Down the mountainous streets of Monaco, past silver Bentleys,
black Ferraris, emerald Jaguars and herds of Mercedes taxis,
streaks a yellow Ducati motorcycle. It thunders like the storms
that rise off the Cote d'Azur as it guns down toward the Casino
de Monte Carlo, where the lunchtime gamblers have already
valet-parked a squadron or so of Rolls-Royces.
The rider, dressed in rugby shirt and jeans, could afford any of
the cars he passes--or all of them if he wished. The license
plates on his bike attest to residence in Principauta de Monaco,
which, as the tax-break capital of the world, is also the
richest realm on earth. But the motorcyclist, Michael
Schumacher, has nothing to prove with cars, especially through
these streets, where he has won the past two runnings of the
Grand Prix of Monaco with ease. At age 26 he is already the best
driver of the most expensive, most sophisticated automobiles
anywhere. He is reigning world champion of Formula One and well
on his way to his second straight title.
Not only is he coming off his fourth win of the year, in the
French Grand Prix on July 2, but he also goes into this Sunday's
British Grand Prix as the favorite. And he should be especially
primed for the July 30 running of the German Grand Prix, at
which, as a native Deutschlander, he is sure to hear thunderous
Last year Schumacher won the world title despite the most severe
handicap ever levied against a major motor racing champion: He
was banned from two races and stripped of points earned in two
others, all for violations that many F/1 watchers saw as petty
and insignificant. Those same observers say he may have been the
victim of a feud between his team--the Italian-owned Benetton
Formula One, bossed by the flamboyant Flavio Briatore--and the
Paris-based Fadaration Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA),
which governs Formula One. That could be. But if there was some
dark effort to deny him the title, Schumacher made a mockery of
it. Of the 12 races he entered and was eligible to win, he
finished first in seven. In so doing, he became the youngest F/1
champion ever, winning the season series by a point over
England's Damon Hill, son of the late two-time champion Graham
That championship and the one he's on course to win should make
him an even wealthier man come the fall. His contract with
Benetton is up then, and for those who wish to secure his
services for 1996, he has stipulated publicly that the bidding
should open at $20 million. When all the negotiations are over,
Schumacher could obliterate the driving-salary record of $23
million paid to the late Ayrton Senna of Brazil, the three-time
world champion who is still considered the best Formula One
driver ever. According to the Italian racing press, Ferrari may
already have made Schumacher an offer of $30 million. This is
not for some multiyear package, mind you, like an NBA or NFL
player might sign. It's for a single season.
Not bad for a young man from a barely middle-class upbringing in
the town of Hurth-Hermuhlheim, where his father built chimneys
to supplement income from managing the go-kart track where
Michael began driving at age four. But maybe more impressive is
the way Schumacher has confronted life-threatening danger
on--and, more tellingly, off--the road, and learned to overcome
"I am," says Schumacher, "the most unusual Formula One driver."
He'll get no argument here.
He has parked the motorcycle and is seated now inside the Cafe
de Paris, a place where the crystal never pings, the silver
never clangs, and the rich do not pester the famous. As he
describes his meteoric rise through the ranks of international
racing, his visage is self-certain, almost arrogant. (His
jutting chin and bemused smirk have led F/1 insiders to dub him
His fiancee, Corinna Betsch, is back at his mountain villa,
where the press is not welcome. Betsch almost never speaks to
the media. Formula One stars are exceedingly protective of their
privacy and that of their loved ones, especially since a
kidnapping plot against Senna was uncovered in Sao Paulo a few
"Formula One was never my target," Schumacher says. "I never
thought much about it growing up. I had no idols in it."
"I had one idol, in go-karts. I was maybe 10, and he was 16 or
17. There was a world championship go-kart race around 1980, and
this driver didn't win the race-he finished fourth. But the way
he finished fourth was so spectacular, I thought, Oh! Look at
this guy! I didn't know who it was. I looked up his number in
the program, and saw the name: Ayrton Senna."
The name comes up often when Schumacher's career is discussed.
Senna's death last May 1 in the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola,
Italy, left Schumacher alone at the pinnacle, and that's a big
factor in his soaring market value. He wishes it weren't so. He
misses his old rival a lot, and he repeats the name now,
pronouncing it in the Brazilian way, "AYE-eer-ton." He says the
name with such apparent affection, one might assume the two had
become fast friends upon Schumacher's sudden arrival in Formula
One late in the 1991 season.
"Not really friends, no," Schumacher says, and he exhales a wry
little chuckle. "Friends is the wrong word. When I came into
Formula One so quickly, I didn't have respect for anyone." And
Senna, his world supremacy universally acknowledged, commanded
and demanded respect from everyone in his realm.
"When he didn't get it from me," says Schumacher, "there was a
rift at the beginning. But later on, Ayrton realized that I was
a competitor for him, and the respect from him to me--and from me
to him, as well--grew."
Then came the abrupt end--of Senna's life, and, very nearly, of
Schumacher's fast-rising career.
Schumacher's generation of drivers had been blithely free of
fear, for Formula One hadn't had a fatality in 12 years before
that weekend in Imola, when rookie Roland Ratzenberger died
during a practice run and Senna during the race. "When Michael
came into Formula One," says his mentor and manager, Willi
Weber, "the dying he knew about was from books."
Suddenly, he knew it from meters away. He was just behind Senna
when the champion struck a wall and was killed.
The motor racing world still isn't sure exactly what happened
that day. Does Schumacher know?
"I'd rather not talk about it," he says of the specifics of the
crash. Then, suddenly, his gaze is far off, staring at nothing,
and he adds, "I knew that if you go 200 kilometers an hour on
the motorway and suddenly someone is in front of you and you
can't stop the car, then the possibility to be dead is very
high. I knew things like this happen.
"But these things seemed to be so far away from me that I never
thought about them. And suddenly we have an Imola race, and
things change completely for me. I didn't know how to handle it."
During the following week he seriously pondered retirement at
age 25. "The time between Imola and the first time I sat in the
car again, I was very close to stopping," he says. "The way
Senna died--it happened to the best driver and the best team.
Ayrton was Number 1. No doubt about it. And suddenly he was not
there anymore. I was really struggling to ... to ... what can I
say? To come back into my life."
He climbed back in the car two weeks later at Monaco, having
decided that if he felt any different, he would quit on the
spot. But he felt the same way he always had. He continued.
"Without Ayrton last season, the championship would not have
been worth the same as usual," Schumacher says, "except for the
way the championship developed, with me not being able to get
points from four races. Being disqualified, being banned, the
championship again became worth something to me. I thought, Now
I'm going to show these guys what I can do."
After the deaths in Imola and an accident in Monaco that caused
severe injury to Karl Wedlinger, the FIA suddenly and
drastically altered its rules in the name of safety. Formula One
owners howled that the drastic changes wouldn't work and might
even increase the danger. Briatore led the revolt, firing off a
letter charging FIA president Max Mosley with incompetence.
It was not long afterward that Schumacher's travails with the
FIA began. It started when he briefly passed Hill during the
parade lap of the British Grand Prix. Officials black-flagged
him after the race got under way, meaning he was to come into
the pits for a stop-and-go penalty. A driver customarily waits
for the order from his team before obeying the flag. The order
never came, so Schumacher raced on. He finished second, but
officials later stripped him of his six Grand Prix points for
In Belgium seven weeks later Schumacher won the race but was
disqualified when inspectors examined the undercarriage of his
car and discovered that the wooden plank that had been added as
one of the new safety measures--it raises the car's bottom and
slows the racer down in the turns--was not of the required
thickness. Officials, though they agreed that the plank might
have been worn down during Schumacher's brief shunt over a curb
during the race, disqualified him anyway.
A week later, citing the British Grand Prix violation that had
taken place almost two months earlier, the FIA hit Schumacher
with a two-race suspension. He thought again about quitting,
"just because of the way Formula One works. I knew that other
drivers had been banned for one race, but not two. It looked
very ... I don't know how to say this in English ... awkward."
He considered switching to Indy Cars. "But I thought of this for
only about half an hour. Then I became realistic again."
He clinched the title in the last race of the season, the
Australian Grand Prix, when he cut off Hill, inadvertently he
says, forcing both cars from the race. Since neither earned
points that day, Schumacher's 92-91 lead over Hill stood.
When the 1995 season began, with the Grand Prix of Brazil on
March 26, Schumacher's troubles with the FIA started again. He
won the race, only to have his points stripped afterward because
the fuel in his Benetton-Renault didn't match the
chromatographic fingerprint of the gasoline his team had earlier
told the FIA that Schumacher would be using. Nobody said that
the gas gave Schumacher an advantage. It wasn't illegal. It was
just different, because of a shipping error by the team's fuel
This time, however, the Benetton team successfully appealed. An
FIA tribunal on April 13 reinstated Schumacher's 10 points for
the win in Brazil, and he now leads Hill by 11 points--a fairly
comfortable margin in F/1. And this time around Schumacher
handled the controversy with greater equanimity. "Maybe I was
already used to winning races and getting disqualified for,
really, nothing," he says. Then again, perhaps his mature
response was attributable to something else.
The day after the Brazilian Grand Prix, something happened to
Schumacher that made all the F/1 hoopla seem meaningless. He
nearly died, in a completely unexpected way. "This," he says,
"may tell you something about my character."
He was scuba diving off the coast of Brazil, with a crew whose
ineptness Schumacher did not discover until it was too late. The
crew carelessly allowed the dive boat to drift while Schumacher
and his companions were underwater. Weber, who dislikes diving,
and Betsch, who was seasick, remained on the boat but weren't
aware of what was happening.
Schumacher says he and two other divers "were down 30 or 40
minutes, with a diving teacher who wasn't thinking about the
boat drifting away. When we came up, the boat was gone. I looked
around and finally saw it, far away on the horizon."
"In the beginning," says Schumacher, "I tried to keep all of us
together. I said, 'Come on, boys, hand-by-hand, let's swim in
the direction of the boat.' But after 10 minutes, two of the
guys were finished. They just couldn't go any farther."
With his superb conditioning, he knew that he must be the one to
swim for it. "I kept thinking, You do one of the most dangerous
sports and nothing happens to you, you're never afraid, and then
suddenly you're in the water doing something that everybody
does, and now you have the feeling, That's it. This is strange.
This is the first time in my life I've thought, That's it."
At last he was within 200 meters of the boat, screaming at the
crew, which was playing loud music. Finally he was spotted from
"He wasn't exhausted, and he wasn't panicked," Weber recalls.
"He was pissed."
"That was the first time I have seen myself very upset,''
Schumacher says. "I threw the goggles into the boat, and I was
close to throwing the tank, but then I thought, If you throw it
wrong, then we're going to have another disaster. So I cooled
myself down. That shows me, now, that I have never seen myself
out of control, which is how people view me--they say I am a
machine, I never get out of control."
The other divers were picked up, their lives likely saved by the
levelheaded actions of a world driving champion who was more
frightened than he'd ever been in his life. "But it is my
personality," says Schumacher, "to be in all situations under
COLOR PHOTO:A. HASSENSTEIN/BONGARTS Schumacher raised spray but no official ire on his way to a third-place finish in Argentina in April. [Michael Schumacher driving through puddle of water during race]
COLOR PHOTO:A. HASSENSTEIN/BONGARTS Schumacher and Betsch guard their privacy, but they do have an occasional laugh in public. [Michael Schumacher and Corinna Betsch]
COLOR PHOTO:VANDYSTADT Schumacher isn't alone in his quest for a second F/1 title, as this pit stop at the French Grand Prix shows. [Pit crew working on Michael Schumacher's car]