x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Al Assam: motorsport addicts cannot resist another fix of speed

Michael Schumacher's return to F1 is no surprise to other racing drivers, who say it's almost like being a drug addict.

The Emirati racing driver Saif al Assam said he believed Michael Schumacher's return to Formula One was sparked by his attempt to replace the injured Ferrari racer Felipe Massa earlier this year. "It's like a drug addict who gets himself clean and then finds himself in a situation again," al Assam said, referring to Schumacher's test drives in a 2007 Ferrari F1 car last season.

The drives were part of his aborted attempt to replace Massa, who was hurt during the Hungarian Grand Prix in July. The Brazilian driver was hit in the head by a 1kg steel spring that came off a car in front while he was travelling at 170mph. Al Assam said Schumacher had retired, in 2006, to recharge his batteries. But he added that by entering kart and motorbike races during that period, the German had shown he wanted to maintain an element of competition.

"[A racing driver] cannot help it. I suppose that is the case with Michael: your life moves on and you have family commitments, but you never stop thinking about it. It's something you never quite lose. Once you become a racer, you're always a racer." He said Schumacher would have missed the excitement of serious motor racing in retirement. Al Assam had once hoped to compete in Grands Prix himself. But a crash in England in 2003 during a Formula Three race put paid to his dream.

However, after six years away from the track, he is now competing again in the UAE GT Championship. He said the buzz of motorsport returned the moment he got back behind the wheel. "I was offered a run in a race car and everything came back. It was as if I had never stopped." Al Assam said he had suspected Schumacher was considering a full-time return to F1 as early as last November. "I saw him at the Formula One after-party [in Abu Dhabi] spending an increasing amount of time with Ross Brawn [the head of this season's championship-winning team BrawnGP]. It was just the two of them chatting. It looked like something was up."

And it so was: earlier this week Schumacher announced he was coming out of retirement. Karim al Azhari, an Abu Dhabi-born driver who is leading the UAE GT Championship, said Schumacher would have felt like it was a big part of his life that went missing when he retired. "[Racing] is something you're born with. People born with the need to race are very serious. It's something they have to do." Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the vice president of motor racing's governing body, the FIA, said Schumacher's return would be "good for the sport, the media and fans".

dbardsley@thenational.ae