Michael Schumacher and me: Kevin Garside recalls the skiing trip when he met the surprisingly shy and unfailingly polite man, not the natural born racer
Someone should sit at Michael Schumacher’s hospital bedside reading a sample of the Twitter love flooding timelines. If overwhelming positivity is subliminally communicated it can’t hurt, though he might struggle to reconcile the ethereal characterisation with the caricature many in Formula One loved to hate when he was winning title after title.
Schumacher had an almost pathological desire to win, which blurred ethical lines more than once in his career. He also had a gene defect which denied him any possibility of sensing the dangers associated with speed. Any who has stood at the corner of the swimming pool section at Monaco and watched the cars twitch through the entry, almost skimming the concrete walls at the apex, or observed them passing through the compression chamber that is Eau Rouge in Spa, will understand that there is no extreme sport on earth that thrills quite like a 200mph dance on four wheels.
Schumacher was not unique in his attachment to danger or in demonstrating a variable moral compass in the mad chase for glory. But that does not tell the whole story. He was a different character in repose, surprisingly shy and unfailingly polite. I was privileged in my early years as a Formula One correspondent to attend Ferrari’s winter ski weeks in the Dolomites. This was an invite-only affair principally a matter for Italian and German journalists. As the only representative from English national newspapers I was in an enviable position but the real value was the exposure the week afforded to Schumacher the man, not the racer.
The Ferrari high command loved him. Why wouldn’t they? From 1999 he drove them to six consecutive constructors’ championships and five drivers’ titles on the spin ending a period of nothingness that lasted two decades. In the evenings in Madonna di Campiglio Ferrari would commandeer a restaurant high up the mountain, for which a ski lift would open especially to transport the media party. The team’s general manager and second in command to president Luca di Montezemolo, Jean Todt, would always seat himself next to Schumacher, whom he treated like a son, at the top table under an eave and the vino would flow.
Schumacher revelled in the quasi intimacy of the event and the privacy respected. There would be a stage-managed photo then the filming would cease. Schumacher was surprisingly at ease, talking freely to the German journalists who had followed his career from karts to F1 supremacy. Evenings would frequently end in the bar at the Golf Hotel, where Schumacher was housed in a suite, and he would mingle with the invited guests long into the night, posing happily for pictures.
There is even a shot of Mrs Garside and Schumi in an album somewhere at home. My wife is no devotee of sport and had no real comprehension of celebrity scale on the occasion she was invited along. This allowed her to approach Schumi as if he were just another bloke in the bar. Not quite, “which one is he?” but close enough. We have kids exactly the same age, a gentle talking point and always a winner when you are seeking that special snap. “Sorry Michael. Would you mind standing in the middle?” she asked. “Sure, no problem,” he said, observing in an aside the virtues of her being bossy.
Such was the informal nature of the week Schumacher would sometimes attend with his wife, Corinna, who seemed to enter the spirit of the occasion as much as her husband. It was never entirely clear to me who led whom on to the dance floor at the Doss del Sabion night spot beside the slopes at Cinque Laghi. Since the ban on cameras was strictly observed there is no evidence to support my recollections, nevertheless I have burned on my retina a vision of Schumi in his favoured cowboy boots and jeans blitzing the dance floor with all the agility of a lamp-post. A groover he was not.
But boy could he ski. Ferrari would schedule plenty of slope time for Schumacher and at the end of the week he would contest a slalom race at the top of the Groste slopes. No prizes for guessing the identity of the winner. Among our number there were a couple of tasty operators on snow, one who trained with the Red Cross as a kid in Switzerland and another who had some association with the German ski squad in the distant past. Both hammered down the hill like Franz Klammer but neither was able to eclipse Schumi. The race was probably decided by a clock measuring in Schumi-time. Not that anyone complained.
As the only English scribbler in attendance my job was to return with the big picture exclusive; Our man Garside and Schumi on snow. I was assured by the legendary F1 photographer John Townsend that everything was cleared with the head of the Ferrari photographic corps, to whom I presented a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky to help matters along. Of course nothing happened, requiring yours truly to intercept Schumi on the final morning as he exited the chair lift at the top of the hill shortly after dawn. “As soon as he appears, ski alongside him and I will snap away,” said John, overlooking the platoon of minders and Ferrari staff that formed Schumacher’s personal retinue.
Into the court of Schumi I skied, risking the wrath of mine hosts for the picture that would make or break the trip, and my reputation on the desk back in London. The great man clearly wasn’t pleased at the intrusion, but brushed aside the heavy mob circling to grant the request. “OK, but quickly, I have to test the piste,” he said, pointing to the line of gates that marked the slalom track on which he always won. Even though he couldn’t lose, Schumacher did not want to encounter any surprises in the race and duly threw himself down the mountain, tucking convincingly through the turns.
And now this; the world waiting for bedside bulletins on a brain injury that would have claimed his life immediately had he not been wearing a helmet. Schumacher knew the risks. He owns a property in the Trois Vallees, where the accident occurred. He knows the Meribel terrain like the back of his hand, but adrenalin junkies like him do not recognise the moment to take their foot off the gas. They have to have that thrill fix. This might have happened on a motorbike, or sky-diving as he was wont to do.
My final interview with him came at the private Ascari circuit in Andalucia, southern Spain. It was during his first retirement, post Ferrari. He told me that he had no regrets, that he was done with F1 and enjoying indulging his passion for two wheels and throwing himself out of planes over the canyons of Colorado, like you do. He invited me to sit beside him in a Maserati for a spin around a circuit that mirrors some of F1’s legendary turns. Before we set off he asked the engineer to check the tyres. “They are shot, down to the thread. We need to change them.”
“OK,” said Schumi, “One more lap.” And off we went, sparks showering the asphalt as what was left of the tyres dug into the black stuff through the first corner. “You OK?” he asked, flashing that wicked half-smile of his. Weirdly I was. I trusted absolutely in the instincts of a driver who had reset the parameters of what was possible at the wheel of a car. As we closed out the lap and the pit entry beckoned I finally let go of the door handle and relaxed. I should have known. There is no such thing as one more lap for Schumacher. Round we went a second time before he said: “OK, we slow down now. The rears have gone, too!”