At the end of 1999, the headline was the return of Michael Schumacher. Eddie Irvine was in with a shot at the title but the big news was still Michael and he has not even been in the car since breaking his leg at Silverstone. So when he decided to make his return to racing in Malaysia, the world media descended on Sepang. And Ferrari sponsors took the opportunity to show off Michael in their promotional campaigns. Shell had a big Go-Kart event and Marlboro had a big party at one of the top discothŤques in Kuala Lumpur.
The go-kart event was held at the track right next to the Sepang F1 Circuit. Luca Badoer was the guest driver and he was to do some demo laps for the Shell guests. Michael was to be the VIP guest. Shell events manager contacted the Ferrari dealer and requested for two Ferraris to ferry Michael and Eddie from their hotel to the go-kart track. And guess who the dealer asked to organise it? Yours truly. I was so excited. I made a few calls and in no time I got about 10 Ferraris, two to carry the drivers and the rest to form a convoy. I nominated myself and my close friend to drive the drivers. I had a red F355 Berlinetta then and my friend had a red F355 Spyder. We drew lots and he got to drive Michael and I got Eddie. We were to drive them from Pan Pacific Hotel at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to the go-kart track. And we agreed to switch passengers for the return trip.
We were at the hotel at 11.30 am, early, eager and ready. The drive was only to be at 2.45 pm but no one dared to be late. All the owners were milling around, each in their best Ferrari attires. Seems funny to see rich, middle aged men acting like kids, visibly excited in anticipation of their hero. Drinks and snacks were offered by the Shell hosts but were turned down. All eyes were focussed at the elevator doors waiting for the 2 drivers to appear. At 12.45 sharp, they came out of the elevator. Michael and Eddie were in their red Ferrari Tommy Hilfiger poloís with Michael in jeans and Eddie in shorts.
This was my first encounter with Michael and I wasn't going to be shy. I waited right at elevator doors. So I had the chance to walk with the two of them right though the hotel lobby. Everyone then rushed to surround them with the minders keeping the crowd at safe distance but I was right beside them as they move briskly through the hotel lobby. The crowd was well behaved. I could see flashbulbs going all over the place. It was only when they reached the cars that the caps and the programmes started to be shoved forward for Michael's autographs. But that was brief because the day's programme was tight.
They got into the cars and we drove off in a convoy headed by a van full of Ferrari and Shell press and PR staff, to the go-kart track about 15km away. The Spyder was in front and I was at the back with the rest of the convoy in tow. I had a brief chat with Eddie, congratulating him for doing so well in the championship so far and wishing him well for the title. He was not very communicative. He was in his own world. He just put his knee on the dashboard and turned up the volume of the radio and was humming to himself. I didnít care. I didnít like him anyway. The only thing I asked of him was to sign my Ferrari cap. And he did but he signed it right in the middle of the peak and there was no place else for Michael to sign. Darn!!
The moment we hit the gates at the go-kart track, the kids and the swarm of reporters came forward and then they were running alongside the Spyder, cameras flashing and kids shouting out for Michael. I had never seen anything like that before. He is such a big star. The security had to be called because the crowd was getting out of hand. Michael can't even open his door. While all these were happening in front of me, there was no one and I mean no one was welcoming Eddie. He had to open the car door himself and he quietly walked to the reception area. It was as good as if he was not there. I feel sorry for Eddie that day. Michael had this swarm of kids, fans and reporters and he was literally lost in the moving herd of people.
Michael was supposed to be the guest of honour and he was just to sit and watch the proceedings. But he would have none of it. He saw the kids and he was happy and he volunteered to drive in one of the karts. Walking with a pronounced limp, he went into the track. He got himself into the kart and was ready to race Luca B. Luca was in full racing overalls but Michael was only in his shorts and he didnít even have his own helmet. He borrowed a helmet. But he was so sporting to entertain the guests. They went a few rounds, thoroughly enjoying themselves. He even did a 360 degree spin at the end of the demo. What a show off. And the crowd loved it. He then gave away prizes to the Shell competition winners and after that he took time to sign lots of autographs and mostly for the kids. Eddie meanwhile was very free and looking a bit irritated. No wonder he doesnít like Michael very much. There was so much difference in the way that Michael was being idolised by the fans.
A path was cleared for Michael to walk back to the car but when I notice he was going back to the Spyder, I quickly got out of my car and directed him to mine, telling him heís coming back with me. He didnít protest, he just followed me. But before he got in, I asked if he would like to drive and he said no. So I went around to the driverís side, happy like kid on his first date and nervous like hell. What would he think about my driving!! It may sound silly but I did think like that.
The first thing he did when he was in the car was to switch off the air-conditioner and put down the window. Then he switched off the radio. But he never put his knee on the dashboard like Eddie did and he was very communicative. I asked him about his leg and I asked him about his children Mick and Gina-Marie. And he thanked me for asking. I also send my best wishes to Corinna. He was pleased and he was relaxed. He asked me more questions than I did of him. As we pass the plantations where the palm trees have just been cleared and replanted, he was a bit annoyed thinking that the people have chopped down the trees, leaving the land bare and deserted. I had to explain to him that the oil palm tress have a certain productive life. Itís 20 years at the most. After that they are not so productive and the plantation owners have to uproot the old trees and replant the plantation. This is done in stages so as not to upset the ecology. He doesnít know what oil palm is used for so I have to explain again. I then realised how passionate he feels about ecology.
Then we passed a Mosque and he was wondering if it was an office. So I had to explain that itís a mosque, a place of worship. And then I had to explain about the ethnic groups in Malaysia and the different religions that are practiced here. He was very attentive and very interested. I felt privileged, honoured and at the same time nervous. I am driving my hero and I still canít believe it was happening. Then he took out his mobile and was calling someone. I donít know if it was Jean Todt or someone else, but I knew it was someone very close to him, because he was asking have you checked in already and then there were some shop-talk which I couldnít make out.
Sadly the drive was all too brief. I had wished it would last longer. But we have arrived back at the hotel. The crowd was still there and so was the Shell promotion team who whisked him away so fast that there was no chance of anyone getting any autographs or photos with him. I had a few of my friendsí caps that I managed to get his signature but unfortunately, good old Eddie had signed the whole width of my cap, so I had no souvenir of this first meeting.
But I was destined to meet Michael again every year since that first meeting in 1999 and I have to say I have been so, so, so lucky.