Fri, Oct 20, 2006 - Page 22 News List

A guarded, matchless world champion prepares to hang up his racing helmet

AP , SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Many regard Michael Schumacher as aloof, calm, confident and cool.

I remember when he cried, and when he was booed.

The two extraordinary scenes are in sharp contrast to the public side of Schumacher, whose last Formula One race is this weekend after a record seven titles and 91 victories.

At the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, Schumacher won the race and moved within two points of two-time defending champion Mika Hakkinen, who again was atop the standings. Schumacher was keen on winning Ferrari's first driving title since 1979. The race was marred by the death of a track worker.

At the post-race news conference, Schumacher started to answer a question about drawing even with the late Ayrton Senna in victories with his 41st win. Then Schumacher lost his composure and wept with the TV cameras on him.

His opponents rallied to help him. Hakkinen, second in the race, made a gesture to the TV interviewer and camera to draw the attention to him.

Ralf Schumacher, on Michael's left after finishing third in the race, gently put an arm on his older brother's shoulder.

"Sometimes there are questions which must not be made or answered," Michael Schumacher finally said. "I would just say I'm happy and exhausted."

Then there was the Austrian GP in 2002. His Ferrari teammate, Rubens Barrichello, dominated the race. But the hapless Barrichello was told to move aside for Schu-macher to win, under team orders to strengthen Schumacher's lead in the F1 standings.

Barrichello waited until the final turn to do it. Almost sheepishly, Schumacher took the win but gave the victory trophy to Barrichello and put him on the top step of the podium.

Schumacher was booed by the crowd on the victory stand. Then, as Schumacher and Barrichello were walking through the media room to the victory news conference, international journalists started booing. Schumacher was taken aback and put Barrichello in the center seat reserved for the winner of the race.

It took Ferrari and Formula One a while to recover from the public outcry. Ferrari was later fined US$1 million.

In contrast, a highlight for Schumacher was clinching his first title for Ferrari in 2000. He celebrated on the victory stand at the Japanese GP after winning the race over Hakkinen to capture the title with one race left.

And at the season finale in Malaysia, Schumacher joined the entire Ferrari team in donning bright red wigs to celebrate the driver and team titles.

Yet Schumacher does keep most people at arm's length. He rarely grants one-on-one interviews. His demeanor in news conferences, even under the most provocative questions, is usually just a stoic answer or an answer more analytical than needed -- followed by a stare at the questioner.

All the times I asked questions at the Ferrari motorhome at dozens of races, he never acknowledged me on the way out as he passed.

In contrast, Fernando Alonso gives a little nod of greeting as I sit in front waiting for a question, and often gives a more detailed answer.

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