Sexy Irish movie star Michael Fassbender is known for his action and drama onscreen, but offscreen the two-time Academy Award nominee likes his action even more intense. Many movie stars like Tom Cruise and Paul Newman have found their way to the racetrack, and Fassbender spent his childhood dreaming of getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari one day like his idol Michael Schumacher.
He was able to make that dream a reality after completing the 2.2-mile track at the Daytona Ferrari Challenge. This included eleven very tight turns which is no small thing for someone relatively new at the sport. Fassbender officially got into racing in 2016, but he possesses an encyclopedic, arcane knowledge of 1980s Group B rally racing and has logged more than 120 hours behind the wheel of his 488 Ferrari Challenge car — valued at $330,000, featuring a 670-horsepower, 3.9-liter turbocharged V-8 engine. It’s numbered 133, because, as he says, “three is my lucky number.”
Says Ferrari Challenge head instructor Didier Theys: “From the start, Michael has shown a great deal of dedication and talent as a competitor.”
Now here’s where things get real. Michael Fassbender thought he was going to be sick.
But the two-time Oscar nominee was not in front of the camera in a demanding new role.
The stage fright was a totally new experience: He was moments away from racing a car for the first time.
“I was extremely nervous, to the point that I was in the toilets,” Fassbender said in an interview. “I thought I was going to throw up. I didn’t, but I was very close.”
That was last year when the amateur driver made his debut in the Ferrari Challenge series.
“You’re racing nose-to-bumper at high speed,” Fassbender said. “The Ferrari cars have an awful lot of horse power. If you lose the back end you have to catch a tow quickly, or you leave the track.”
He clinched his first podium the same year, a third place at the rain-soaked Mosport race in Ontario, Canada.
“Emotions were bubbling up inside of me when I approached the line. Thankfully my coach hadn’t told me my position, but I knew I’d passed a lot of cars.”
Like a method actor, Fassbender thoroughly prepared for a wet race in Canada by practicing on the Nuerburgring track in Germany, one of Formula One’s famed tracks.
“I had a really great coach who taught me to drive in the wet, and to take a different racing line,” the 41-year-old Fassbender said.
Now, he’s chasing podiums.
In January, he was first at Daytona, following that up with a second place and a third place at other races.
This weekend, Fassbender was competing in the Ferrari Challenge in Montreal, parallel to the Formula One grand prix there. There was no podium finish for Fassbender on Saturday, however, after he was clipped from behind early on. But he has a chance to make amends in another race on Sunday.
As a lad growing up back home in Ireland, however, he had only eyes for F1.
“I got into Formula One through my grandfather, around ’88, ‘89. Ayrton Senna was his hero, and then Michael Schumacher became my hero,” Fassbender said. “I always loved cars. I couldn’t wait to get my drivers’ license, counting down the days until I was 17.”
Fassbender’s first F1 race as a spectator was the 2006 Monaco GP — during seven-time F1 champion Schumacher’s last season with Ferrari.
After Schumacher, who won a record 91 races, came out of retirement in 2010 with Mercedes, Fassbender met him.
“Schumacher invited me to be his guest in Monaco,” Fassbender recounted. “I was on the grid with him there, which was a real highlight for me, a special experience.”
Fassbender has a fondness for F1 tracks with mythical status. He wants to visit Spa, home to the Belgian GP and nestled in the Ardennes forest with some of F1′s most unstable weather conditions.
“It’s one of those old school race tracks, the margin of error is very slight. Back in the Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark days, it was even more treacherous and a lot more demanding.”
Fassbender began his fledging amateur career with Ferrari’s Corsa Pilota training program in September 2016.
The intensity was immediately irresistible.
“I got to test on the track, 66 laps,” Fassbender said proudly. “I was in at the deep end. An absolute dream from childhood. When it comes to the first practice day, your brain and body have to assimilate to these high speeds. You get into the car and think, ‘Oh, God, I can’t do this,’ but it’s incredible how the body and mind adapt — it’s just about focusing and trying to get in a rhythm. Racing is something that really does bring that level of forced meditation — it’s very rare in life.”
He is not the only actor to discover a passion for racing after movie stars like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
“It’s one of the things about the job that I do that’s a huge perk, just an absolute dream come true,” says Fassbender, who lives in Lisbon, Portugal, with Alicia Vikander, whom he married in October. “It was always a goal to do some sort of racing at 40, but I didn’t imagine that I’d be in a series like this with very powerful, very fast 660-odd horsepower machines.” Fassbender adds with a laugh, “It’s a lot more fun prepping for this than learning lines at home,” the downside being, “if you miss an apex or mess up a corner, you don’t get a ‘take two.'”
He points out the other contrast between his two chosen vocations — the type of risk involved: “It’s a different kind of butterflies. For a film, I’ve usually been putting together this character, but haven’t really shown it to anybody. That first day of shooting, it’s like, ‘God, I hope this works.’ But racing, once you start doing it, focusing on what you have to do, you can’t think of anything else. When you’re driving, literally, if your mind wanders, you’re going to go off the track.”
More recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Patrick Dempsey enjoyed success in pro-am racing at the 24 Hours Le Mans.
“Patrick has been so great for me,” Fassbender said. “He always texts me at race weekends, asks me how I’m doing, and gives me really solid advice.”
When the two met on a flight from Los Angeles to London, the conversation came spontaneously.
“He was sitting in the seat behind me; we just talked about racing,” Fassbender recalled. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and honesty in racing which I’m drawn to. It’s a very humbling sport. What have I learned? I’ve learned that I’m always two seconds off where I need to be. You race to win, for sure, that’s the goal. Either you’re fastest or you’re not — that’s the allure for me. It’s always great to be on the podium.”