Schumi : Hero or villain?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Back in the Nineties there was a hit film called Awakenings. It starred Robert De Niro and it told the true story of a man who wakes up after being in a coma from a sleeping sickness for over 20 years. We see him rejoice as he experiences the full rush of life, but then the sickness returns. The scene where he is put back to bed, still awake, but knowing he will be returning to a sleeping prison forever is one of the most anguished you'll ever see.

And it's what sprang to mind when Schumacher gave his retirement speech at Monza. I watched this man, responsible for so many unbelievable racing moments, say his farewells, and then that kid Kubica, who'd come third, trotted out one of those inane lift- music-style speeches about his tyres being okay. I think this was the Awakenings moment for me.

Schumacher is one of that breed of super drivers that sprang up in the '80s and '90s - the Sennas, Prosts, Mansells and Piquets - who thought their own thoughts, spoke their minds and were completely in control of their own actions. When they raced they gave us the full spectrum - passion, fury, villainy, genius, mischief, balls-ups - the lot. They were showmen worth watching and now the last of that breed is about to walk away, and as a result Formula One will become more somnambulant.

It's easy to cast Schumacher as villain. Drivers such as Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart point to all his low-down unsporting moments - Adelaide '94, Jerez '97, and Monaco this year - as evidence that he can never be ranked with the great champions of the past who had much higher moral standards.

And it's true that generations ago, the racing was more gentlemanly. Moss himself threw away his one chance of being world champion because he wouldn't protest the points tally of his rival, Mike Hawthorn.

Then you had Peter Collins surrendering his car - and his own chance of a world championship - to Fangio mid-race, so that his senior teammate could win the title. They were sportsmen in the purest sense of the word, but you can't compare Schumacher's behaviour to theirs, any more than you can compare the cars of now and then.

Those drivers raced in an era that, like the telly of the time, was black and white. Appearance was everything, emotions were clamped down, and society, rather than the individual, was the dominant force in deciding peoples' conduct.

Today, though, a two-dimensional comic- book hero has no relevance in a society that is much more complex. If a hero is to be relevant, then he or she must be like us - vulnerable, bad and weak one day, virtuous and strong the next.

That is Schumacher times 10, the classic Shakespearean tragic hero, capable of super-human feats and then transgressing to the dark side when his fatal flaw gets the better of him. You can't appreciate good without knowing evil, and likewise you can't appreciate human greatness unless that human has demons to fight.

Schumacher has plummeted to the worst depths in his sport - blatant cheating - and then gathered himself up to make amends with acts of genius. I can relate to him in the same way I can relate to all the best hero-cum-villains in modern cinema. (I would have liked to change this part...It's too much)

I met once, in 2000, while filming a BBC series about the science of speed. It took half a year to negotiate an hour of his time, but the man himself was charming and even stayed for a drink after filming wrapped.

In the interview, he confessed that he believed Häkkinen to be easily as fast as him, and then we discussed the Dick Dastardly moment when he tried to punt off Jacques Villeneuve in '97. He admitted how he knew it wasn't right, but how he'd been schooled in the era when Senna rewrote the rules on racing conduct. It was a fair reply, and afterwards we asked Bernie Ecclestone for the footage of the moment when Schumacher turned in on Villeneuve.

Bernie refused, to protect Michael, but then gave us the devil's own solution: he would let us use the footage - as long as Michael gave permission in writing. Schumacher then had the final say over whether his dirtiest laundry should be aired again, and, more to the point, if he said no, nobody would ever know he'd blocked it. A day later, though, we received his written permission. I've never forgotten that.

Looking back over his career there are many amazing races that qualify him for hero status. Spain '96, when, in pouring rain, he trounced the field in a dog of a car, is one. Then there was Hungary '98, when he had to drive 20 straight qualifying-speed laps mid-race to compensate for an extra pit stop, and again won.

But the racing moment above all that makes him a hero for me is this year's(2006) Hungarian Grand Prix. In the final laps, Schumacher was third, with Alonso out of the race completely. Michael's tyres were shot to bits and it was obvious he would lose places to de la Rosa and Heidfeld. Even so, he'd still come home fifth and bag himself four valuable points, so all he had to do was let the other drivers through.

Schumacher didn't though. He fought de la Rosa and Heidfeld like a wounded wild animal and in the process shagged his car completely and came home with no points.

Schumacher still races every corner, every moment, like his life depends on it. The same passion for winning that exposes him to moments of weakness is also the very passion that makes him gamble everything, going down with all guns blazing, like he did in Hungary. That is the man I will so dearly miss."

Andy Wilman

*I haven't changed the article at all.