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Mean Machine

Schumacher drives aggressively, speaks tersely, and wins; he'll soon retire as Formula One's all-time champ

October 06, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

After winning the German Grand Prix two years ago, Formula One driver Michael Schumacher climbed out of his sleek red Ferrari and, in his usual terse manner, summed up the victory: "We were able to achieve 100% most of the time."

No one else in Formula One, and arguably in all of sports, has ever achieved near perfection as often as Schumacher.

With a steely determination and driving precision perhaps unmatched in racing, he has won a record 91 races and an unprecedented seven world championships during his 15-year career.

Now, at 37, Schumacher plans to retire at this season's end. But first he has a shot at winning an eighth title, with the series down to its final two races, starting with Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. The last race is Oct. 22 in Brazil.

Schumacher won last Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai -- his seventh victory this year, and his fifth in the last seven races -- to pull even in the points with reigning champion Fernando Alonso of Team Renault.

"This is the right moment," Schumacher said last month in announcing his retirement, just after winning the Italian Grand Prix in Monza -- Ferrari's backyard.

First, though, "We will be going all out in the final races," he said. "I think we can win the title again."

In fact, he can clinch it this weekend, if he wins the Japanese race and Alonso fails to finish or finishes out of the points, ninth or worse.

Schumacher will take with him a plethora of records -- not only most wins and titles, but also most pole positions, 68, and most wins in a season, 13 in 2004 -- that has made him one of sports' best-paid athletes and earned him legions of fans worldwide.

Except in the United States. Schumacher could traverse most of America unnoticed because Formula One -- like soccer -- is far more popular in Europe and elsewhere.

Schumacher also closely guards his privacy. He lives in Switzerland with his wife and two children, and generally avoids the party circuit.

As a driver, Schumacher is often viewed as a cold, calculating perfectionist whose smiles tend to be reserved mostly for victory lane.

He is admired and respected among racing fans, if not loved and cherished.

"It's just his demeanor," said Joie Chitwood, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Formula One series makes its lone American stop, the U.S. Grand Prix.

"He's very stoic, he's very businesslike," Chitwood said. "He's a gentleman born to be a Formula One race car driver....But he's so focused that you never really get to see other parts of his personality."

Scott Speed, the young Californian who this year became the first American driver in Formula One in more than a decade, grew up dreaming of racing Schumacher.

"As a kid, I watched F1 with my dad," Speed said via e-mail. "He was a huge fan of Michael's and, as a result, so was I."

Earlier this year, Speed also said, "There is no question that of every driver whom I have met, he is the one that pushes the most. He is the one that tries the hardest."

Too hard at times, according to Schumacher's critics, who lately have included Alonso.

After Schumacher announced his retirement, Alonso told a Spanish radio station, "[Schumacher] has been the best driver and it has been an honor and pleasure to battle against him." But Alonso also said that Schumacher was "the most unsporting driver in the history of Formula One."

Asked about Alonso's remarks during a news conference last week in Shanghai, Schumacher said, "I don't think I have to react to anything."

The relationship between Alonso and Schumacher underlines how Schumacher's personality, and the intensity of his driving style, often polarize him from others.

Regardless, Schumacher is the unquestioned superstar of Formula One, what Tiger Woods is to golf and Michael Jordan was to basketball.

Schumacher's career stands well above those of famous Formula One drivers who preceded him, including Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna, Stirling Moss, Alain Prost and Juan Manuel Fangio, who held the record for most championships -- five -- until Schumacher came along.

Schumi, as he's nicknamed, also reaped the financial reward of that career, earning $60-80 million annually in recent years and vying with Woods for the title of world's highest-paid athlete.

Schumacher's quiet generosity also is legendary. BusinessF1 magazine recently estimated that he has donated about $50 million over the last four years to relief efforts around the world, all without fanfare.

That includes $10 million he donated after the tsunami devastated Asia in December 2004. The more than 200,000 victims included one of Schumacher's bodyguards and the bodyguard's two sons, on vacation in Thailand at the time.

Back on the track, though, Schumacher said, "I'm more focused than ever because I've always been focused on only one thing, once I'm in the car."

Alonso, after winning the championship last year to break Schumacher's stranglehold, also started strong this season, and the 25-year-old Spaniard appeared poised to win consecutive titles.

But Schumacher has rallied. In early July, he won the race at Indy for a record fifth time, then won four of the next six races, steadily closing on Alonso.

Schumacher said it was after winning the U.S. Grand Prix that he decided this season would be his last, whether he won another championship or not.

"It's not as if I'm lacking anything," he said. "Might as well leave while I'm still at the top level."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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