I’ve been writing about Michael Schumacher since he contested the Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival in 1988, and in the run up to his comeback race in Bahrain it seemed a good time to take a look into the past of the biggest name in the sport.
One of the most unusual events in Michael’s career came at Monza in 2000, where he equalled Ayrton Senna’s tally of 41 wins. In the TV unilaterals after the race he stunned the world when he broke down in tears, causing rival Mika Hakkinen to put a reassuring arm around his shoulders. Nobody had ever seen Michael like this before – and indeed, we’ve never seen such a public display of emotion from him since.
After a run of bad weekends Monza saw Michael get his title challenge back on track, as he moved with two points of Hakkinen. The race also saw the death of a fire marshal, hit by a wheel torn from Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan – although Michael himself didn’t know about the tragedy until after the press conference. I wrote this short column a couple of days after the race.
The tracks of Michael’s tears (First published: September 2000)
Michael Schumacher’s tearful reaction in the post-race TV interviews at Monza came as shock to just about everybody. One thing is certain; at that stage he did not yet know that a marshal had been killed. He only learned the news during a much later interview back in the paddock, whereupon he immediately stopped proceedings and went back to the team motorhome.
So what was it all about? One can only guess at what sort of emotions were stirring around in Michael’s head after the race. He never hides his enjoyment on the podium, but this time he did seem a little bit more expressive than usual, staying on after Mika Hakkinen and his brother Ralf had gone to enjoy the moment for a little longer. Obviously he must have been seriously affected by winning at Monza in front of the tifosi for the third time in five years.
In so doing he ended his drought after suffering through so many disappointments during his recent string of bad weekends. That included the first corner crashes in Austria and Hockenheim, and being passed by Hakkinen in Hungary and – most humiliatingly – in his personal kingdom at Spa. Monza was also important because he finally equalled Ayrton Senna’s tally of 41 victories, leaving only Alain Prost ahead of him in the record books.
Schumacher won at Imola on the day that Ayrton was killed, and since then he has rarely talked about the Brazilian. Usually he professes to have no interest in statistics, but clearly the mention of Senna’s name by the interviewer in the already hyped-up circumstances pushed Michael through some kind of barrier.
Something else could have played a part. What few people outside his immediate circle knew was that at Monza he learned that an old friend had suffered a stroke. Willi Bergmeister was the garage owner in Kerpen who first employed him and gave him his mechanic’s apprenticeship, and helped to fund the teenager’s early racing exploits. Although Bergmeister is apparently out of danger, the news obviously affected his former protégé, who started making phone calls as soon as he heard.
There’s nothing wrong with a few tears from a bloke, and we saw Hakkinen having a private blub after spinning at this very race last year, although he thought he was away from prying eyes and was unaware of the helicopter hovering above. More than once, after a hard race or even a particularly tense qualifying session pole, Mika has struggled to find the right words in a press conference. But that was nothing compared with Rubens Barrichello’s amazing and affecting outburst of pure emotion on the podium in Hockenheim.
We often see Olympic champions cry on the rostrum when the national anthem is played, but this was something extraordinary. Rubens made no secret of the fact that Senna was on his mind. But what made Monza so notable was that this was ice man Michael Schumacher. Only rarely have we seen the German lose his cool, and then in very different circumstances; the most dramatic example was at Spa in 1998, when he marched off to David Coulthard’s pit after their collision in the rain.
One Ferrari insider admitted that the whole team was stunned by the Monza tears, but added with a cynical grin that Michael is not known for being ‘a very original guy,’ and that Barrichello’s Hockenheim performance may have somehow freed him up. It’s certainly true that he is noted for picking up habits or ideas from those around him, not least his team mates.
“I don’t really understand where it came from,” said Ron Dennis, who always studies the post-race interviews. “But it obviously was genuine. I don’t know what part of the question got to him, but it certainly got to him. I am not surprised with anybody showing emotion. When you do have success in difficult circumstances sometimes the adrenaline which has controlled your emotions suddenly isn’t there any more, and everything floods over you. I’m sympathetic to it, but from where it came, only he can tell.”
But will people treat him differently now? There are two schools of thought. On the one hand Michael may well have won over a few non-believers through showing that he is, after all, human. On the other some of his hardcore, cap-wearing, beer-swilling fans may be a little confused by his sudden display of ‘new man’ sensibilities.
And what of his rivals? Dennis must surely have taken some comfort from Michael’s reaction. Psychology plays a large part in any sport, and here for the first time were clear, unavoidable signs that McLaren’s relentless pressure in recent weeks had hit the target.
“Absolutely. Don’t make any bones about it, we’re going to put him under massive pressure. And we’re still leading.”