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International Man Of Mystery

April 28, 2003
April 28, 2003

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April 28, 2003

Motor Sports

International Man Of Mystery

He's been called a cheater and a traitor, a bad loser and a bad winner. He risks a fiery death every time he punches a time clock. He may be the most popular athlete on earth. So why are you waiting for us to tell you his name?

By the end of last season, what had formerly been referred to as Michael Schumacher's "willingness to commit the professional foul" was being extolled by backpedaling journalists as his "canny race craft." This, when I say it, makes him smile. ¶ The smile is tight and enigmatic, and from what I've seen, it may mean one of several things. It could mean that he's happy. It could mean that he's joking. Or, confusingly, it could mean that he's so deadly serious about something that words alone can't convey the depth and dire intensity of his feelings. ¶ "The worst mistakes I made were the ones I did in the beginning of my career," he says, his eyes bright, the smile brief. "I guess that's natural." ¶ He is one of the most famous athletes in the world. He is certainly one of the two most highly paid. In his field he's likely the best there's ever been. But Michael Schumacher, like NATO or the metric system, remains a dark and distant mystery to most Americans. ¶ For this he thanks you. ¶ You wouldn't recognize him if he showed up at your door tonight with a hot platter of Leberknodel and a free bottle of Gewurztraminer, would you? ¶ World-class motor racing, as all Americans know from long, agonizing movies like Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning and Driven, is a breathless, hallucinatory demimonde where life, or at least the screenplay, teaches us that speed is everything and love isn't what it seems, and that success means doing, or at least saying, whatever it takes to win--Whatever it takes, I tell you! Now kiss me, you bastard!--and that danger and death, or at least Yves Montand, lurk around every corner.

This is an article from the April 28, 2003 issue Original Layout

Everybody rides a Vespa and wears appalling Tyrolean hats and smokes unfiltered Gitanes with his breakfast ouzo. Sexy drivers and their sexy girlfriends dance the moonful Mediterranean nights away with sexy photojournalists at sexy EuroPop discotheques, or swing with sexy deposed despots and their sexy supermodel mistresses aboard the sexy megayachts of the nouveau riche beneath the gleaming lights of sexy Monte Carlo, because who knows what tomorrow may bring--it might not be sexy at all. Most of which, to Hollywood's credit, is true.

Incongruously, though, the first time I met Schumacher in person was at a not very sexy 10-minute press event last year in Indianapolis, the anti-Monaco, before the United States Grand Prix. Treated now as the ubermensch and elder statesman of Formula One racing by reporters, not one of whom looked like Claudia Cardinale, he was asked the kind of questions you'd expect and gave, with a small smile, the kind of polite, politic answers required.

"What do you think of the track?"

"Oh, it is quite all right."

Or "What do you think of Indianapolis?"

"Oh, it is quite all right."

That sort of thing. The second time I saw him, he had just kicked his brother hard in the ass. This was the next day. He was riding a motorized skateboard through the garage area at Indy, dodging willowy runway models and hungover former members of parliament, when he spotted his little sib, Ralf, also an F/1 driver, chatting with a teammate by a potted ficus. In yet another piece of canny race craft, Schumacher the elder swerved well off his course, rolled silently up behind the younger and planted his driving shoe squarely in the sitz of Ralf's hosen. Both were delighted by this and smiled broadly. There's something to be learned by deconstructing these two stories, I think, regarding the etiquette of international relations, or the combative intimacy of brotherhood, or the legendary subtlety of German wit, but I'm not sure what.

By the numbers, Michael Schumacher is the most successful Formula One driver in history. He has won more Grand Prix, 65 at last count, than any other man, living or dead. Last year he won his fifth world championship, tying the record held by Juan-Manuel Fangio, the sport's ancient colossus. Schumacher did this by winning 11 of 17 races. In the other six he finished no worse than third. Schumacher so outrageously dominated the Grand Prix circuit in 2002 that they're changing many of the rules in an effort to hobble his Ferrari and slow him down. They can't change him, however. They can't soften his focus, or dampen his ambition, or ease the burdens of his excellence. On the very morning of his mother's unexpected death on Sunday, wearing a black armband and a look of abject loss, he won the San Marino Grand Prix. So many debts to pay. Schumacher is expected to take his sixth title this season. He is 34 years old.

On our nervous little planet only soccer attracts more fans than Formula One auto racing. For every race date the global television audience is estimated at 300 million to 400 million people. Millions more crowd into the grandstands at tracks from Monza to Kuala Lumpur. Love him or hate him, Schumacher's the draw. In Europe, in Australia, in Malaysia or in South America or in Japan, Michael Schumacher can't step out of his haus or his hotel, his rumah pemondokan, his hospedaje or even his [foreign word] without causing a huru-hara among the pengagum seeking his tulisan, an Aufruhr of the Sportfreund in want of his Unterschrift, a rivolta among the tifosi desperate for his segnatura. Sono fanatico! Molto fantastico!

He'd probably drive the car for nothing, but for this kind of pan-continental adulation he earns an estimated $80 million per year--$25,000 for every racing mile. The only race in which he truly has any competition is the one he's running with that other big earner, Tiger Woods--the race to see who'll be the first to make a billion dollars.

The third time I saw Schumacher, we were at a track in Valencia, Spain, where at the end of February he was testing his Ferrari for the 2003 season. Red as Lenin's knickers, the car resists description. Like the cars against which it competes, it is one of the most advanced mechanical assemblies on earth. It is on the cutting edge of fields as disparate as electronic systems management, graphite-composite construction and computational fluid dynamics. It is also, to those who have an eye for the machine-age aesthetic, quite beautiful. Lithe and sculptural, it is as much a work of art as it is a feat of engineering. This car is dead sexy, and promises more trouble than lipstick smeared on a white collar.

It tracks wide and rides low; the capsule into which the driver reclines is no higher than your knee. The tapering length of the whole slender shaft, just large enough for the driver's little shoes at the front, is about 14 1/2 feet. Out at the tip, the sharp nose of the vehicle carries an array of wings, there to provide the aerodynamic downforce that keeps the car from flying off the track.

Twin pods swell from the side of the car at the cockpit. Running aft as far as the rear wheels, they house the various radiators responsible for cooling the car's vital fluids. They're built to protect the driver in a crash, and they also direct airflow around and beneath the car. The engine and gearbox lie behind the driver, hidden there under the swooping bodywork. Above the power plant looms the huge air scoop that defines a Formula One car's profile. At the rear of the car is another complex adjustable wing assembly designed to keep the car's streamlined hindquarters pinned to the ground at speed.

The engine is a three-liter fuel-injected V-10. Seven-speed plus reverse semiautomatic titanium gearbox. It uses technologies like pneumatic valve actuation and ultralight ceramics to produce more than 900 horsepower at a staggering 19,000 rpm. Since the car is built almost entirely from carbon fiber, it weighs only 1,320 pounds even with the driver seated and the tanks full. Top speed is more than 220 miles per hour. It'll go from 0 to 60, the universal adolescent male measure of performance worldwide, in 2.3 seconds. For all this you'd pay about $8 million. The steering wheel alone, on which the car's baffling array of bidirectional electronic controls is mounted, costs $60,000.

On the track the car is no more than a jitterbug blur across your retina and a noise like the morning of the Last Day. This is the car that's given all the others such an angry spanking over the past three years.

Schumacher stands 5'8 1/2" and weighs 164 pounds. His noggin is long-jawed, with an emphatic chin supporting a lean geometry of skin and flesh and bone. His sharp features crowd the center of his face, the eyes, nose and mouth close set and surprisingly expressive. But his small mouth and those high cheekbones and that cantilever chin have paid out a bonanza to caricaturists from Sao Paulo to Rome to Johor Baharu.

He is neither dour nor impassive, but in the stifling hothouse of F/1 press coverage, especially in France and Great Britain, where he's referred to as the Red Baron, he has been at times a newsreel cliche, a stock character from a 1917 propaganda film. Thus the frequent descriptions of the cruel Teutonic mouth or the sadistic lift of the smooth jaw, the invidious comparisons to arrogant Wagnerian second tenors or swaggering Wehrmacht Panzer Leutnants. Fleet Street has done everything but doll him up with a dueling scar and a monocle.

Often described as an automaton, Schumacher has, in truth, been quite demonstrative over the years, jumping around on the podium after victories like Goober Pyle, with a wet, wide-open smile hanging on him--this one uncontrived and without subtext. At other times he's swung the other way, most notably at a press conference after his 41st victory in 2000. Having tied the number of wins achieved by his idol, Ayrton Senna, he wept. He is human after all. He certainly sweats like one, anyway.

The brief audience I've been granted takes place while Schumacher does part of his daily workout on a stationary bike. This is in the little gym adjacent to the long front stretch of the Valencia track. It's taken me six months to earn a few minutes perched next to a humming ExerCycle because scheduling an interview with Michael Schumacher is no easy thing. There are many transoceanic e-mails required, each with the word please written in a smorgasbord of languages. European magazines have had to pay him for interviews. And why shouldn't they? Schumacher's time is precious. Based on your work week, or mine, he earns about $40,000 an hour. If I'm lucky, I'll get $15,000 worth of heavy breathing.

After his simple pasta lunch, chosen sensibly from the long buffet of splendid, wretched excess in Scuderia Ferrari's traveling cafe, he needs to burn off that single rogue calorie not already scalded off his frame by the heat and stress of driving practice laps all afternoon at full gallop. He's not big, but he's solid-built, as Grandma used to say, and he has a neck like a draft animal's. He is obsessive about his physical conditioning and spends four or five hours a day banging weights or on a bike or running hills behind his home in Switzerland. "You have to do it to withstand the G-forces," he tells me as he begins his spinning. "I want to be perfectly prepared."

His English is clipped and meticulous, even when he's standing on the pedals, pouring sweat. He speaks at least four languages in full sentences and bits and pieces of several others. He is smart and straightforward and answers the question he's asked. For example:

What about the electronic devices that will be banned later this season, like traction control and two-way telemetry, for fear that they're ruining the sport?

"All these aids do is make you go faster. We still have to drive the car. Whether you can use the potential of these systems is the challenge. Some can do it and some can't."

How has he become so successful?

"Discipline, and an ability to concentrate. Also, when I met my wife, it was like a dream came true. To marry her and have a family gives us a very stable situation at home and a lot of support. I am not out to party at night and then try to race the next day.... Twenty seconds, please."

He has entered the Alpine portion of the bike's program, and he's working uphill now. We'll rejoin him in a moment.

It amazes and confuses some Americans to learn that foreign countries have money, too, even if it looks as if it were minted by Parker Brothers. It's counterintuitive to us, like the idea of room-temperature beer or a Portuguese Air Force. But Formula One racing is an object lesson in the efficient flow of cartoon currencies. A Grand Prix season will sluice substantially more than $5 billion worth of Euros and ringgits and forints and yen through the global economy. Ticket sales and broadcast contracts, corporate sponsorship and souvenir licensing bring all those quaint, colorful greenbacks and bluebacks and pinkbacks in by the boatload; while the monumental expenditures associated with fielding a Formula One team sends them out again by the buttload. F/1 is a planetary money pump.

Exact figures for the care and feeding of a Formula One race team are impossible to find. This is in part because F/1 is the most habitually secretive professional sporting circuit anywhere, so, as a matter of principle, no team is going to open its ledgers. But the simple truth may be that even the teams themselves don't know. After all, if you're winning, you don't care what you spent, and if you're losing, nobody else cares what you spent, so who bothers to keep track?

For the successful, big-money two-car teams like McLaren or Williams or Ferrari, this year's budget for a serious run at the 16-race world championship might balloon to something between $250 million and $450 million. Per team. This includes cars, drivers, engineers, fabricators, pit crews, research, development, computers, wind tunnels, transportation, espresso machines, champagne, a daily selection of fine imported cheeses, taxes, tip, corkage and stylish flame-retardant suits, jumpers and coveralls for everyone concerned. Even the team publicists are uninflammable.

The midlevel teams--Jaguar, Toyota, et al.--run two cars as well, but economize, perhaps by skipping dessert, and will spend around $200 million each on cars, party hats and fireproof press officers.

The poorhouse teams, like Jordan or Minardi, will scrape by on less than $100 million. They might not even have the money to run the entire season. Their domestic cheeses mock them. Their publicists need to be kept away from open flame.

In what was traditionally an 11- or 12-team field, at least one team busted out and went bankrupt every season. This happened with metronomic regularity, but no one ever worried because there was always a new team with an optimistic new sponsor--or at least a refinanced, renamed version of the same team, with an optimistic new sponsor--back at the track the following year. Last year the Arrows team was forced to throw in the shop rag, and a team run by former champion Alain Prost went bankrupt. But costs have risen so astronomically high, and economic optimism sunk so abysmally low, that no new teams have materialized to replace them.

Most of this epic money comes from corporate sponsorship, of course, and every car carries more advertising than a Times Square tour bus. For comparative purposes, here in America it costs about $15 million a year to build a winning NASCAR team for a 37-race season. Including pie and coffee.

One might imagine, then, with so much money at stake, and so many people from so many countries and companies chasing it, that Formula One racing would be run with a rigorous and dispassionate corporate efficiency. One would be wrong.

Despite the billions, and the life-or-death stakes, F/1 is more of a comic opera, really--something out of Gilbert and Sullivan by way of Machiavelli. Here's the short version: the F/1 world championship is overseen by a sanctioning body, the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile, or FIA, which is based in Paris. The FIA enforces F/1 rules but doesn't seem to make all of them, at least not alone, because the series by which the world championship is decided is actually owned in part by a man named Bernie Ecclestone, a Brit wearing Andy Warhol's hair and Wilford Brimley's bifocals, who is in charge of the television rights and the marketing and branding opportunities, and perhaps the catering. Or maybe not--no one is really sure. He, too, makes some of the rules, it seems, but can't enforce any of them, so he spends most of his time instead making cryptic pronouncements to the world press in the manner of a Magic 8 Ball. He is referred to, in the inky depths of motojournalism, as the F/1 Supremo. In any case, the teams and the drivers and the various engine manufacturers (Ford, BMW, Mercedes, etc.)--who also have a stake in the Formula One brand, and who, despite the fact that it's obviously in their own best interests to break them, create the rules in conjunction with the FIA, using a bubble level, some chicken bones and a Ouija board--are all organized into their own fractious little interest groups too, and it is Mr. Ecclestone's job over the course of every racing season to ask that all these groups are brought together on a regular basis for meetings in elegant suites at five-star hotels on the Riviera so that each has an opportunity to storm out of the room. This phenomenon is governed by what is unironically referred to as the Concorde Agreement.

So, to recap, you've got a racing series with a German champion driving an Italian car under the supervision of a gnomic British overseer who may or may not work for a ceremonial French governing body leveraged by a cabal of multinational automotive corporations. Everybody hates everybody else, bien sur, and keeps threatening to sink the whole thing by quitting, so the entire enterprise is forever teetering on the brink of heartbreaking collapse. Tack on a couple of swashbuckling orphans and you'd have a production of The Pirates of Penzance.

This is the bright and busy stage on which Michael Schumacher has played the starring role for the last decade.

Born in Huerth-Hermuelheim, Germany, on the outskirts of Koln, Schumacher got his start in go-karts. To bolster the family income his father, Rolf, a bricklayer by trade, worked part time at the local karting track, as did his mother, Elisabeth. Since the track was nearby and money was tight, it often made sense to let their son drive around for a few free hours while they worked. This kind of purposeful day care can prove providential, and very early, at age four or five, Schumacher appeared to be a wunderkind behind the wheel. Small and light, he outran the taller, heavier boys and won his first club championship at age six.

He flourished, even though the family's budget dictated that he pilot inferior equipment. He surmounted this handicap by doing whatever it took to go faster, like waiting for the "richer, older boys" to lose control and then scavenging usable parts from the smoldering crash site.

In his teens his talent was so mesmerizing that the well-to-do father of another boy, a lackluster and desultory racer, took his kid's faster, better kart away from him and gave it to Schumacher to race. This man's gesture, at once charitable and heartless, would be the model for much of Schumacher's later career--the best driver lands in the best equipment at the cost of some very hard feelings backstage.

It was during these years that Schumacher's sense of obligation was refined, too, the sense that you repaid the generosity or sacrifice of others--your parents, your patrons--by winning races. When he won his first big race, he gave his father a suitcase full of cash. Later, he bought the go-kart track for him.

Working his way up through various sports car series, Schumacher in late 1988 came to the attention of Wilhelm (Willie) Weber, a wealthy restaurateur and race team sponsor. "I had a Formula Three team," Weber says. "This means I had to look for quality drivers to stay on top. Some race drivers, you feel the car is driving them. With Michael, though, it was obvious he was really driving on the limit. It seemed to me as if he had never done anything else."

Schumacher was invited to join the team. So certain was Weber of his potential, in fact, that Schumacher wasn't required to bring his own sponsorship to fund the car, an almost ironclad requirement in a sport so expensive. Weber, however, has been more than repaid for his initial confidence in Schumacher's bankability. He became his personal manager that same year and has shared a tidy percentage of Schumacher's earnings ever since.

Willie Weber is a flamboyant and divisive character even in the gaudy vaudeville of Formula One. He is Schumacher's peacock alter ego and his closest adviser, a smiling Father Confessor and best friend. A preening showboat to Schumacher's sometimes colorless technocrat, Weber is easing into his 60s as tanned as Aristotle Onassis and perfectly white-haired and, from his bespoke loafers to his neatly creased jeans to his massive nugget cufflinks, altogether as sleek as an otter. A great deal of what gets written about Schumacher in the European press has more to do with how the reporters feel about Weber than Schumacher. "He looks too much a pimp," one German motoring reporter told me sourly.

Weber's charming enthusiasm can be contagious, though, and a quite effective sales tool. In 1991 he talked Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan into trying Schumacher on a one-race basis for an absent driver. "I told him Michael is fantastiche and to, what the hell, try him." Schumacher made such a splash that within a week he'd been pirated away to drive the rest of the season under contract to the Benetton team. A 900-horsepower Ruby Keeler! Who did the pirating, and just, what the hell, how, is still a sore point among F/1 fusspots.

In any case, Schumacher's fantastiche F/1 career was launched, and in '92, his first full season, he won his first race. He won another in '93 and by then had absorbed into his motor cortex the nuances of every track on the circuit. He won eight races in '94, and his first world championship.

That was a watershed year for Schumacher, and he dominated the tour every time he got in the car. But he wasn't always in the car. He won the championship despite having been banned from two races for an incident at midseason in which he passed another car on a warmup lap and then ignored the order to return to the pit stall for a penalty during the race. This was in the vein of screwball comedy at which Formula One excels, but the banishment let driver Damon Hill slip back into the championship points race. With only a few points separating them, the title that year--and much of Schumacher's subsequent reputation with the press and the fans--were decided in the final race of the season. Schumacher was leading Hill by a few seconds in Australia, when, perhaps buckling to the pressure, Schumacher slid off the course and lightly brushed the wall. As Hill closed on him, Schumacher veered left, back onto the track. As Hill swung to the right to pass him and enter the next turn, Schumacher swerved hard right and made heavy contact with Hill's car. The accident put both drivers out of the race. Schumacher clinched the title by virtue of having entered the weekend two points ahead. What bubbled up into the press afterward was the idea that Schumacher's second wrenching maneuver was intentional, that he knew he couldn't let Hill get past him and so, in a moment of panic, rammed him.

Schumacher's demurrals at the time--that he'd simply lost control of a crashed car and never meant to impede Hill--were unconvincing, at least to the expert press, and the first version of his public persona was launched: victory-at-any-price villain. A bad winner.

Nineteen-ninety-four was also the year respected ace Ayrton Senna was killed during the San Marino Grand Prix. A friend and mentor to Schumacher, the death of the 34-year-old Senna flattened the whole weird season for everyone. Schumacher, the first German champion in history, described it as a "nightmare" year even as he took the trophy, and he dedicated his tainted championship to Senna's memory. Senna's crash is still being investigated.

In 1995 Schumacher, driving again for Benetton, repeated as champion, the youngest ever to do so, and this time without controversy. His rivalry with Hill was honed throughout the season, but there was no real blood let, only a few on-track tangles and the occasional obscenity politely uttered during postrace interviews.

The big news at the end of 1995 was that Schumacher had, for a great deal of money, been wooed away from Benetton to drive the '96 season for Ferrari. People screamed bloody murder. Fantastiche! What the hell!

It was rumored at the time that Schumacher's base salary, exclusive of prize money and endorsements, was around $25 million. That's a lot of money of any size or color, but what Schumacher was expected to do was nothing less than return Ferrari to its storied former greatness. They hadn't won a drivers' championship since 1979, the circuit having been in the thrall of McLaren and Williams through most of the '80s and '90s. At stake, too, was Italy's national self-esteem, which seems to rise or fall with the fortunes of its cars and soccer teams, but not, sadly, its currency or form of government.

Drivers routinely jump from one team to another in F/1, always looking for the best ride, a better contract, the chance to win. The great Juan Manuel Fangio himself had bounced from one garage to another during his career. He won four championships in a row in the mid-'50s with three manufacturers. Lesser lights change teams even in midseason to better their prospects. Drivers on the fringe, rookies and test drivers and aging former Golden Boys, are in and out of different seats on a week-to-week basis.

Damon Hill won the championship in 1996 while Schumacher struggled with the weight of Italy's expectations and a car that broke down more often than Elizabeth Taylor's hip replacements. He finished third in the overall standings.

In 1997 Schumacher's new archnemesis was Jacques Villeneuve. The Ferrari that year was more reliable, and Schumacher took advantage of it. Coming into the last race of the season at Jerez, Spain, he was leading Villeneuve by a single point in the standings. Late in the race Villeneuve, driving for Williams, dived inside Schumacher to pass him entering a turn. Schumacher, surprised by the move, swerved right, directly into Villeneuve's car. This time, though, Schumacher's was the only car sent spinning, and he lost the race and the championship. There was very little debate this time as to his intentions, and his second-place finish in the overall standings was struck from the books by the FIA. Worse than that, what image rehabilitation he'd been able to accomplish in the two years since he'd punted Hill was undone, and he entered his second phase of public perception: bad loser.

In '98 he lost a close seasonlong fight for the points title to Mika Hakkinen. Hakkinen--nicknamed the Flying Finn because every athlete from Finland is required by law to be nicknamed the Flying Finn--would take over from Hill and Villeneuve the role of spoiler.

The '98 championship again came down to the last race. Schumacher stalled on the starting grid, started from the back of the field, fought his way up to third--but then punctured a tire. He could only watch as Hakkinen passed him to win the title.

In '99 Schumacher went straight into the wall at the British Grand Prix in a nasty accident, shattering his right leg. Remarkably, he managed to finish fifth in the standings, even though he sat out most of the season, leading to headlines in the British press like Schumi Gloomy, while rumors of his imminent retirement swirled.

In 2000, he returned to form, winning nine times. He won the drivers' title for himself and the constructors' championship for Ferrari. The tifosi, Italy's ardent Ferrari fans, were ecstatic.

In 2001 he won nine races and the title.

In 2002 he won 11 races and the title.

Even Yoda Ecclestone was moved to quotabilty, in a kind of attenuated blank verse:

I hope Schumacher wins another world title because a super, super superstar can only be good for any sport.

Schumacher's still cranking uphill against the bike's virtual Eiger. When he's got enough wind to speak, he tells me that he and his wife, Corinna, who've been together since 1991 and have two children, love the American West.

"We like Utah."

What the hell?

Whenever they have time before or after the U.S. Grand Prix, they travel through the desert or the Rockies or the High Plains. They like Texas too. "We went to the Texas Motor Speedway once on a motorcycle when they had the track open for fans. You could pay a couple of dollars and ride around the track, but the queue was too long, so we left. I would have liked to try it."

Anybody recognize him?

"No."

How'd that make him feel?

"Great. It's one of the things we like about the States."

He pedals on.

Americans don't know him because we don't much cotton to Formula One. For a variety of reasons we ignore it and shun its mighty stars when they amble into Stuckey's: our casual xenophobia; the current absence of competitive 'Murcan drivers; our big-block V-8 distaste for those fragile, effete cars; and our general dislike for bad hats and popgun scooters.

I think, too, that F/1 suffers because it seems somehow canned. Too much information management, not enough daredevil highballin'. Not fixed, strictly, because it isn't. But too orderly, too neat.

Witness the very race at Indy that I'd gone to cover, seated among the tifosi with their clanging, useless cowbells, and the aging, alky lairds from Gin-upon-Tonicshire whose swollen noses glow Stage 5 red with the urgent warnings of a thousand broken blood vessels.

On the last lap Schumacher, leading by many car lengths, slowed down deliberately and precisely and let his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, race past him for the win. Schumacher finished second, only a few hundredths of a second behind. This he did to repay Barrichello for a similar kindness the year before at the Austrian Grand Prix, in which Barrichello, leading, had been ordered by the team manager to pull aside so Schumacher could win, helping guarantee both the drivers' and constructors' championships. In a stirring display of unity and hypocrisy, even the other Formula One teams decried these moves and said that they'd made the sport a "laughingstock."

Team orders are the bane of Formula One, insofar as Americans are concerned, because they seem a contrivance that flies in the face of our may-the-best-man-win ethos. That team orders are just as common in NASCAR doesn't seem to register. Maybe it's just those bad, bad hats after all.

"Another 20 seconds, please."

Short questions now, short answers.

Will it be harder to win this year?

Huff-huff. "Yes." Huff-huff. "The other teams will improve." Huff-huff.

Has your team improved?

Huff-huff. Huff-huff. Huff-huff. "Yes."

Are you misunderstood?

Huff-huff. "Yes." Huff-huff.

And on like this for another few minutes, until he's finished with the workout. Perhaps the obsessive physical conditioning is why Schumacher still reigns in a sport in which few grow old, while his rivals fall away--Hill and Hakkinen retired, Villeneuve no longer competitive in an underfunded car. Others, David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Schumacher the younger, reach but can't quite grasp. Or maybe it's Schumacher's will to win, his struggle to pay something back. What though, and to whom, is unclear to everyone but him.

Drenched, he has a meeting to get to. We walk out of the gym. The track is closed, and the team is packing up. Fifty of them, engineers and mechanics, executives and sous-chefs and fireproof publicists, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum and the other cast members crowding around the only thing in this dopey, heroic Grand Guignol miniverse as important as Schumacher. We walk past the car, bloodred in the last of the sunset, as he zips his gym bag closed. It's cold now.

One last thing, Michael.

"Yes?"

It's a strange question.

"Yes?"

Do you ever talk to the car?

Pause. "Yes."

What do you say to it?

He keeps walking.

"Whatever the car wants to hear."

And he smiles.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY FIREPROOF Schumacher's fearlessness in his Ferrari has made him the favorite of millions of F/1 fans.COLOR PHOTO MINI DRIVER Schumacher has been on the very fast track since he was four, going from mini-bikes to go-karts to his F/1 Ferrari.COLOR PHOTO: BILDAGENTUR KRALING [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: SHAUN BEST/REUTERS DRIVE-BY Schumacher scooted past Ralf in Indy's pits, then allowed another Ferrari to scoot past his on the track.COLOR PHOTO: (INSET) RTL TELEVISION/REUTERS NUDGE, NUDGE Even a blatant bump of Villenueve's car by Schumacher (in red) in '97's last race couldn't win him the F/1 title.COLOR PHOTO: MIKE COOPER/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO FRESH PEDALS Schumacher burns calories as zealously as he burns rubber.COLOR PHOTO: ERCOLE COLOMBO/AFP HIGH CONCEPT Michael and Corinna love the Italian Alps but escape to the Rockies, where fans don't hound him.

 

On the track his FERRARI IS NO MORE THAN A JITTERBUG BLUR across your retina and a noise like the morning of the Last Day.
Despite the life-or-death stakes, F/1 is like a comic opera--something out of GILBERT AND SULLIVAN BY WAY OF MACHIAVELLI.
On our nervous little planet only soccer attracts more fans than F/1. Love him or hate him, SCHUMACHER'S THE DRAW.
The only race in which he truly has competition is the one with Tiger Woods--to see who'll be THE FIRST TO MAKE A BILLION DOLLARS.