Driving around Tokyo is daunting. With no centre or suburbs, its road network is huge, spiralling, occasionally latticed and sometimes subterranean.
At times, even Mr Roboto in the satnav gives up and shrugs directions your way. Which has happened.
Meaning I’m lost while leading Mick Schumacher (behind the wheel of a stunning Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II) through Japan’s neon-lined labyrinth.
It’s a hot, humid evening and Mercedes F1’s reserve driver (and son of iconic seven-time Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher) is cutting the perfect shape of a Nineties boyband member.
Where I’m perspiring like a burst pipe, he palms back his blonde curls and looks effortlessly cool in his loose-fitting, oversized Tommy Hilfiger contractual clobber.
Sartorially, it couldn’t be more of a perfect fit for the car he’s driving.
Born out of German touring cars, the Evo II is a deeply lustworthy, boxy and bewinged sports sedan.
With a revvy, induction-tastic 232bhp four-cylinder engine mated to a dog leg close-ratio 5spd manual, rear-wheel drive and aero appendages that get petrolheads salivating, it’s a proper tip one’s hat, ‘if you know, you know’ car.
Mercedes only built 502 of them (as per DTM’s homologation rules) out of some 1.9 million W201 models that it’s based on.
So they’re properly rare beasts. The fact we’ve got a quadruplet of Evos following Mick makes the situation we’re in a bit more mind-blowing.
But that’s the plan. We wanted to give Mick an evening to remember – to take him away from the repetition and rigmarole of modern media junkets.
We don’t want to know where he keeps his ketchup, or when the last time he thought of the Roman Empire was.
We want to indulge his love for cars.
Story & Photos Rowan Horncastle
“I went looking for an Evo II to buy but decided against it... for now,” Mick says in his soft, geographically hard to place international accent.
“It’s a beautiful car and has huge sentimental value to me. The main reason being that my dad had one as a company car when he was a Mercedes junior. He spent a lot of time doing lots of laps on the Nordschleife with Heinz-Harald Frentzen. I remember within a month they had to change the brake pads and things with the engine. So it’s an emotionally important car to me.”
Growing up in Gland, Switzerland, Mick struggles to pinpoint exactly when he got bitten by the road car bug.
“Honestly, I don’t really know where I got into them. Driving them around the property as a child was a big factor. The first time I had a steering wheel in my hand from a road car was maybe four or five years old, on my dad’s lap. I got to drive very nice cars, very soon and very early. I guess it just grew naturally. Especially when I turned 18 – then it really turned into an obsession.”
Raised on a healthy diet of racing, the Fast and Furious franchise and gaming, Mick picked up a penchant for JDM cars by proxy. “I just love how raw and simple they are,” he says.
“I enjoy playing around with them, changing stuff, tuning them and making them more fun to drive.”
Knowing this, we head out of Tokyo towards Chiba to meet Japan’s most inconspicuous bad boy: Kazuhiko ‘Smokey’ Nagata.
Tobacco and turbo enthusiast Smokey is one of Japan’s legendary tuners.
He and his company Top Secret have modified every generation of Nissan GT-R, including an R33 Skyline GT-R that managed 0–300km/h in 17 seconds at Yatabe test track and 328km/h in Tokyo’s famous Aqualine tunnel.
Like Smokey, Mick is also a GT-R fanboy, with some tucked away in a shed at home. Including his R34 drift car.
“I’ve really got into drifting. As an F1 driver drifting – or oversteer – is the opposite of what you want to do. But if you control it and have the feel for it, it can really help you. So I took the step of saying ‘I want to try it’ after the 2019 Race of Champions skill race. I was quite good, finishing second against rally drivers and everything, so I thought, ‘OK, maybe I should try this a bit more’. So I got my own car and started enjoying sideways. I love the sensation of connecting turns and being in a difficult situation because obviously the car is upset, to then be able to control it. I think that’s what’s so intriguing. It’s a good feeling.”
Mick’s curiosity and JDM love resonates as he wanders around Smokey’s GT-R littered shop.
Not being able to speak Japanese, Mick uses international hand signals for car nuts to explain various car parts, gets out his phone to show Smokey his cars before stumbling upon Smokey’s VR32 GT-R (an R32 with all the mechanics and interior of the R35 transplanted) and trying to find a way to import it into Switzerland.
But we’ve got no time for this, as we’ve got the legendary Bayshore Route to hit and a car meet to get to.
For someone so young, 24-year-old Mick is at a rather quiescent point in his career.
Having had a triumphant run in his youth coming second in karting in the World, European and German Junior Championships, then switching to Formula 4 in 2015 and finishing second overall in both the German and Italian F4 championships, before becoming European Formula 3 Champion in 2018 and FIA Formula 2 Champion in 2020, Mick made it to the big leagues and bagged himself a seat in F1 with Haas. It wasn’t easy.
In 2022 Mick lost his seat after a difficult second season that saw him struggle to match teammate Kevin Magnussen for form.
He recorded a best finish of sixth in Austria, one of two points finishes during the season, but it was not enough to save his seat.
For 2023, Mick dropped his Ferrari junior ties and linked up with Mercedes (the last team his father raced for in F1), picking up the role of reserve driver.
“Being a reserve driver gives you tremendous insight, especially at Mercedes,” Mick says.
“I miss driving, I’m not going to lie. But the main thing I’ve learned since moving from Haas to Mercedes is how the team operates, the tools they have, how they use them and the communication. They’re big learning points. It has opened my eyes in a lot of ways and has made it clear why Mercedes is as successful as it is. The worst part is sitting in the garage and seeing everybody drive out and do what you love to do.”
Part of Mick’s remit is to join Mercedes trackside at all F1 races – that’s how we’re able to blat around Tokyo for a night before he heads to Suzuka to support the team. But time in Merc’s state-of-the-art sim back in Brackley is also key.
Mick was praised by Mercedes’ technical director James Allison for a 2am shift he did during the British GP weekend, turning the car’s “woeful” one-lap pace on Friday into a competitive car and set-up for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to compete with during quali and the race on Sunday.
With every mile behind the Evo II’s wheel, Mick’s smile grows to match the width of its monstrous rear wing.
Especially when he realises it shoots flame on the overrun after a 7,600rpm tollbooth roll out.
We cross over to Yokohama and swirl down a concrete pillared plughole, arriving in an unsuspecting parking lot that doubles up as the epicentre of cool Japanese car culture in Japan: Daikoku PA.
Mick, having never been to a car meet before, has his eyes widened.
Even though it’s a school night, the place is pumping. Mick walks around curiously, showing his girlfriend – Danish model Laila Hasanovic – Veilside-kitted Mazda RX-7s, how riveted wide arch Liberty Walk bodywork hangs from an R35 GT-R for the ultimate kerbside stance, and the extended provenance from the flood of awesome, rare Mercedes (including the original 190E Evo I, an AMG-clad W124 and a custom Cosworth 2.5 boasting Penta wheels and Brabus brakes) that are all parked honourably in their uniform herringbone bays.
As Mick gets under the bonnets and kindly signs carbon airboxes for marginally hysterical owners, I wonder if he’s handy with the spanners.
“I wish I was,” he says. “But I don’t have the time. I’m starting to bring more of my cars over to my place so that I eventually will be able to work on them myself and change things that I want to change. Currently, I am very good at taking things apart... maybe less gifted at putting them back together.”
But since the meteoric rise of social media and documentaries like Netflix’s Drive to Survive, racing drivers’ personalities have been mainlined into public consciousness.
Nowadays, it appears drivers’ human interests need to be put on display like the plastic dishes outside Daikoku’s service station restaurant windows. Yet here, tonight, Mick seems completely at home and relaxed.
“It’s risky because I feel like I’m a very private person. I like my privacy. Sometimes when you get people wanting to know more, they get a bit too snoopy. I feel it should be my choice how much I share, and what I share. Not people trying to figure that out for me.”
In this job you get to sniff out the car nuts from the blaggers. And Mick’s passion is palpable. It’s refreshing to see. And a welcome break from the headlines and hearsay currently surrounding him given he’s caught in a gloopy limbo where F1 politics, money and raw talent are all currently fighting each other to work out where he’ll race next.
As I type, Mick’s currently linked with an LMDh drive with Alpine in next year’s World Endurance Championship, a move Mercedes F1’s big boss Toto Wolff is fine with as Mick is “part of the family” and “will always have a home”.
Mick’s tone becomes more forlorn when talking about the future, obviously having had a tough few years and aching to get back into an F1 car. I wonder if it takes its toll, and how he pushes through in times of uncertainty.
“Having the right people around you,” he says. “You need to try and be mentally in the right space and try and get the best out of the situation so that you can, whenever it’s necessary, be in the position that you can jump in and be ready to go.”
After an evening with Mick, you can’t help but wish him the best of luck. If all else fails, he could always lean into drifting and see where that takes him. Sideways Schuey. Has a good ring to it, doesn’t it?