Formula One is holding its breath for the return of its greatest driver - but will the ruthless determination not to let anyone pass remain undimmed?
Michael Schumacher, winner at any cost
The withering look when I ask Michael Schumacher what his hopes and dreams are for Formula One suddenly bridges a gap of 19 years. This is the second time I have posed such a question. The previous occasion was in 1991 when we were sitting in Eddie Jordan's motorhome before Schumacher's F1 debut in the Belgian Grand Prix.
Then the German was a penniless hopeful, only a kart and junior class racer, but talented enough to earn Jordan's interest and his chance for a crack at the the big time. This time around, in Barcelona for a test session ahead of his return to F1 after a three-year lay-off, it is his comeback and the cold-eyed stare is identical to the one that had held me nearly two decades ago. The terse answer is, too. "I don't deal in hopes or dreams - only in realities," he says.
His Bahrain Grand Prix opener tomorrow, and the 18 Grands Prix to follow, may be electrifying for race fans but to their 41-year-old hero it is just a stepping stone back to business. Schumacher is no longer the hard-up kid in a homemade kart. He has nearly Dh5 billion in the bank, a beautiful wife, Corinna, and two children, Gina-Maria, 12, and nine-year-old Mick, all living in splendour on the banks of a Swiss lake.
"I don't want for anything," he says, "except to be a winner and world champion again. That's why I decided to come back to F1. I should never have left it when I did. But I had grown bored. There seemed to be nothing left for me to achieve. My batteries had run flat." His numbers game, fashioned from a redoubtable skill and courage around Formula One's concrete cauldrons sped him into the record books as the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time.
The day he turned his back on his career he had amassed 91 wins, 43 seconds, 20 third places, 68 pole positions, 76 fastest laps and seven world titles in 249 outings with Jordan, Benetton and then Ferrari. The consensus is that his spell on the sidelines, watching the action from the pit lane, and operating as an ambassador for Ferrari, only served to fire up his eagerness to get back behind the wheel.
He has honed himself with day-long sessions in the gym to a peak of fitness, back to his race days weight, and recovered from a frightening neck injury sustained in a motorbike race crash early last year. He offered so much promise as a motorcycle racer, showing enough ability to be given testing outings on James Toseland's Honda and Ducati and Yamaha factory superbikes, that Carlo Fiorani, the Honda-Europe boss, tried to tempt him to take up the sport full time.
With £2 million (Dh11m) offered for his services, why he didn't has never been disclosed. He simply said: "No thanks, I am counting myself out." Whether Corinna had a say, especially after he hurt himself badly in a crash that would scupper his first bid at an F1 comeback with Ferrari last season, is a moot point. Schumacher is hailed and harangued in equal measure as a hero and a villain because of his unyielding ferocity on the track. But he does not care and harbours no desire to change his attitude.
"I race the way I race," is his response to critics. "If people don't like it there is nothing I can do. Or would want to. My need is, and always has been, to be a winner and a champion. Nothing has changed. I know I am going to be given a hard time by the likes of Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Vettel and even my own teammate Nico Rosberg. But that will only serve to make me more motivated."
The memories of just how ruthless he is prepared to be are borne as mental scars by two victims of his determination to be a winner or to never let the other guy through. Among fans of F1, Schumacher has often been seen as a pantomime villain. Among his peers, feelings have sometimes run stronger. Perhaps most famously, there was the incident during the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, when Schumacher was forced to retire after clipping his car on a side wall. As he steered from the track he collided with Damon Hill's Williams, ending the British driver's race. As a result, neither driver scored, and Schumacher became world champion.
Hill wrote later in his autobiography: "There are two things that set Michael apart from the rest of the drivers in Formula One. His sheer talent and his attitude. I am full of admiration for the former, but the latter leaves me cold." Three years later, Schumacher was caught in a reprise of the incident at the European Grand Prix, only with Jacques Villeneuve. This time the move backfired - Schumacher was left stranded in the gravel and Villeneuve completed the race. An investigation saw the German stripped of his second place in the driver's championship.
At Spa in 1998, it was David Coulthard in the firing line when Schumacher accused the Scotsman of trying to kill him. To underline his ruthlessness, Schumacher's brother Ralf, also a driver, was left with the choice of crashing or dropping back when his sibling blocked him as he tried to overtake him in the 2001 European Grand Prix. Add to that his win-at-all-costs stance when in Monaco, the year he quit, he deliberately dumped his Ferrari on the racing line on a crucial corner in qualifying to block his challengers and wreck their timed runs.
But then Schumacher has always pushed himself to pole position. He was born in Hürth, a city in northern Germany, and his father Rolf, a bricklayer, first modified the four-year-old Michael's pedal car with a small petrol engine. After he crashed it into a lamppost, his parents decided he would be better served at the local karting club, with his father building the first kart from spare parts. When a German regulation requiring kart drivers to be at least 14 years old threatened to halt his budding career, the 12-year-old Schumacher applied to Luxembourg where the legal age was lower.
By the 1980s, he was working his way up the Formula racing circuit, landing his first F1 drive with Jordan-Ford in 1991. "Whatever people think of me, good or bad, is their own business," says Schumacher through that lop-sided smile. "I have always done what is necessary to be a winner. I'll never change. I can't. It is the way I am." Coulthard, now a BBC TV commentator, says: "Some people have accused him of making the sport dirtier - but that territory was already occupied by Ayrton Senna. I guess it doesn't matter what people, drivers and spectators alike, believe about his race ethics, you cannot help but recognise that he has been a truly fantastic champion."
Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 ringmaster, rejoicing in Schumacher's return, told me: "I can't wait - and I'll bet all those other guys on the grid feel the same way. The same goes for the 650 million people worldwide who watch the races. "The drivers will all want to show him who's boss - and Michael will be in no mood to let that happen. He's got a reputation to defend and he is going to give some of those youngsters a lesson they won't forget."
Ross Brawn, now his boss at Mercedes and the mastermind behind all of his titles, has monitored Schumachers's pre-season mood. "He's lost nothing. I reckon he'll be back as if he never left. And just as fast. His fitness is frightening - and he has completely recovered from that motorbike neck injury. "His passion and motivation have always been scary and allied to a fantastic natural ability to get the best out of a car, it makes him one hell of a problem for his rivals.
"Over the past few weeks I have seen it all come back to him. I believe we will see all the qualities of the Schumacher we grew to respect so much. If we can put together a car to match his natural ability, I believe we'll be seeing something special from him." Rumours suggested that "Shuey" only left Ferrari, and his £25m (Dh138m) a year salary, because the team had signed Kimi Raikkonen, fearing Schumacher's career was in its twilight.
"Nonsense. Absolute rubbish" is the unequivocal retort from Jean Todt, his former Ferrari boss. "Anybody who speculated that Michael retired because he was afraid of being beaten by his own teammate is stupid. Michael was not, and is not, afraid of anybody. And we certainly did not force him out to sign Kimi." One subject Schumacher refuses to discuss is his remarkable generosity. The information comes from elsewhere, a close source, that he has donated around US$50 million (Dh183m) to children's charities in Lima, Peru, Senegal and Sarajevo.
Then there was the $10m donation after the 2001 Indian Ocean tsunami killed his bodyguard Burkhard Cramer and Cramer's two young sons. All Schumacher would say was: "It is a privilege to be in a position to help people, especially poor and orphaned kids who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in awful circumstances." So maybe not a bad guy after all? * The National