On Jan. 20, 2002, I flew to Barcelona to interview Michael Schumacher.
While this would be one among many interviews for the reigning world champion, it was important to me because the in-depth conversation would form the central part of an extensive season preview in The Observer newspaper. With the interview having been agreed to and arranged by Luca Colajanni, Ferrari's efficient press officer, there was absolutely no reason to doubt it would happen. Or, at least, not until I drove through the gates of Circuit de Cataluña just after 11.30 am.
It's disconcerting to be greeted with silence when the air should be alive with the shriek of high-revving racing engines -- and more disconcerting when you don't immediately know why. Doubtless some wayward Minardi or Arrows driver had brought the test session to a temporary halt.
Such a casual thought became an urgent concern when I saw a flatbed truck carrying the remains of a badly damaged Ferrari. A wheel had been ripped off, along with the rear suspension and wing. The back of the car was scarcely recognisable, with one side a streaming confusion of smashed radiators, dangling cables and shredded red fiberglass. Not only was there no indication of the driver's condition, it was impossible to know that driver's identity. I would be lying if I said I hadn't quietly hoped it would be Rubens Barrichello.
The discovery that it was Schumacher increased my angst even more. Never mind the fact that Michael didn't make mistakes as big as this one -- what about my interview? Perhaps the shunt had been caused by a mechanical failure. Either way, there would be a post-mortem and, sure as hell, he wouldn't be interested sitting down to answer a journalist's questions after a critical event such as this.
My worry proved unnecessary. Colajanni said Michael was taking a shower and would be with me directly. Would I like an espresso while I was waiting? As I ran through the planned questions in my mind, it became immediately apparent that the crash would actually add meaning to my intended theme of discovering what motivated Schumacher to continue racing. Given what we know now about his 91 wins and seven championships, the significance of these final statistics is accentuated by the fact that, in 2002, we wondered what continued to spur him on after a mere 53 wins and four titles secured during 10 seasons of F1.
He appeared in the motor home looking fresh as a daisy, offered a firm handshake and sat down with a sense of purpose that suggested this would be the most interesting interview he had ever experienced. That had nothing to do with my newspaper or me; it was just a small sign of the earnest intent Michael applied to everything he did in connection with his beloved sport. He answered each question as though it had never been asked before when, in truth, the interrogation must have been but a small variation on recurring themes.
On this particular day, of course, there was the novelty of discussing what must have been a scary moment up at Turn 12.
"The accident?" he mused. "Oh, I just pushed a bit too hard and went off. It's OK."
Schumacher spoke with the genuine nonchalance of someone who had merely scratched a bumper while parking. Nonetheless, it seemed reasonable to ask if spinning off backward at 150 mph was a good enough reason to finally consider something less hazardous.
"Once something is a passion, the motivation is there," Michael said."'It's natural when you love something like this. You have these ups and downs.
"You have very good tests where you enjoy yourself; you are happy. And then you can have tests when you spend three days and basically achieve nothing. But you accept it can be like that."
Discussion moved on to football, life at Ferrari, the perceived threat from Juan Pablo Montoya and, finally, his son Mick (then age 2, but now the European Formula 3 champion with a future in F1 beckoning). Given what happened to Michael on the ski slope in December 2013, something he said was chillingly poignant.
"If he [Mick] wants to be a racing driver, I can't stop him and I won't try," Michael said. "The danger doesn't really come in to it because there is risk in all areas of life, whether it is horse riding, or football, or even things like traveling in an aeroplane.
"If you do things to the limit, and don't purposely go over that limit, then I think it's fine to do whatever you want. So long as you enjoy it. That's what's important. And I'm still enjoying this. Very much."