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Anderson: Schumacher was special from the start

Anderson: Schumacher was special from the start.
Thu 28 Dec, 1:51 PM

Leading design guru Gary Anderson is one of only a handful of people privileged enough to have been present at Michael Schumacher's debut Formula One test with Jordan back in 1991, and the Irishman says the German's dazzling potential was clear to see right from the moment he first set foot inside the garage.

It could all have turned out so very differently, however. Schumacher's maiden outing in a grand prix machine came about more by luck than judgment, the first in a series of twists of fate that would prove pivotal to the staggering level of success he achieved throughout his career in the top flight.

"It's a strange old story," Anderson explained to Crash.net. "We were testing at Monza with Andrea de Cesaris and were waiting for Bertrand Gachot to come along and do the second day, but he was otherwise engaged I suppose you might say - locked up in prison. Eddie (Jordan) called me and said the case had gone the wrong way and we needed another driver for Spa. He asked me what do you think? There's Damon Hill, Stefan Johansson or this young guy called Michael Schumacher.

"Through luck or whatever you want to call it I had watched something on TV a couple of nights beforehand and there was Michael Schumacher in a Formula 3 race in Germany. He had done a really good job and I thought 'this guy is good'. I said to Eddie, with all the best will in the world Stefan is past his sell-by-date, Damon didn't really make my heart go throb, but I felt this guy Schumacher had something special. He called me back a few hours later and said Michael was coming into the workshop on Monday for a chat."

The rest, as they say, is history, and seven world titles and an incredible 91 victories later Schumacher would finally announce his decision to hang up his helmet after winning the Italian Grand Prix in front of his adoring tifosi earlier this year. Anderson, though, kept a close eye on the man from Hürth-Hermülheim near Cologne throughout his Formula One career, after recognising a talent like no other on that August day at Silverstone more than 15 years ago.

"The test took place on the south circuit," the 54-year-old said, "and it was just a few laps for him to acclimatise himself with both the car and the team. He did an absolutely fantastic job to be honest. On his fourth lap we had to call him back into the pits and say just take it easy - this is the car you will be driving at Spa so we don't want any damage doing to it. His reaction was 'I'm not pushing, it's all under control'.

"He had so much confidence, even before he got in the car. He sat on the bench in the workshop with me and talked about the car's good points and bad. I've always looked at his career and thought one of the biggest advantages was he drove the car he was given and didn't try to make it into something else. The 191 was a good, comfortable little car to drive. It wasn't the fastest in the world but it gave him confidence and he used that. Watching him around Silverstone was quite incredible.

"It's always difficult to look at somebody at that point in their career and say they are going to be a seven-time world champion and win more races than anybody else, but he had that hunger about him. I would classify it as being like a successful businessman. Formula One is a business and he approached it as such. It wasn't just that he enjoyed motor racing, that he was driving a racing car and that was his big thing in life - it was his life.

"All the drivers are physically fit people - they have to be for the job - but Michael was more than that. He was mentally fit and alert too. He had seen the big picture and had taken it all in. He wasn't just going out for a bit of fun on a Sunday afternoon and to get out of the car at the end with a big smile on his face. He knew why he was there on the grid at 2pm. He knew what he was there to do and that was to win races. He was there to be successful and right from the first day you could see that."

Although his debut appearance with Jordan at Spa didn't last very long - mere yards to be precise before his clutch prematurely gave up the ghost - it mattered little. The impression had already been made, and if Schumacher's Formula One breakthrough owed much to luck and being in the right place at the right time, his next move was all down to a sharply acute mentality that would prove to be a hallmark of his career.

"We talked to him that weekend about 1992," Anderson continued. "We were switching over to Yamaha engines, and he spent a particular amount of time during the practice sessions following and looking at the Yamaha-engined Brabham. At the end of it he said to us 'you've got to be a little bit careful there because I think that engine is a ship's anchor. It's not the most impressive engine in the world'.

"I think all those things led to him having to go somewhere else - we would not have been strong enough for Michael Schumacher. His career probably wouldn't have gone where it did go, but then who knows? In life you have to take the opportunities with open hands and get on with it. Michael took his and went to Benetton."

One of the key facets to Schumacher's long and distinguished career in grand prix racing was the controversy that seemed to dog his every move, be it justified or not. Anderson, though, believes there was another agenda behind many of the German's 'darker' moments.

"When you are at that level in any sport - be it cricket, golf, tennis or whatever - there is always a lot of skulduggery going on in the background," he explained. "With Michael there were the incidents with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, and Monaco in 2006. They were all very badly done, and I'm sure they were all things he was asked to do from a distance by the team - the situation had arisen where he needed to do something.

"It's like a footballer taking a dive - as a sportsman you sometimes have to do these things. Everything that he did well is pushed into the background by these incidents. I think given the amount of time he raced for you are going to get these sort of controversies, but they were due to an outside influence. As a person I classify him as a hero for everything he has done."

The former Jordan and Stewart Grand Prix designer echoes similar sentiments when looking back over 2006, saying although in his opinion Schumacher merited the crown every bit as much as Fernando Alonso, ultimately it was the right result given all the political machinations going on behind the scenes.

"I think Michael Schumacher deserved that eighth world championship as a person," he acknowledged, "but I don't think Ferrari deserved it for what they did during the year to Renault - all the controversy over the differentials and protests and different stuff going on all year long. That was genuine Ferrari, not Michael Schumacher.

"Yes, it would have been lovely to have seen him become an eight-time world champion, but he went out fighting, and you have got to say that Alonso, in a car that was probably not as quick as the Ferrari, kept his nose clean, simply got on with the job in hand, won the world championship and deservedly so."

As to whether it was the right moment for the 37-year-old to call it a day, even though to the outside world it appeared he was still as formidable as ever and well-and-truly on top of his game, Anderson said he felt the timing was probably correct.

"He is still clearly competitive and can still go out there and give the other guys a hard time, so maybe another year would have been great," he admitted. "Next year with the rule changes and so on it could have been very good for him and Ferrari, but at some point you've got to say 'I don't enjoy getting up in the morning to do this anymore', and I think he got to that point. It's always hard - there's never a right time or a wrong time, but I think as far as being competitive and going out with his head held high are concerned, he needed to do it now. He might have lasted one more year, but equally it might have all gone wrong. He had to just get out and get on with something else.

"I don't think we'll see him ever racing again. I don't think it's one of those things he can just visit - he could never come in and just race here and there. That's not Michael Schumacher. He is a professional racing driver - you have either got to do it or not do it, and I think now he has hung up his boots he will have the mental strength to say 'that's it'."
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