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Since Schumacher arrived at Ferrari in 1996 he has revitalized a team that had languished in the pit lane since its last drivers' championship in 1979. Ferrari general director Jean Todt, a French former rally driver, is the man who brought Schumacher to the Maranello-based scuderia. After he had lured the driver away from Benetton, Todt brought in the principal architects of Benetton's '94 and '95 championships, technical director Ross Brawn, chief designer Rory Byrne and racing manager Nigel Stepney. Molding the team, says Todt, has been "certainly the biggest, most difficult challenge of my career."
Now that he has the dream team around him, Schumacher will probably be content to end his career at Ferrari, helped by a reputed $30 million annual salary. That, together with an estimated $20 million a year from sponsorships, makes him the world's highest-paid sportsman. He is said to be a man who thrives on stability and a few close relationships. Chief among these is his five-year marriage to Corinna, a former office worker he met in 1990. Today they live quietly in a 15-room, white-walled 1950s mansion on 15 hectares of land in the Swiss village of Vufflens-le-Château about 40 km east of Geneva with their children Gina Maria, now four, and two-year-old Mick. Schumacher relishes his time there. "When I'm at home," he says, "I'm put back into a normal world, jumping on the trampoline with the kids and things like that. It helps me be balanced, and that's important."
That normal life includes maintaining his fitness regime with running and cycling around the village and playing football for the local FC Echichens team. To his neighbors he comes across as simple, shy, affable and polite almost embarrassed by his celebrity. Not long ago when Schumacher was out riding his bike he stopped to chat with another cyclist. The biker asked what he did for a living. "I race cars," he replied. "What kind of cars?" he was asked. "Ferraris," came the reply. "And what is your name?" continued the cyclist. When he heard the reply the unimpressed biker responded, "Well, I have to be on my way. Have a good day, Michael."
At 32, Schumacher may be reaching his peak in a young man's game. He has three years left on his contract with Ferrari, and that would be the logical time to call it quits. The only question now is whether he will beat Prost's record for race victories by 10, 20 or 30 and when he will overtake Fangio in championships. Prost retired at 38; Fangio kept racing until he was 47. Schumacher says the big challenge in front of him is the one he has always had, to keep winning races. "To compete, to race, to fight for positions, that is a huge motivation for me," he says. "I still have a lot of fire in me to keep winning races, because that's what I like most." Todt claims that at this point, Schumacher's age is irrelevant. "It's inside here," he says, tapping his head. "As long as he's mentally hungry and still has the passion, he can go on."
Eddie Jordan, who gave Schumacher his first chance to race a Formula One car in 1991, reckons that the end is nowhere near. "I don't think Michael is ready to give up yet," he says, "and he certainly has the ambition and commitment that he had at the beginning." Schumacher's colleagues at Ferrari think he can keep on winning almost forever. "He's a serious guy," says the team's logistics manager Gino Rosato. "He comes to work and gets the job done. He performs day in and day out." Todt puts it more colorfully: "In the difficult moments he's also been constructive. If you're cruising on a beautiful boat with beautiful girls, it's fun. If you have a hole in the boat it's a different situation. That's when you see the character, when you're in the merde."
With his intense dedication and inextinguishable ambition, there is little doubt that Schumacher would know what to do in such a situation: keep cool, stay tough, don't give an inch. He will equal Fangio's record of championships, probably next year, and then when he has rewritten the record books and is crowned the greatest Formula One driver of all time, maybe the fire will dim a little. But don't bet on it