Michael Schumacher is the most dominant athlete in the world. The six-time Formula 1 champion has won all but one of the circuit’s first nine races this year. He’s also the world’s highest-salaried athlete and the towering icon of the sport that claims to have the largest worldwide television audience. But his excellence goes beyond his on-track success and off-track popularity. Schumacher is nothing like Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, and the other motorsport legends he’s now surpassed. Schumacher may be a remarkable driver, but, more important, he’s a venture capitalist in a flame-retardant red jumpsuit.
The 35-year-old German is remarkable because he’s managed to mold an entire sport in his image two separate times. Formula 1 once had the reputation as the sport of international playboys, its well-heeled drivers drinking champagne, puffing cigarettes,and chasing women in exotic destinations like Monte Carlo. Schumacher, though, is a caricature of the Teutonic robot—a legendary workout freak who became quicker, stronger, and fitter than the competition by outworking them in the weight room.
While other F1 drivers were straining in the gym to catch up to Schumacher’s physical standards, he changed the sport again. Schumacher’s peers don’t consider him the best driver in the sport—that honor goes to Giancarlo Fisichella. But what his fellow drivers don’t understand is that virtuosity behind the wheel isn’t the most important skill in Formula 1 these days. Schumacher has transformed F1 from a sport to a technology war. In doing so, he’s attracted billions of dollars to feed his business, develop technologies to his specifications—and annihilate the competition.
Michael and his brother Ralf, who also races on the circuit, grew up as gearheads. Schumacher learned about the technology of racing while working alongside his father, a small-town repairman for kiddie race cars called karts. When he joined the Ferrari team in 1996, Schumacher was ready to get his hands dirty. The Italian automaker spent $450 million crafting its race cars in 2003, mostly thanks to sponsorships from megacorporations like Marlboro and Vodafone *. But while Ferrari has always had a stake in F1, it wasn’t very successful throughout the 1980s, a huge source of consternation for such a prestigious brand. When Schumacher signed on, he was able to ensure—partly because of Ferrari’s name brand and partly because of its desperation—that he would have both the resources and the operational control he felt he needed to dominate.
If Ferrari were a football team, Schumacher would be the quarterback, the GM, and the coach. Though he didn’t give his team the idea to greatly outspend its top rivals—around $100 million more than Williams and $150 million more than McLaren—he did teach them how to spend it wisely. Schumacher understood the crucial importance of building the team and technologies around him—if the best pit crew, technicians, and engineers in the world tailored his car to his strengths as a driver, then he couldn’t lose.
In F1, the drivers may be stars, but the cars are king. Every team spends the offseason in wind tunnels and with feedback testing equipment, secretly crafting improved design elements. This season, Ferrari extended its technical lead by unveiling its “narrow waist” design, in which the back of the car is almost impossibly thin and low to the ground, diminishing the drag exerted on the car and giving the car greater stability in turns.
Ferrari’s design excellence allows Schumacher to methodically destroy his rivals. While simple maintenance and production costs eat huge chunks out of smaller teams’ budgets—a season’s worth of tires and gearboxes alone can cost well into the millions—Ferrari can perpetually fine-tune a suite of technologies so that its cars perform under the most extreme conditions of acceleration, braking, and turning. As a consequence, Schumacher’s car almost never has significant technical problems, a huge advantage in a sport where the ultra-expensive cars often just stop working because of technical malfunctions. To keep up with Ferrari’s superior machines, other drivers have to take risks. As such, they consistently make mistakes out of impatience, imprudence, or desperation—hitting walls or other cars or just spinning out uncontrollably. In this past weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis, only half the cars that started were able to finish.
So obvious is the role money plays in Schumacher’s success that F1’s governing body is taking steps to minimize the importance of cash. Formula 1 will soon bancertain electronic driving aids and will further regulate tire and engine use and testing, all in the hopes of keeping down costs so lower-class teams can compete.
Schumacher is a peculiar global sports icon. He can claim to be the greatest race car driver in history, and judging from the sea of Ferrari-red bedecked fans, his team is far and away the most popular on the circuit. But he’s a distant champion, respected but not adored. When Schumacher turned in a subpar qualifying performance at the Grand Prix of Canada, the fans—including the Ferrari faithful—erupted in cheers and applause as driver after driver bested his lap time.
Mostly, fans are desperate for someone, anyone, to give Schumacher a fight. While few events compare with an F1 race in terms of loud, macho, colorful spectacle, Schumacher has killed the suspense. There’s a sense that something is badly wrong with Formula 1, but no fans or drivers really fault Schumacher or Ferrari. They just worked hard, played by the rules, and outsmarted the competition.
Two weekends ago at the Canadian Grand Prix, Renault’s Jarno Trulli broke down on the very first lap because of suspension problems. Later that day, I saw Trulli at the Montreal airport, waiting in line with us race fans for a commercial flight to Newark. I asked if it was tough seeing Schumacher dominate a race that he had barely started. He just shook his head, demoralized. “Schumacher,” he muttered.