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Schumacher stands alone among the greats
Alan Baldwin | October 12, 2003 13:57 IST
A London taxi driver, an incarcerated Belgian and a bicycle helped speed Michael Schumacher on the road to Grand Prix greatness.
The German ace roared into Formula One history in Japan on Sunday as the first driver to win six championships, writing a new chapter in an extraordinary story full of colour and controversy.
The most successful driver of his era, Schumacher now stands alone after surpassing the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio's five crowns.
The bare facts are uncontestable: a record 70 wins, four successive titles for Ferrari, an unprecedented 1,038 points.
The statistics tell the tale but the record books do not relate the twist of fate that handed the German, whose younger brother Ralf would join him in motor racing's elite, his big break in 1991.
The Jordan team's Belgian-registered driver Bertrand Gachot had been arrested for spraying banned CS gas in the face of a London cabbie after an altercation.
Casting around for a replacement, Eddie Jordan agreed to let Schumacher drive at the Belgian Grand Prix after the German's manager Willi Weber convinced him that his man was familiar with the Spa circuit.
In fact, the Mercedes-backed youngster had merely ridden around it on a bicycle.
From the moment he got into the car, there was no looking back for a future champion whose remarkable qualities were immediately evident. Benetton snapped Schumacher up for the next race and the rest was history.
Few Formula One records are not in his possession after more than a decade at the top, 13 seasons in which he has held his own against the best the world can throw at him.
The 34-year-old is paid more than any other Grand Prix driver, an estimated $50 million a year, and has become one of the world's most familiar faces with his jutting chin and confident gaze.
Since his debut, Schumacher has seen the sport's other greats fall away -- Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna tragically at Imola in 1994, Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen and most recently Jacques Villeneuve.
Formula One's only active champion at Suzuka on Sunday, Schumacher is a razor-sharp 'rainmaster' -- supremely analytical and as brilliant in the wet as he is in the dry.
Son of a bricklayer, who now owns a go-kart circuit in Kerpen near Cologne, Schumacher was born in Huerth-Hermuelheim on January 3, 1969.
The man who would go on to become Germany's first and so far only Formula One world champion started karting at the age of four in a machine built by father Rolf and powered by a lawn-mower engine.
His graduation through the ranks from garage mechanic to rising star was helped by friends of his father and other business contacts until he teamed up with Weber in German Formula Three in 1989.
Schumacher's first win came at Spa in 1992, his first championship taken with Benetton in 1994 after Brazilian Senna was killed at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix.
Senna's death robbed Formula One of what would have been an enthralling battle between two greats, the young pretender who had already moulded a team around him against the triple champion.
Briton Damon Hill stepped into the breach at Williams and his duels with Schumacher breathed fire and controversy into the championship.
The two collided in the 1994 title-deciding race in Australia, Schumacher turning into Hill's path as the Briton tried to overtake. Hill retired with damaged suspension and Schumacher, also out, was champion by one point.
In 1995, the German left no room for argument with a then-record nine wins -- surpassed last year when he took 11 -- for his second title before leaving for sleeping giants Ferrari in a move that would seal his fame.
Hill took his revenge in 1996 and the debacle of 1997, when Schumacher was stripped of his championship second place after trying to run Villeneuve off the road in the title decider, provided more controversy.
In 1999 he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone but 2000, when the German finally secured Ferrari's first driver's title in 21 years, took the pressure off.
In his early days, he had acquired a reputation for haughtiness bordering on arrogance but success and domestic stability as well as a move from Monaco to rural Switzerland brought a change of attitude.
Married to Corinna, he has two young children -- Gina Maria and Mick.
Schumacher's love for racing, encouraged by mother Elisabeth who used to sell sausages at the Kerpen kart track and who died on the morning of his San Marino Grand Prix victory in April, appears to be undiminished.
For the past four years, Formula One has been a tale of Schumacher and Ferrari success and the German has said he wants to keep on winning for some time yet.