently at the behest of Mercedes - but only for Barrichello's mistaken belief that he was in any danger. I hereby admit to a similar error, then. From here it almost seemed the prospect of losing the final, solitary point to his erstwhile number two riled the German to the brink of violence.

But a quick glance down the years might reassure Rubens this was nothing personal, as similar tales abound. In 2001 at the Nurburgring Michael even attempted a similar wall-of-death stunt on his own brother Ralf.

If such swerves in the relative low pace of the start became a trademark, Schumacher was not averse to having a swipe at full speed too. When he next takes to the track at Spa-Francorchamps for Friday practice on August 27 it will be ten years to the day since Mika Hakkinen found himself under a similar delusion that he was heading for an unscheduled flight over the Ardennes forest.

Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher, European GP 2000

Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher, European GP 2000 

 © The Cahier Archive

Like Barrichello on Sunday, Hakkinen had a huge pace advantage over Schumacher with five laps left of the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix. But as the Finn tried to pass on the run to Les Combes, Schumacher moved across on him at 200mph. Unlike Barrichello, who was prepared to risk all for one measly championship point, Hakkinen backed off, just, rather than risk flying into the trees.

Within a lap, Hakkinen hit back with one of the all-time great moves as the two cars passed either side of the hapless Ricardo Zonta in the BAR. Afterwards the incensed Finn took Schumacher to one side and, using his hands to depict cars as all racers do, he firmly showed him what he had done wrong.

In the press conference Hakkinen said: "I didn't think it was fair at the time, but the reason I talked to Michael for so long after the race was not to try and put the blame on him. I just wanted to let him know I had noticed that the situation had happened. It was an unusual move - I won't say he was in the wrong, but it was a very hectic and unpleasant moment, and so close."

Despite a similar clash as the pair battled at Macau in F3, that was as far as Hakkinen would be pushed on the sparring at Spa 2000. He's kept his word, and his mouth shut, ever since. Ten days later at Monza, little wonder that a rarely humbled Schumacher described Hakkinen as a fine professional and a great sportsman.

Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Japanese GP 1998

Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Japanese GP 1998 

 © The Cahier Archive

By contrast, it's striking how little a decade has taught Schumacher. Both at Spa and last weekend he admitted his pursuers had been going too fast to hold them back, even with so few laps remaining. Yet his last line of defence was to attempt intimidation - or the threat of a flying lesson.

Schumacher's lunges have been likened to something out of go-karts. You get away with them unless your wheels are exposed, as in F1, when contact can send the car skywards. It looks brutal and is rightly condemned - but what if these moments are not quite as premeditated as they look? Freud might take a look at the family-run kart track in Michael's home town of Kerpen and conclude he regresses to that childhood state of mind as a reflex whenever he's put under real pressure.

What must be particularly galling for this seven-time world champion is the truism that you are remembered not for your good bits but when you screw up. But buckling under pressure is a surprisingly consistent theme of Schumacher's career. The most crucial moments often bring out great performances in great athletes, allowing them to find 'the Zone'. But it was in the heat of title battles that the otherwise robotic German was most likely to suffer a malfunction and suddenly look all too human.

In total he has been involved in five world championship battles that went to the wire. The first two ended in two crashes. Schumacher notoriously tried and failed to punt Jacques Villeneuve out of the Jerez finale in 1997, adding credence to claims he did the same to rob Damon Hill of the title at Adelaide in 1994.

"Before the race I knew he was going to have me off," Villeneuve told me about the moment he now describes as the funniest of his career. "He had Damon off for his first championship, he always cracked under pressure, so I knew he was going to do it. Still, that day a lot of people believed he didn't do it on purpose. He was still clean enough for people to believe anything he said, although it didn't last that long."

A year later Schumacher stalled on the Suzuka grid, allowing Hakkinen an easy win. Then in his final year (2006) he suffered a puncture after another clash. Schu's only successful shootout was in 2003, when he struggled to eighth place and the single point he needed to defeat Kimi Raikkonen after another near miss with his brother. This record is not good by the standards of any robot worth his bolts.

Incidentally, a certain trusty team-mate called Barrichello won that 2003 race to deny Kimi the points he needed anyway - yet another reason to shove him into the wall seven years later.

But in Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone, former fighter pilot Tug Wilson, now a consultant to F1 teams on performing in intense situations, explains how far you can stray under stress: "When these guys screw up it's beamed into millions of homes in glorious technicolour. That is a huge pressure to take with you. Schumacher is one of the best drivers ever but he's known as a cheating bastard for taking Hill off and parking his car at Monaco. So you can imagine the emotions they go through.

"They've been in karts since they could walk so the mechanics of driving the car fast come naturally for them. It's what they do. What puts the stress on them is coping with everything else. Schumacher so believes in his own ability that not being able to wring another half-second out of the car at Monaco - when he knew Alonso was behind on the fastest lap - led to a huge stress reaction.

Michael Schumacher, Bahrain GP 2010

Michael Schumacher, Bahrain GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

"The classic 'stress curve' shows we need a certain amount of stress to increase performance, but if we go beyond that we rapidly drop off. That's when you act completely and utterly out of character. They call it going into 'the Grip'."

Some would consider it generous to deem such actions out of character given their regularity in Schumacher's career. But this is a man who has contested over 250 grands prix, almost all in full view at or near the front. It's a fair calculation that his trips to the Zone outnumber those to the Grip.

Indeed, I am convinced it is the quest for this Zone that tempted Schumacher back this year - as the highs of racing are better than anything else he knows. One of his close confidants assured me it was the heavenly sensation of being at the limit that he most treasured from his time in F1. Yes, ahead of the results.

Even his choice of post-retirement pastime smacked of this love for the limit. He had long yearned for a private life, and once free of the Formula 1 regime of testing and race weekends he reportedly started partying like a teenager. Then the bug bit again. It was not the winning that drew him back to the tarmac, but the feel of pushing to the very edge - hence his initial switch to two wheels. When they go off it hurts every time, as he found out.

For the purposes of Overdrive I asked Schumacher during his sabbatical what the best feeling was about driving. "The pleasure is that you feel exactly when you're at the limit and when you have the car right there," he said. "It's so difficult to keep it just there because you're always riding on this edge and you might be a bit above or a bit below. When it's there it's fun but to hit it perfectly and set consistent times is the key. When you keep it there for the entire lap or the entire race and so on, that is the thrill of racing."

Even now I believe he's getting glimpses of that thrill - and that's what's keeping him going. But if even "original-spec" Schumacher showed how fragile that feeling can be by slipping off the "edge", such joy must be especially elusive for Schu Mk II. Yet, despite his struggles with an imperfect car/tyre set-up he still hasn't taken his ball away - one reason my admiration for him had been going up this year until last week.

Schumacher has kept a stiff chin throughout, despite being thrashed by his team-mate. But Hungary perhaps showed us the first dose of the Grip. He claims to be in it to win it but so far his greatest 2010 contribution has been to provide the field with tales to tell their grandchildren. He still clearly has pride and the thought of his old wing man soaring past him may have tipped him back over the edge.

Michael Schumacher, European GP 2004

Michael Schumacher, European GP 2004 

 © The Cahier Archive

Schumacher still potentially has much to offer but he has to tread extremely carefully from here on. The F1 world made grudging allowances for his moments in the Grip when he was at the top. But he can no longer afford to slip into its clutches - if that's all he's bringing to the party the invitations will soon start to dry up.

Ferrari indulged Schumacher his every whim too but he's picked the wrong team in Mercedes, which spent over three decades in self-imposed motorsport exile after the 1955 Le Mans disaster when a car flew into the crowd. Schumacher claims a lack of interest in racing history - but this is one lesson that will doubtless be drummed back into him before Spa.

Now is the time for Schumacher to revel in the unique chance he has to right, rather than compound, some of the wrongs of his earlier career. Other sports offer even the most vilified winning machines the chance to grow in popularity in their twilight. In F1, by contrast, they quit or are turfed out without sentiment.

A lesser name may have already suffered that fate, but Spa will be the barometer of where Schumacher goes from here. It is his favourite track, the scene of his debut and first win. Passing is hard work and starting near the back due to his ten-place penalty, he may find out just what Hakkinen endured a decade earlier. Any similar antics and it's surely 'auf wiedersehen' time.

But having the odds stacked against him also gives him a glorious opportunity. First he should try and get natural justice back on his side by apologising unreservedly to Barrichello. Then he has the chance to go out and show us what he's really made of. If he can unleash the right part of his Kerpen childhood training this time - the sheer enthusiasm and unbridled, natural driving skill - he can find the Zone and show the world Schu can shine again.

Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'

Follow grandprixdotcom on Twitter
Print Feature