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Michael Schumacher: the biker 

  1. Michael Schumacher looks concerned. He’s standing in front of the pit lane at the Paul Ricard circuit, surrounded by 19-time TT winner John McGuinness, 500cc great Randy Mamola, Moto2 young buck Pol Espargaro and, oddly, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint.

    This is not a live action role-play of Biker Mice From Mars. Instead, it’s Michael’s idea of retirement; invite a couple of pals from the two-wheeled world to shoot the breeze, pop a couple of wheelies and have a very private track day away from prying eyes. 

    Words and Photos: Rowan Horncastle

  2. He was happy just moments ago, arriving casually, without a hint of F1 paddock swagger, smiling and saluting his two-wheeled comrades looking all the world like retirement is suiting him very well. But today’s track session is cold. So cold that buttocks involuntarily vacuum pack themself. Pol grins from end to end of his visor and lets out a: “Wowweee! It’s like ice out there!” Michael’s eyes widen.

  3. After Schuey hung up his driving gloves for the second time this year, the most successful F1 driver in history didn’t buy a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign, hang it on his front door and start sewing retirement-based phrases onto scatter cushions. Quite the opposite. The fact that I’m stood in Paul Ricard’s pit lane surrounded by a very intimate group of famous motorcyclists shows the record-breaking Schumacher has no intention of allowing his pace of life to slow. The chatter is all bike setups and chassis feel. All smiles. Until Randy perks up like Michael Fish. “It’s cold out there, you have to generate pressure to get feedback and heat into the tyres and that’s just not happening today,” the American explains while making a hand gesture like he’s stroking an invisible Labrador. I quickly gather that this is the international biker sign language for ‘take it easy’.

  4. Michael’s concern isn’t to be sneered at. In the grand scheme of things, the seven-time F1 champ hasn’t been riding for that long. He cruised around a bit on Harleys in his late thirties (he’s now 43), then went straight in at the deep end when he was invited for to ride a Ducati MotoGP bike at Mugello (while still racing for Ferrari in 2005). “I thought, why not? I might as well try it,” he says. “It was pretty funny. I enjoyed it but it still didn’t wake up my sensation for bikes on race tracks.” He ended up lapping the Italian circuit 20 seconds slower than Valentino Rossi’s fastest lap. Which sounds a lot for a man that’s used to being within tenths of people, but considering he’d never, ever ridden a bike on a track before, it’s not worth dismissing. What did “wake up his sensation” though, was a Harley ride with friends through France. “We saw a race track and some guys going around it. The owner of the track came over and said, ‘Would you like to have a go? We have some demonstration bikes.’ So, in chaps and leather jackets, we jumped on the bikes and rode around. That was the triggering moment.”

  5. You’d think that there must be some sort of intrinsic link between riding fast bikes and driving fast cars. But Michael reckons that they’re two completely different things.

    “It’s a very different sensation to driving a car. First of all it’s a sensation that’s new. It’s nothing to do with what you do in race cars. In race cars you don’t scrape knees and elbows on the road. The way a bike handles, the limit sensation, everything is like a new world. Even though I have a lot of four-wheel experience, it differs so much and that is what excited me.”

    And that’s quite some four-wheel experience he just waved off there. He’s statistically the best Formula One driver ever. His records include: most championships, most race victories, most fastest laps, most pole positions, most points scored and most races won in a single season. 

  6. Considering his day job was to pile through Eau Rouge at 180mph and pull 5g for eight seconds round Istanbul’s Turn Eight, it wasn’t a great surprise to see him back on track and racing shortly after his ‘first’ retirement from F1, this time on two wheels. He entered himself into Germany’s leading bike series, the IDM Superbike championship, where he piloted a Honda CBR1000RR. And being Schuey, he entered with a certain expectation of where he’d end up. 

    “I was always aware I would never achieve the top level,” he calmly admits. “But the world of motorcycles were pretty much impressed [with his performance]. Having no history, there was no need to start dreaming that I could ever achieve top times - it’d be impossible. I would have to have started from a young age to make it to the top.”

  7. In his first year Schumacher came within two seconds of the IDM’s top riders. Michael believes there’s a ten per cent difference in sensitivity to feedback, skill and difficulty between racing bikes at the top level versus racing cars. This ten per cent difference comes across in lap times. Take the time MotoGP star Valentino Rossi had a go in Ferrari’s F1 car at Circuit de Catalunyain in 2008. He was just over two tenths down on the circuit’s fastest lap time - set by Kimi Raikkonen. So Schumacher getting within ten per cent off the top riders times in IDM, he believes, was on pace for his ability.

    “I was very much happy, I was able to feel the rear tyre, I was putting that to the limit and I felt comfortable. I had my knees down, the right body angle and that was a great sensation.” And it wasn’t just the visceral physical feeling that Michael enjoyed, there was a psychological thrill, too. “There are some similarities with race craft between cars and bikes. There’s the approach mentally on how to maximize and develop yourself. You need some way of approach to look and analyse yourself in order to go forward.”  So bikes offered a new challenge for him.

  8. “When I was racing bikes, this exploration was fascinating because it was something new, I had retired, I was open and I was free, so I enjoyed that to the point that I had my accident.”

    Ah, yes. The accident. The big difference with bikes and cars is that you can’t fall off cars. Physics has no sympathy, even it you’ve totted up 90 wins, 1354 points and seven World Championship titles in F1. This was proven when Schumacher kissed the tarmac at Oschersleben, Sachsenring and cannoned into the pack at Bresse. But the one that really changed things was a 135mph high-side at Cartagena that knocked him out, left him with fractures to the base of the head, neck vertebra and a rib. A crash that his old manager, Willi Weber, described as “the most serious accident in Michael’s motorsport career.”

  9. The severity of the crash wasn’t initially known as he posted, “The checks showed nothing and I just wanted to say that I am fine” on his official website. But it was actually a lot more serious than that. It stopped him from returning to F1 in 2009 to fill Felipe Massa’s seat after the Brazilian’s shocking accident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. “What I did learn from it was what my limits were and what I was going to do in the future,” he tells us. “It happened. It was a lesson to me and I guess it’s part of the natural learning that you go through in life.” It didn’t put him off. He got back on his mechanical horse and continued riding at tracks - even during his second crack at F1 with Mercedes. And that’s why he’s at Paul Ricard today. 

    “Today’s not about beating anybody.” Says Schumacher. “I just want to hang out with friends. It’s not about going out to find that extra tenth of a second, just to go as fast as I feel comfortable. The point whenever I have a doubt, that is my lesson, I ease off completely. I don’t even want to try anything that could be exciting as there’s no warning or feeling of the limit. The next step is you’re down on the ground. And there’s no point to being down on the ground.”

  10. This safety-first approach continues through the day. There’s a real sense of camaraderie between him and the other bikers as they all place their palms on tyres to see if there’s any heat in them. Michael checks out a specially painted, slightly modified Mercedes F1 liveried Ducati 1199 Panigale, makes sure the tyres are warm and his seat is right. And it’s not long before he’s out on track - with John McGuinness giving chase - pulling wheelies down the main straight and in the groove. 

    So this begs a question. What’s a better feeling, nailing a perfect lap in a car, or doing so on a bike? 

    “It’s a different feeling.” He explained with a smile. “It’s not a better feeling. It’s a new feeling. Both have their sensation and special attraction. I stopped my racing activity because I didn’t see any further points in exploring that deeper. But for fun and going out with friends, this is what I still enjoy.”

  11. When the weather takes its final turn for the worse, Schuey, John and the lads return to the pits. At the back of the garage Randy lives up to his name and cracks smutty jokes as the others wrap their cold hands round cups of tea and coffee and compare marks on their leathers to see who got their knees down the most.

    That’s when John McGuinness turns to us and says, “That Michael lad, he can definitely ride. I couldn’t keep up with him! It’s like riding with the Godfather…”

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