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 Principauté 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 cheers.
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 Fédération 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 Hill.
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 Hürth-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 it.
"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 Spoonface.)
His fiancée, 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 São Paulo a few years ago.
"Formula One was never my target," Schumacher says. "I never thought much about it growing up. I had no idols in it."