The fastest man in the world's fastest sport

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OK, sports fans, who is the highest-salaried sportsman in the world? Tiger Woods? Shaquille O'Neal? Or a square-jawed German wearing a big grin and a bright red jumpsuit of whom you have probably never heard?

You guessed it. Michael Schumacher, the race-car driver who won his record sixth Formula One World Championship on Sunday, may pass almost unrecognized in the United States. But elsewhere in the world, he is one of the best known faces in sport, commanding a reported $40 million annual fee from Ferrari, the team he leads.

As the undisputed king of the $4 billion, 16-country F-1 circuit, dominating the world's most expensive, most dangerous, and often most dramatic sport, "Schumi," as he is popularly known, elicits strong reactions: fans either love him or hate him.

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But they cannot argue with his record.

"Michael Schumacher is plainly the outstanding talent of his period," says Doug Nye, an English historian of motor racing. "He is undoubtedly the best racing driver in harness, pound for pound, and he has been for too many years."

Mr. Schumacher won his first World Championship in 1994, driving for the Benetton team. This year's triumph means he has now won the title four years in a row for Ferrari, driving in the Italian luxury carmaker's instantly recognizable scarlet colors.

He holds almost all the records there are to hold in Formula One, but one statistic is especially telling of his consistent success: since he began F-1 racing 12 years ago, he has finished outside the point- scoring top eight in only three of the 150 races he has completed.

Last year he had already won the championship by July: he was so far ahead of his rivals that none could catch him even with six races left in the season.

This year, to maintain suspense, the International Automobile Federation, which governs F-1 racing, changed the rules and points system, narrowing the difference between first and second place. Schumacher still won, though only two points ahead of Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen.

Racing is a habit the 34-year-old driver has had since he was a toddler, entering his first go-cart race at the age of five. Since then, he has done little else.

He won his first shot at a prized Formula One drive with the Jordan team, which unexpectedly found itself short of a driver just before the Spa Grand Prix in Belgium in 1991. Schumacher convinced owner Eddie Jordan that he was familiar with the course, which was not entirely true. Early in the morning he borrowed a bicycle and rode around the circuit to familiarize himself with its curves.

That determination, however, has sometimes spilled over into an unsporting relentlessness that has alienated many fans. In 1994, he won the title by one point, after colliding with runner-up Damon Hill, and in 1997 he was stripped of all his points when he tried to force Jacques Villeneuve off the track in the title-deciding race.

"He has an extremely strong streak of ruthlessness," says Mr. Nye. "He will do anything to win."

His single-mindedness was on show earlier this month. After winning the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis - the 70th win of his career - he did not stay to celebrate, but flew straight home to Switzerland. Forty-eight hours later, he was at Ferrari's test track in northern Italy, driving 129 laps to select the car and tires he would use at the season's last race, in Japan.

"That's what I like about him," says Philippe Flamand, a market-stall holder in Paris and a confirmed Schumacher fan. "He's got nothing left to prove, but he is still out there, always working, always on form, always in front."

In large part, that is thanks to the fact that Schumacher is driving for Ferrari, the richest team on the F-1 circuit, whose reliability and technical prowess this year won the team its fifth Constructors' Championship, awarded to the team whose two cars perform best over the season.

"The driver can't do anything without the team behind him," says Ferrari spokesman Luca Colajanni. "It's a combination: We design a car with the driver's skills in mind, and the driver adapts to the car he has. Formula One is a team sport."

It is also an extremely technical sport, in which mechanics and engineers play a critical role - from the world-class grease monkeys who can change four tires and fill the gas tank in pit stops lasting less than seven seconds, to the computer wizards who watch its engine's every rev.

Onboard computers govern practically everything a race car does: One computer measures and adjusts the fuel mix; another measures tire traction, and instantly reduces engine power if the wheels begin to spin; a third automatically aligns engine speed with the next gear to be chosen.

The driver simply steers, brakes, accelerates, and pushes a button behind his steering wheel to change up or down gears.

And hangs on tight. Formula One cars can accelerate from 0 to 150 mph in four seconds; drivers approach corners at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour, and then brake so sharply they subject themselves to eye-popping forces of 2G before going into the bend under the lateral pressure of 3G. That puts a premium on fitness, eyesight, and lightning-fast reactions, all of which Schumacher makes up for in spades what he lacks in charisma.

What lifts him above the competition, though, says Nye is "focus, commitment, attention to detail, a German work ethic ... and a remarkably close relationship with Ferrari's chief engineer."

Schumacher himself brushes off comparisons with the man many regard as the greatest ever racing car driver, Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five World Championships in the 1950s. "I never consider I am the best because it is always a combination of things," he said last year. "Maybe I am just in the right place at the right time."

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