Mr. Schumacher, taking an extended winter vacation has been important to you in recent years. After losing the world championship, you began your first test drives for the new season before Christmas. Was this meant as a symbolic gesture, your way of telling everyone that you're still in the game?
Schumacher: It's certainly a desirable side-effect. But I did it mostly because I felt like it, because at the moment I'm more eager to be driving than I have been for a long time. At Ferrari we never want to have as miserable a season as the last one.
SPIEGEL: You recently announced on your website that you had "no desire for a vacation" after the end of the season. Are unsuccessful years less demanding than those capped with world championships?
Schumacher: Yes, in fact they are. After each of my world championship victories, I gave myself two months off to tune out and revitalize myself. I had no qualms about taking time off. But now it's a different situation. I don't have the feeling that I've earned a break. But I do feel the urge to get things moving again. That's why I hit the gym the minute I returned home after the last race of the season in China.
SPIEGEL: We thought the car was more at fault for the bad year than you were.
Schumacher: Psychologically speaking, it's very important to be in good shape. I work in a sport that requires you to react quickly and be in excellent shape. Besides, things don't get easier as you get older. Last fall I was thinking about my first encounter with Boris Becker. It was in the early '90s, we were both living in Monaco, and we ran into each other at the gym. When I saw Boris working out, I thought to myself: How can he possibly be so good? He just didn't seem motivated. And it didn't take long until his game started tanking. At the time, I swore to myself that this would never happen to me.
SPIEGEL: Did you make any mistakes of your own in 2005?
Schumacher: Obviously. Mistakes that I shouldn't have let myself make. When you're very successful, you become careless and try to turn many things into routine. I could have been in better shape, and perhaps I could have gotten another tenth of a second out of the car. However, we were so far behind that even that wouldn't have changed the results much. I'm thinking of races like the one in Monza, for example, where I could've finished eighth instead of tenth if I had tried a little harder. But when you're as used to success and have the kinds of standards I have after winning 84 Grand Prix races, it's incredibly difficult to find the motivation for that small step. This holds true for me as much as it does for the team.
SPIEGEL: Is Ferrari also willing to engage in self-criticism?
Schumacher: It's obvious they are. I believe that it was necessary and even good for us that the season turned out to be so catastrophic. If we had finished second in the world championship, we probably would have said: "Oh well, we didn't quite make it, but we'll be back on top next year." We had fallen into such a deep rut that our defeats woke everyone up. We had lots of meetings, during which we analyzed and discussed our shortcomings. Now everyone is giving his all, and everyone wants to bring back the good old days. The hunger is back.
SPIEGEL: But does that help you get the technical problems under control?
Schumacher: There are signs that we're getting closer to the competition again. It really took us until the end of the season to fully understand our car's aerodynamics. We got some temporary improvements in the wind tunnel and on the track, but they never translated into faster lap times during races. Then there were races like the one in Imola, where we were really good compared to the competition -- and where we didn't know why. At times it felt as if we were cursed.
SPIEGEL: Has technology become so complex today that simple relationships, like cause and effect, no longer apply?
Schumacher: It's become very complex. And, more importantly, highly efficient. Sometimes minor details can have a huge impact. If you don't devote 100 percent of your efforts to every detail, you immediately run into difficulties. Unlike the past, we can no longer use a good engine to make up for poor aerodynamics, or vice-versa. Those days are gone.
SPIEGEL: After your first Formula 1 year, you were afraid that technological progress would make the driver less and less significant. Has it happened that way?
Schumacher: I believe that I was too quick to draw conclusions at the time. Even when we were driving with an active chassis and many other electronic tools, it was always the driver who was at the controls. Technology has certainly reduced performance differences among drivers. Whereas a talented driver could get a half-second out of every lap in the past, nowadays talent makes up for only about one or two tenths of a second. But the driver is still the key factor.
SPIEGEL: The rules were changed once again for the new season. The engine's cylinder capacity was reduced from 3 liters to 2.4 liters, which in turn reduces performance from more than 900 horsepower to about 700. Besides, tire changes are allowed once again during the Grand Prix. How will that affect things?
Schumacher: The switch from ten-cylinder to eight-cylinder engines means that each manufacturer has to redevelop its power train. Not all will manage to successfully combine performance with reliability the first time around. That could shake things up a bit when it comes team hierarchy. But as far as the races themselves are concerned, the tire changes are much more important. There were so many times last season that I had to hold back during the first third of a race to make sure I'd reach the finish line. In Shanghai, I wore the rubber off my tires after 20 laps. And I was overjoyed when I finally ended up in the gravel bed and the race was over for me.
SPIEGEL: Tires seemed to be Ferrari's biggest problem. Either they were too soft and wore out too quickly, or they were too hard and didn't have enough traction from the start. Does the new rule help get you out of a hot spot?
Schumacher: No, not really. It may keep us from falling far behind, as we did in Hungary, where we were losing two or three seconds a lap near the end of the race. But if we're still one second behind the frontrunners in the qualifying rounds, changing tires during the race won't do us much good. We just have to improve on our own strength.
SPIEGEL: All the top teams used Michelin tires in 2005, while Ferrari used Japanese Bridgestone tires. Are you looking forward to the day when all teams will be required to use the same tires, because Michelin will be pulling out of Formula 1 in late 2006?
Schumacher: Yes, but for the simple reason that it'll hopefully put an end to the stress of all those test drives. We drove about 90,000 kilometers last year, which is about 30,000 more than normal, and 80 percent of it was for tire tests. That's ridiculous, because the audience doesn't get anything out of that. But I am skeptical about claims that uniform tires will bring down costs. Some of the major soccer teams have budgets in the Formula 1 range, even though all they really need are soccer cleats and jerseys. What I mean is this: No one is discouraged from investing their money. The soccer team executives just use it to sign more expensive players.
SPIEGEL: Ferrari's parent company, Fiat, is in crisis. Do you have the sense that Ferrari is being forced to cut costs?
Schumacher: Not at all. Ferrari is completely independent in that respect. Sentences like "Sorry, we can't afford that," have never been uttered in our executive offices. That's one of the reasons I've been so happy at Ferrari for such a long time.
SPIEGEL: How are you influencing the development of the car for 2006?
Schumacher: Work on the car began in May. That's when we -- drivers and engineers -- jointly defined the weaknesses of the 2005 model, established our priorities and areas where we need improvement, areas like aerodynamics, electronics and weight distribution, for example. We spend hours in meetings, and my ideas and suggestions are part of that process. Another responsibility of mine is to interpret the vast quantities of data we obtain from testing work.
SPIEGEL: Why do the engineers even need you for that anymore? The transparent driver has long since become reality. Race cars are now filled with so many sensors that everything is recorded, even things like where on the track you step on the gas pedal, and how hard you're stepping on it.
Schumacher: That's only half the truth. An engineer can look at the data, but he needs a translator from the cockpit -- the driver -- to understand it completely. For example, only the driver can tell you why he abruptly takes his foot off the gas pedal at a certain point. The data doesn't necessarily tell the engineer whether the driver made a mistake at that point or the car was acting up. The information the driver provides often helps determine the direction of development.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Ferrari is building the car according to your specifications?
Schumacher: I don't dictate anything. We develop the solutions as part of a consensus.
SPIEGEL: Does Ferrari have a clearly defined goal for 2006?
Schumacher: Ferrari's only objective is to be at the top, in other words, to compete for the World Championship. That's our right. Winning is another matter. It wouldn't be a disgrace to come in second after a tough fight.
SPIEGEL: Does your decision on whether to extend your contract, which expires at the end of the season, depend in large part on whether Ferrari regains its strength?
Schumacher: Of course. The car has to be competitive. If I didn't even stand a chance of winning races and competing for the title, I don't think I would be that interested in continuing my career.
SPIEGEL: What else is important to you?
Schumacher: Personnel issues.
SPIEGEL: To be more precise, does that mean that the old guard, like your father-like team head Jean Todt and technical director Ross Brawn, would have to stay on board?
Schumacher: It would be nice, of course. However, everyone is replaceable, including me. Besides, I don't want to talk about individual people. What's more important at the moment is not who is leaving or is being replaced, but who is joining the team, who will make us stronger. And that the problems we've detected are truly fixed. If we want progress, we need more people.
SPIEGEL: The Ferrari team, with its 700 employees, is already one of the biggest.
Schumacher: You can't afford to tread water in Formula 1. What I want to know is: Where is Ferrari heading?
SPIEGEL: Do you think from one year to the next? Or, despite your 37 years, would you consider signing a longer-term contract?
Schumacher: I wouldn't rule it out. But it would depend on how the next season shapes up.
SPIEGEL: World champion Fernando Alonso has already signed a contract with McLaren-Mercedes for 2007. It's rumored that McLaren's current top driver, Kimi Räikkönen, has already signed a preliminary contract with Ferrari. Would you work in the same team with the Finn?
Schumacher: Of course. It would be neither my decision nor the team's. Ferrari always tries to get the best possible drivers, and my fellow team members have always been highly promising people.
SPIEGEL: Your unresolved future will be a constant topic in the coming months. How long can you put off the decision?
Schumacher: As long as I want, in theory. But in practice? Probably until mid-year.
SPIEGEL: Have you ruled out switching to another team?
Schumacher: Yes, 99 percent. I have to keep that one percentage point open -- even though I have a feeling that your counterparts at the tabloids will now probably pounce on that one percent.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schumacher, thank you for speaking with us.
The interview was conducted by SPIEGEL editors Martin Doerry, Detlef Hacke and Alfred Weinzierl.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.