Monday 20 November 2017

Adrenaline junkie Michael Schumacher as driven on the slopes as in F1

Kevin Garside recalls his time spent with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari's press week in the Italian resort of Madonna di Campiglio. On the slopes -- and the dancefloor -- he got to know both sides of the racing legend. Ferrari hierarchy treated 'Schumi' like a god, but he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent and drive

Michael Schumacher and his wife Corinna at the Madonna di Campiglio resort in 2005
Michael Schumacher and his wife Corinna at the Madonna di Campiglio resort in 2005
Schumacher enjoys snowboarding at the Madonna di Campiglio resort in 2005
Schumacher enjoyes the apres-ski at the Madonna di Campiglio resort in 2005
Jean-Francois Payen (C), head anaesthetician at the CHU hospital, neurosurgeon Stephan Chabardes (L) and Marc Penaud (R), hospital deputy general director, give a news conference at the CHU Nord hospital emergency unit in Grenoble, French Alps, where retired seven-times Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher is hospitalised after a ski accident
People ski on the top of Saulire mountain in Meribel, near where Michael Schumacher was injured
Michael Schumacher skis during a stay in the northern Italian resort of Madonna Di Campiglio in January 16, 2004

Kevin Garside

SOMEBODY should sit at Michael Schumacher's hospital bedside reading a sample of the Twitter love flooding timelines. If overwhelming positivity is subliminally communicated it cannot 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.

Anybody 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, will understand that there is no extreme sport on earth that thrills quite like a 300kph 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 invitation-only affair, principally a matter for Italian and German journalists. As the only representative of English 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. 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.

MINGLE

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 would mingle with the invited guests long into the night, posing happily for pictures.

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. 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. Both hammered down the hill like Franz Klammer but neither was able to eclipse Schumi.

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. 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.

Into the court of Schumi I skied. The great man clearly wasn't pleased at the intrusion, but brushed aside the heavy mob circling to grant the request. "Okay, 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 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 Valles, where the accident occurred. He knows the Meribel terrain like the back of his hand, but adrenaline 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, Spain. It was during his first retirement, post-Ferrari.

REGRETS

He told me 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. 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."

"Okay," 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 okay?" 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: "Okay, we slow down now. The rears have gone." Mine, too. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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