By the end of last season, what had formerly been referred to as Michael Schumacher's "willingness to commit the professional foul" was being extolled by backpedaling journalists as his "canny race craft." This, when I say it, makes him smile.
The smile is tight and enigmatic, and from what I've seen, it may mean one of several things. It could mean that he's happy. It could mean that he's joking. Or, confusingly, it could mean that he's so deadly serious about something that words alone can't convey the depth and dire intensity of his feelings.
"The worst mistakes I made were the ones I did in the beginning of my career," he says, his eyes bright, the smile brief. "I guess that's natural."
He is one of the most famous athletes in the world. He is certainly one of the two most highly paid. In his field he's likely the best there's ever been. But Michael Schumacher, like NATO or the metric system, remains a dark and distant mystery to most Americans.
For this he thanks you.
You wouldn't recognize him if he showed up at your door tonight with a hot platter of Leberkn�del and a free bottle of Gew�rztraminer, would you?
World-class motor racing, as all Americans know from long, agonizing movies like Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning and Driven, is a breathless, hallucinatory demimonde where life, or at least the screenplay, teaches us that speed is everything and love isn't what it seems, and that success means doing, or at least saying, whatever it takes to win—Whatever it takes, I tell you! Now kiss me, you bastard!—and that danger and death, or at least Yves Montand, lurk around every corner.
Everybody rides a Vespa and wears appalling Tyrolean hats and smokes unfiltered Gitanes with his breakfast ouzo. Sexy drivers and their sexy girlfriends dance the moonful Mediterranean nights away with sexy photojournalists at sexy EuroPop discotheques, or swing with sexy deposed despots and their sexy supermodel mistresses aboard the sexy megayachts of the nouveau riche beneath the gleaming lights of sexy Monte Carlo, because who knows what tomorrow may bring—it might not be sexy at all. Most of which, to Hollywood's credit, is true.
Incongruously, though, the first time I met Schumacher in person was at a not very sexy 10-minute press event last year in Indianapolis, the anti- Monaco, before the United States Grand Prix. Treated now as the �bermensch and elder statesman of Formula One racing by reporters, not one of whom looked like Claudia Cardinale, he was asked the kind of questions you'd expect and gave, with a small smile, the kind of polite, politic answers required.
"What do you think of the track?"