ames Allen's recently released biography, Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness, dissects the career of Formula 1's most successful exponent and reappraises the man behind the tabloid stereotype.
One of the defining images of Schumacher's career, which highlighted the flawed nature of his genius, was of course the 'parking incident' at Monaco's Rascasse corner during his final season.
The following excerpt from the book captures the drama of that seismic afternoon and sheds new light on the reaction of Schumacher's rivals – including an extraordinary declaration of intent from Fernando Alonso...
The game is up: only Rascasse corner to go, no chance to make up that amount of time. He’s desperate now. Pole position is vital at Monaco and Fernando Alonso’s going to take it from him.
Michael Schumacher knows how symbolic this is, the younger driver pushing the older one out, just as he had tried to do to Ayrton Senna 12 years earlier.
Not only that, but Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella are also threatening his position – he could end up on the second or third row of the grid.
Instinct takes over.
The brakes lock up, blue smoke swirls outwards from the tyres. He turns into the right-hand Rascasse corner oddly, the car skews left and slows, there is a pause, then very gently the car hiccups forward into a stall. The nose stops a few feet from the barriers.
No contact is made, but the marshals are on to it immediately, waving yellow flags to slow the following cars, among them Alonso’s, as they approach Rascasse.
The drivers have no alternative but to back off. Alonso’s lap is ruined, so are Webber’s, Fisichella’s and Raikkonen’s. The qualifying session ends.
Schumacher’s time is fastest. He has pole position, but what price will he pay for winning at all costs?
In the Monaco pit lane, Alonso’s boss at the Renault team, Flavio Briatore, is raging, seeking out every television crew he can find to cry foul.
“It’s a disgrace,” he thunders. “He is taking everyone for a ride. Someone who is a seven-times world champion wants us to believe that he didn’t do it on purpose? It’s fairyland. It was unsporting and against everything.”
Briatore is not finding too many people who disagree with him.
With the storm brewing over Schumacher’s actions, the press conference would prove to be a must-see event.
In the car taking the drivers to the television interview were Schumacher, Alonso and Webber.
Recalls Webber: “I didn’t think too much about it at the time when I came into Rascasse and saw the car blocking the track. I just pitted, lap done.
“I was in the weighing area and Michael said to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m still on pole’ and he was whooping it up and celebrating with Sabine Kehm, his assistant. He was really excited.
“I started to think, ‘That’s odd, it’s not a great way to get pole, after all.’ It wasn’t all adding up for me.
“We got in the car, Michael, Fernando and I. Fernando was totally pissed off, Michael was happy, putting on this face. The atmosphere was frosty. No one said anything.
“When we arrived, as Michael sprang out of the car and ran up the stairs, Fernando said to me, ‘He stopped on the track deliberately, you know?’ and I said, ‘Fair enough, mate.’
“I hadn’t seen anything on video at this point, but I was thinking that it was bit odd how this was shaping up.”
The interview started and the first question got straight to the point: “Michael, what happened at Rascasse?”
“I locked up the front wheel and went wide,” answered Schumacher, his face open and untroubled.
Beside him sat Alonso, who maintained a quiet dignity throughout the next half hour or so but whose face wore an unmistakeable mask of darkness and anger.
On the other side of Schumacher was Webber.
Michael continued: “I wasn’t sure what was going on after this because of the positioning of the cars and so on, so I was not aware and in the end I checked with the guys what the situation was, where did we end up, because I didn’t expect to be sitting here right now in this position and they said P1, so I was glad considering what had happened.”
This was not the polished English Schumacher was used to delivering at such moments. His mind was clearly running through a lot of conflicting ideas and thoughts at the same time. He lost his fluency.
He knew all too well what people would be thinking.
Only he knew whether he had parked his car deliberately in the middle of the road to stop Alonso from beating him, but if he had done, he was not about to admit it or to apologise.
That is not Schumacher’s way.
Did the engine stall, he was asked? “No, initially not and I tried to engage reverse but it didn’t engage and I didn’t really want to back up just by myself without knowing what was coming and finally it stalled.
“I need to check why the engine stalled because there was no reason why it should stall, but I think that after a certain time if the engine is running like that, it switches itself off. I guess that is what happened.”
The three drivers then moved to the main media centre for the general press conference. Before them sat 150 journalists.
Schumacher had been in this position countless times in his career, but he never felt comfortable, as he later reflected: “The game with the media was very difficult for me.
“A half-hour press conference stretched me more than a whole race. That’s just not my world. I’m not much of an actor and everyone’s always trying to read things into you. I cannot produce emotions on the touch of a button, I don’t want to.”
And this time he appeared less comfortable than usual.
The first bullet was fired, albeit gently, by Anne Giuntini, the tiny Frenchwoman who has covered F1 for the prestigious French daily sports paper L’Equipe for many years.
In 1996 she had conducted a long interview with Schumacher in which he had opened up more than in practically any other interview he has done.
“I have talked to some drivers who say it is too big, what happened today, to be credible, maybe a bit of a shame if it is true,” she said.
Schumacher looked slightly taken aback, but maintained his calm. “It would be a shame if it is true, absolutely, but I think it is as usual what you do in certain moments. Your enemies believe one thing and the people who support you believe another thing and that is what our sport is all about.”
“It is not a question of friends or enemies, it is a question of sport,” replied Giuntini coldly.
“I explained to you what really happened and if you want to believe this you believe and some people may not believe this but unfortunately this is the world we live in.”
Schumacher was then asked straight out if he had cheated. His face hardened.
“No, and I don’t know why you ask such a bad question. I think it is pretty tough. If you were to drive around here at Monaco you would probably not ask this question.”
Sitting alongside him, Webber noticed a sudden change in Schumacher’s demeanour.
“Michael’s left hand was shaking,” he said. “He wasn’t comfortable at all. At that point you just knew that the glazed face had come over him. He was putting on a show from then on, he looked across at Sabine a few times.
“He was in the hot seat. When it’s all under control it’s slick, but when a few cracks come in then it can go badly wrong with him, then it’s not convincing at all.”
Alonso spoke little during the press conference. He was asked at one point if he thought less of Schumacher because of what had happened.
“I have my opinion and I won’t say it here,” was the curt reply.
There was no shortage of ‘names’ around the paddock on that Saturday in Monaco, willing to give their opinions.
Most vocal of all was Keke Rosberg, the 1982 world champion, whose son Nico was in his first season of F1. Rosberg was from the flamboyant era of the sport, not in the same league as Schumacher as a driver, but a colourful embodiment of the free spirit which leads men to race cars.
“Does he think we are all fools and idiots?” he fumed.
“It was the cheapest, dirtiest thing I have ever seen in Formula 1. He should leave Formula 1 and go home. I hope he is man enough now to get out of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and never mention safety again in his life. He’s a cheap cheat.”
Sir Jackie Stewart, three times a world champion, was more worldly in his appraisal: “It was a very agile mind management job. But it was too blatant. It reflects on him and Ferrari,” he said.
That night Mark Webber was having dinner with his father and girlfriend in the hotel when Alonso approached their table.
“What are we going to do if Michael doesn’t get a penalty?” asked the Spaniard.
“He’s got to, mate,” replied Webber. “Looking at the footage, it’s ridiculous, they have to do something.”
Alonso wasn’t so sure.
“I want to lie down in front of his car,” said Alonso sternly. “I’m going to pull up on the grid, get out of my car and lie in front of his.”
Knowing Alonso, he would have done exactly that. He felt that he was not just racing against another driver in another team. Like many of the drivers, he felt, rightly or wrongly, that the way the sport appeared to look after Ferrari made the playing field uneven.
It was this same feeling which led Alonso to declare at Monza later that year, “I no longer consider F1 to be a sport,” after Ferrari made a protest against him for blocking their driver, Felipe Massa, during qualifying and the stewards gave him a 10-place grid penalty.
But on this occasion in Monaco Alonso’s fears turned out to be unfounded.