In another life I used to have to go to an annual car testing day somewhere on the European continent. This particular year it was in Italy. These test days were characterised by the large number of males, badly dressed as only German and Polish car journalists can be. Hardly surprising then that a sex-starved 20-something British writer should feel optimistic upon seeing a blonde sitting alone with their back to the crowd. “Who’s the blonde in the corner?” My lascivious colleague asked.
My friend, who was already working out how he was going to get this stunner up to his room, was even more interested when I said ‘she’ was called Nico. He was doubtless imagining I was going to be his ‘in’ to the exotically named foreign girl. Then Nico turned round, whereupon my friend suddenly lost interest.
At that time Nico Rosberg was 17 and had just won the German Formula BMW championship in his first year of car racing. I went over to talk to him about the cars we were testing and discovered that he’d only just qualified to drive and didn’t have any experience at all of testing road cars. However, like the majority of young racing drivers, he was mature way beyond his years. We had a sensible conversation about cars, racing and why he was competing under a German flag when his father was Finnish.
Just a couple of years later, he had a test with the Williams F1 team. I was discussing this with a friend who worked at Williams and wasn’t remotely surprised to find that the team had been impressed by Rosberg’s maturity and the quiet, focused way he got on with the job. It was a counterpoint to the other son of a famous father on the same test, Nelson Piquet Jr, who was considered a spoilt prima donna by the team.
Fast forward a decade and on the day Rosberg won the most famous prize of the lot – the Monaco GP – Piquet was failing in a World Rallycross round at Lydden Hill in Kent. Can’t say I was surprised. But whatever he achieves in his career, Rosberg will always be the blonde in the corner for me.
One of the stranger evenings I’ve had was spent with Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and a model at the Dorchester Hotel. First a bit of house keeping. The model was Irvine’s girlfriend of the time (it was 1996). And we weren’t doing the sort of things footballers are famous for doing in hotel rooms. We were in a private part of the Dorchester’s Chinese restaurant.
At the time I knew Eddie pretty well. I was ghost writing a magazine column for him and he was in London for a Ferrari sponsor do. He asked me if I wanted to meet for a drink and after we’d had a couple he casually mentioned Michael was joining us. And that’s how I found myself having dinner with the reigning F1 world champion of the time. I found Schumacher quiet, a bit shy and quite serious but with remarkable humility. He didn’t appear over burdened with charisma but in the company of Irvine that was unsurprising.
The next time I met him was a couple of years later. I’d gone to Monza in Italy where he was testing to interview him. My plane was late departing so I was late arriving at the track. Schumacher however knew I was coming and altered his schedule to fit me in. After we’d done the interview, we carried on talking about life; the pain of delayed planes, sleepless nights as a dad of young kids and road cars, something he’s fascinated with.
For those reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for Schumacher. And unlike the rest of the world I’ve enjoyed his comeback. This year he’s had the better of Nico Rosberg in qualifying and when his car hasn’t broken he’s proved there’s plenty of fight left in him. And at 43 he’s a man.
Without wishing to get all homo erotic about this, when I got into F1 the drivers were all men. James Hunt won his title aged 29. In 1978, the top three in the championship, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann, were 38, 34 and 36 respectively. Now most drivers still have spots and are generally viewed as past it when they get to 33. For us older geezers, 43-year-old Schumi is driving proof that age doesn’t have to count against you.