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Dashing, daring, driven

Among many attributes, Michael Schumacher is considered the best race car driver in the world.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- Grown men push each other aside just to touch Michael Schumacher.

Grown women gawk and whisper into their girlfriend's ears when he walks by in his designer blue jeans, tan Timberland cowboy boots and blood red knit shirt.

The flag-toting Tifosi -- Ferrari's loyal Formula One fan base -- erupt when the two-time world champion driver gives them a politician's wave and flashes his fashion-model smile.

"I think he is the driver in Formula One," said Jackie Stewart, a three-time world champion who works with Jaguar Racing. "There's always one leader at any one time. All you can do is do the best in your time. Currently, I would say he is the best of our time."

But in the eyes of an American public more familiar with names like Earnhardt and Andretti, Schumacher remains a mystery -- one revealed little by little in the early morning satellite broadcasts of Formula One races in far-off countries.

"I've been in the states a couple of times and I've never really been known," Schumacher said. "I can really go around freely."

On Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the best driver in Formula One, and arguably the world, became the center of attention. Schumacher, 31, won the pole position for the U.S. Grand Prix with a lap of 126.265 mph in his No. 3 Ferrari.

Today's event is the first Formula One race in the United States in nine years. It is importance to the German because the six-time winner this season is second in the Formula One standings behind Mika Hakkinen.

"We have three races to go and only two points difference between the two championship leaders," Schumacher said. "The last three races will be very exciting for all of us."

One more win would move him out of a tie with the late Ayrton Senna on the all-time wins list. Schumacher has 41. Only Alain Prost has more victories (51).

"You can't deny Michael's a great champion," said David Coulthard, who drives for rival McLaren and will start second today. "He's a benchmark in Formula One. He doesn't give an inch. He's consistent, so you know who you're competing against. I give him the respect he deserves."

The success Schumacher has enjoyed during his 10 seasons in Formula One has brought fame, fortune and unprecedented attention from a massive media, corporate and fan following.

"But what is pressure?" he said. "I mean, everybody absorbs it in a different way. Usually I turn it around in a kind of motivation. Because if you see all people happy when you do well, then you feel well. Most of the time, luckily, that has been the case."

He drives for one of the two best teams in the Formula One garage and makes about $30-million per year from his contract alone.

Sponsorship and merchandise sales push the total to $70-million to $80-million.

Still, he doesn't seem that affected.

He is approachable and up to answer most any question, sometimes ending his remarks with a wink.

Credit his background.

"Michael's had a pretty unusual life," said Ross Brawn, technical director for Ferrari. "From an early stage, he was involved as a professional racing driver. Despite that, he's a very normal person. He just keeps his balance. I think if you met him you wouldn't know he's the best driver in the world."

Schumacher grew up in a middle-class family that lived outside Cologne, Germany. His father operated a Go Kart track during the warm months and worked odd jobs when cold weather forced him to shut down for the season.

Schumacher started driving when he was 5 years old after his father built a Go Kart from cannibalized parts and a lawn mower engine.

"Certainly, being 5 years old and drafting around corners was quite fun for me," he said.

Aggressive, competitive and intense, Schumacher is like any race car driver.

"I think that Michael Schumacher wants to go win races and that's the same way I do," said Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton. "There's different personalities, not so much because he's an F1 driver and I'm a NASCAR driver. It's just different personalities because we're different people. He's still a racer."

Schumacher describes his driving style as flat-out, to the limit.

"At least that's my ambition," he said. "But you don't try to drive spectacular because that makes you go slow."

In a sport in which technology rules, by ability alone Schumacher can shave as much as three-fourths of a second off a lap.

"I don't claim to be a great reader of what other drivers are doing, but I think his driving style is definitely attacking," Coulthard said. "He probably makes more mistakes in terms of missing apexes when he's rounding a track than Mika would if you just compare those two as compatible double world champions."

Though no drivers admit it, most look up to Schumacher.

"The other guys don't like to think that," Stewart said. "But at the end of the day, the first question that they'll ask is, "What's Schumacher done?' "He's an aggressive driver, but he's got good ability and a really good head. That is fairly true of most dominant drivers. There have been one or two world champions that have been okay drivers but have never been great drivers. He isn't like that."

Formula One

WHAT: U.S. Grand Prix.

WHEN/WHERE: 2 p.m. today; 2.606-mile, 13-turn road circuit, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

TV: Speedvision (6 p.m., Fox Sports Net, taped).

POLE: Michael Schumacher.

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