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Racing From Fame at 200 MPH

Formula One legend Michael Schumacher is the highest-paid athlete ever. But he prefers to hide his celebrity safely underneath his helmet.

March 06, 2004|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

IMOLA, Italy — He is pound for pound perhaps the most famous athlete since Muhammad Ali and the highest paid in history. From Singapore to St. Petersburg, he cannot show his mandible-intensive face with- out being mobbed on sight. At 35 years old, he is the reigning six-time world champion of the world's biggest televised sport.

What's that name again?

Michael Schumacher drives a red Ferrari in Formula One racing. Formula One, or grand prix, racing has its roots in the European road racing of the early 20th century; the "formula" refers to the specifications each car must meet. The single-seat race cars are the most extreme machines on four wheels, capable of accelerating from zero to 100 mph and back to zero in less than six seconds -- less time than it takes to read this sentence.

No one has ever been better at driving an F1 car than the German-born Schumacher -- though the violent, wrenching, low-altitude aerobatics of an F1 car can barely be called driving. There are only 20 cars on the starting grid of a typical F1 race. In this ruthless meritocracy, brilliant drivers come and go, sometimes on a weekly basis. Schumacher has been at it for 13 years.

Last year, Schumacher surpassed the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, whose five-championship record, set in 1957, was once considered unbreakable, like Roger Maris' 61-home-run season.

All of that wouldn't get Schumacher a cup of coffee in the United States. Formula One -- like soccer -- is a world sport, and Americans typically don't pay much attention.

"That's lucky indeed," Schumacher says. His wife and kids like to visit friends in Texas, where they ride quarter horses. Schumacher also has been spotted at ski resorts in the Rockies. "When you are in Europe most of the time, people recognize you and watch," he says. "In America that happens very rarely. And I enjoy that very much."

When he starts in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday -- tonight our time -- he will again be the odds-on favorite to win the world championship, at an age when most Formula One drivers are shuffling off to Monaco. Every time he touches a wheel he adds to his fame.

The trouble is, Schumacher doesn't like being famous -- actually, to read him a little closer, it's fair to conclude some part of him hates it. As the Man becomes the Legend, the hardest part of his job may not be riding the flame tip of his Ferrari at 220 mph but carrying the gathering weight of his own achievements. And yet Schumacher is driving on.

He looks like a young, demitasse-size John F. Kerry. Schumacher stands about 5 feet, 8 inches, and weighs 160 pounds, deep-chested like a Labrador.

By common agreement F1's fittest man, he works out obsessively, combining weight training, cycling and soccer in daily routines that take many hours. His handshake is soft-skinned but hard-muscled and, like his driving, precisely executed.

During a rare interview in the lounge of his personal gym -- a tractor-trailer that follows him to all the racetracks -- Schumacher is relaxed and cordial but obviously wary. He acknowledges that he is "very reserved and very careful, until I trust, which takes awhile."

"He's quite a shy man in normal life," says Sir Jackie Stewart, himself a three-time F1 world champion and one of the most recognizable figures in the sport. "He's not pedantic about being a celebrity."

"That was never, when I arrived in Formula One, what I was looking for," Schumacher says, his voice quiet, his English exact.

"It was fine when I was in sports cars," he says, referring to a less rarefied form of European road racing. "It was no problem when people recognized me. In fact, it was a nice conversation. You could be proud of what you do. But coming to Formula One, you get into the land where it's not fun to talk about what you do."

"My personal life is all about finding privacy," he says.

When it comes to the burdens of fame, even golfer Tiger Woods sympathizes.

"I'm not in the same situation that Schumacher is in," Woods said during an event in San Diego before the recent Buick Open. "He is much more globally recognized than I am. Formula One is the most-watched sporting event in the world, so a lot of eyes are always on him all over the world. Not a whole lot of eyes are on me playing golf."

Woods is right. On any given race weekend during the season, 350 million or so souls in 150 countries tune in, making Formula One the most-watched televised sporting series. Only the summer Olympics and soccer's World Cup have higher viewership, and they happen only once every four years. By comparison, NASCAR's biggest race -- last month's Daytona 500 -- pulled in about 18 million viewers; typically, only about 8 million watch that series' races.

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