Jack: Birthday wishes for Michael Schumacher

Kristian Jack
1/3/2014 12:54:38 PM
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It is a blisteringly hot August day in the middle of the Ardennes Forest in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium.

The Formula One circus has arrived in town and on this Thursday afternoon the team's crew members are setting up their equipment in the pit lane ahead of the three day race weekend.

All of the talk is of Belgian driver Bertrand Gachot who had just been given a two month jail sentence for spraying CS Gas at a London taxi driver.

The locals are furious that they will not get to see their countryman drive the bright, green 7-UP Jordan and Free Gachot signs are plastered everywhere you look.

We begin talking to the Jordan team members and ask them who will fill Gachot's seat for the Belgian Grand Prix.

"We got some guy called Michael Schumacher from the Mercedes Sports Car team," said a mechanic.

"Can you not get anyone better than him?" asked my dad.

It turned out to be a comment my father, who has the smartest sporting brain of anyone I know, would come to be reminded of often.

Schumacher would qualify seventh for the race but when the cars blasted by us on the opening lap he didn't come past; forced to retire after one corner with a broken clutch.

One year later, in 1992, I am back at the gorgeous Spa circuit. It is now raining, as it often did, and drivers are having a horrid time with the changing track conditions.

Schumacher, now in a yellow Benetton, is a master behind the wheel as he takes over the lead and it is only then do I realize I have some Germans around me who had made the short journey across the border.

The air horns sounded as the young man from Kerpen crossed the finish line as a Formula One winner for the first time.

Less than a year later I am on the imposing terraces of the Hockenheim circuit amongst thousands of Germans for their home Grand Prix. British driver Damon Hill is two laps from winning his first ever Grand Prix but by now I am already a Schumacher fan. I am an Englishman in Germany cheering for a German over an Englishman.

Hill's tyre deflates less than five miles from the finish line, Alain Prost wins what would be his final F1 race, and Schumacher is roared home to second place by a whole army of new fans.

Eleven months later I am at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. The sport suffering from the tragic death of Ayrton Senna needed any kind of distraction and the Hill-Schumacher rivalry would soon became it. At this stage the German had six wins and a second place from the first seven races. He was dominating the championship. After hanging out with the majority in Germany I was now THE minority at Silverstone. With Nigel Mansell driving Indycars, Britain had a new hero and Hill memorabilia was selling like hotcakes. I had no problems finding my Schumacher flag that was by my side Saturday night at 9pm, as we camped by the entrance gate, and placed next to my chair at 501am as we marked down our territory at the prime spot on the front row at Copse Corner. Eight hours later the English public had a new Diego Maradona. The word Schumacher, that would stand for villain, dirty German and cheat amongst the English people for years to come, no longer was just about a race driver. Schumacher broke the rules before the start, overtaking on the formation lap, ignored the penalty, and the subsequent black flag, and would go on to be disqualified from the second position where he finished. Hill, meanwhile, won the race.

Seven weeks later I am back at Spa and so are thousands of more Germans. It seemed that every single one of them had camped next to me and decided their mandate for the weekend was to ensure I didn't sleep. Despite consuming an incredible amount of every alcohol you can think of, they still found their way to the side of the track by 1pm on Sunday.

Schumacher started second and would go on to win the race comfortably. An even bigger party broke out at the campsite on Sunday night and as we drove away from the circuit on Monday we passed the podium where Schumacher had celebrated the day before. A large German flag with words on it I didn't understand hung on the top step and I grabbed it as a souvenir as we began our drive back to British shores. A few hours later we stopped for gas and I read in the newspaper that Schumacher's Benetton had been disqualified for having excessive wear to the skid plate underneath the car. I didn't need to read the words on the flag to understand the message. Schumacher 0 Hill 10. Stunned silence from me on the way home. Again.

News would worsen soon after when Schumacher lost his appeal for his British Grand Prix mishap and was banned from racing in Italy and Portugal. Schumacher fans across the world were bitter but living in England and being a Schumacher fan made you angry.

'Hill Mania' gathered steam and the Englishman was just a point behind heading into the final race in Australia. In the middle of the night thousands of F1 fans in England watched on as Schumacher, leading the race, hit the wall, bounced back on to the track and then drove his car into his rival, damaging the Williams.

The noise from my dad and his two sons didn't just wake my mom that night. Lights were turned on at 4am up and down the street. Schumacher climbed from his car and out of the race while Hill nursed his car back to the pits. When his car was assessed to have too much damage to continue, Schumacher had become the first ever German to win the World Championship. "Justice," I screamed but that wasn't a line taken by many the next day.

The German was destroyed in the media for his actions and at school I felt like his lawyer attempting to defend what he had done.

At the 1995 British Grand Prix I am a red rag to the British bulls. Nevertheless, Schumacher is in front, 14 laps from the end of the race, and I am finally going to see him win at Silverstone. Hill, closely behind, then tries to overtake his rival and drives right into him, sending them both out of the race. My anger turns to frustration when a number of emotional idiots wrongly feel the German pulled in on Hill.

The following morning, back in bed on five hours of sleep, the site manager for the new houses being built around me barges into my room, shouts some obscenity towards the Schumacher flag on my wall and slams my door. I roll over and ponder what it like backing a genius driver, prone to controversy, who is bringing out such anger in people that they even get blinded by the truth when it hits them between the eyes.

In August I witness all sides of Schumacher again, back at Spa-Francorchamps, when in the rain he comes from 16th on the grid to beat Hill head-to-head in a battle that saw the Williams driver be pushed off the track a couple of times. Back home two weeks later I am watching Schumacher again leading Hill in Italy when, once again, the Englishman drives into the back of him and knocks them both out of the race.

Schumacher is blamed, by Hill and what seemed the rest of England, for braking too soon into the corner. Time to wear the lawyer's hat again to deal with the idiots.

Thankfully, there was no repeat of Australia '94 and Schumacher, quite rightly, won another World Championship later that year.

A move to Ferrari in the winter of 1995, to this day, remains one of the most significant moves in the history of any sport. The German would go on to transform the entire operation, awakening the Prancing Horse and ensuring it stood for more than mishaps and mediocrity. I stood amongst the fans at Silverstone in 1996 watching driver after driver leave the track to go to dinner or their hotel. Schumacher was always the last to leave. It was a scene that was repeated whenever I saw him in Belgium, Montreal and, later, in Indianapolis. He surrounded himself with the best and expected everyone to work as hard as him to make Ferrari the best.

Millions around the world turned on their televisions at the start of races and watched Schumacher dominate in the stunning Ferrari red but what they didn't see was the work that went on to that weekend before the lights turned green. Schumacher took over a Ferrari car that had won just two Grand Prix from 1991-1995 and by the end of his second year he had made it so competitive that he was once again in the middle of an F1 storm. I had watched him brilliantly drive the Ferrari to wins, again, in the wet at Belgium in 1996 and in 1997 when he got some luck with a premature red flag in Montreal, that put him in pole position for the title by the final race in Jerez, Spain. Schumacher's main rival Jacques Villeneuve, trailing by just a point, tried to overtake him but the German deliberately drove into him. This time the tactics didn't work. This time Schumacher didn't win the title. This time he was stripped from finishing second in the championship and this time I was not acting as a lawyer to anyone.

Schumacher continued to make me smile with some breathtaking drives in a car that wasn't the best in 1998 and 1999. I was there when he finally won at Silverstone, again a race clouded into controversy, and I was at Monaco in 1999 to watch him lead home a Ferrari 1,2 on the streets of Monte Carlo. I was there when he broke his leg at the British Grand Prix two months later and I was starting to wonder if he could ever win a title with Ferrari.

A year later I was on a bus from Queenstown to Christchurch in New Zealand when the Japanese Grand Prix got underway. I arrived at a small pub in time to watch him overtake Mika Hakkinen and become the first driver since 1979 to win a World Championship for Ferrari. This time there was no arguments, no controversy. It felt right.

It would be the beginning of a period of dominance never seen before in the sport. A period where my feelings towards him and the sport would head in similar directions.

Schumacher was unstoppable at Ferrari. He dominated in 2001 and at the start of 2002, yet at the Austrian Grand Prix in May, when team-mate Rubens Barrichello for once had the beating of him, Ferrari instructed team orders that forced the Brazilian to let Schumacher win. With such a big lead in the standings so early in the year, Schumacher needed no favours. The actions left an awful taste in the mouths of F1 fans worldwide.

In September of that year I am sitting in the magnificent Penthouse E Stand at the breathtaking Indianapolis Motor Speedway watching Schumacher on his way to another Grand Prix win. On the final corner beneath me he starts to slow down and immediately I say to my best friend 'oh no'. Schumacher slows down to attempt a stage finish and team-mate Barrichello narrowly crosses the line ahead of him.

The sport I once loved was being turned into a contrived circus and Schumacher was starting to become the biggest clown of them all. The genius was back to his controversial best.

Too many wins followed in 2003 and 2004, as did two more Championships, and by now all of the sport's records were being smashed. Things had to change.

In 2005 tires were no longer allowed to be changed during the race and the four Michelin's on the Renault driven by the sport's new star, Fernando Alonso, suited the changes better than the four Bridgestone's on Schumacher's Ferrari.

Until the ninth round of the Championship. In June of 2005 I am at Indianapolis again watching practice on the Friday of the race weekend. Michael's brother, Ralf Schumacher, crashes heavily in front of me as a result of rear tyre failure. Teams begin to worry about the Michelin tyre but nothing more is said to the fans in attendance. On Sunday I have tickets with my wife in the Penthouse above the starting grid. All of the teams come out to set up on the grid and the mechanics wave to the fans. Twenty cars leave the grid for the parade lap and as they come around on the final turn, 14 of them, all on Michelin's, pull into the pits and park their cars. Six Bridgestone cars start the race and my head is in my hands tucked between my knees. In all of my years of watching the sport live I never imagined I would leave a Grand Prix while it was still running but that is what I did that day. When Schumacher won the most farcical Grand Prix of all time I was already driving home north on I-69.

One of the hardest things a man can do is stop loving something they once adored so much. Upon reflection it was fitting that Schumacher won a race that has forever damaged my relationship with the sport since. As a boy, Nigel Mansell was my hero. As a teenager, it was Schumacher. As a man, it was time to let it go.

The sport remains a passing interest for me, but the only warm feelings it gives me now are from my memories. Not from races on Sunday's at a featureless circuit somewhere in the world. We look differently at sports and the characters within them when we are younger and I am grateful Schumacher's peak came at my peak as a fan.

And it is those positive memories that will always live with me more than the ones of frustration later in his career.

He had been the face the sport needed after the tragedy of Imola 1994. He was the man this F1 fan needed to satisfy my desire of seeing greatness behind a wheel after the departures of the likes of Senna, Prost and Mansell.

The brushes with controversy made the 1994 and, even, 1995 World Championships much closer than it should have been but they shaped the personality of the sport's top driver that evoked strong emotions from people, in a negative and positive manner.

His greatest achievements came afterwards, at Ferrari, when he reached a level of true greatness that even those who disliked him had to admire.

A true motor racing fan carries a small something with him at every race they attend. It is a feeling inside of them of concern for the drivers taking on a dangerous sport. Don't get me wrong, the danger is not what they want removed, after all it is part of the appeal, but with it, they know, they face an anxiety that fans of other sports do not carry with them.

With Ayrton Senna, Greg Moore, and in particularly, Dan Wheldon, this anxiety turned into reality and hit me hard. With Schumacher retired, the family of motor racing fans had stored him away into their safe place with their memories.

Unfortunately, his recent skiing accident has removed him from all of our comfort zones.

Born January 3rd 1969, never has the German had a birthday where so much attention has been on him. One positive from this accident has been the amount of people showing so much affection for a man who usually splits people's opinions.

My first hope for the New Year is that he gets through the biggest battle of his life to see how many are now on his side.

Happy Birthday Michael.

Thanks for the memories. I pray for you to create many, many more.

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