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Smoking with Michael Schumacher

We all have our personal heroes, and the top Formula One driver has always been one of my favorites
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

We all have heroes who are professional athletes. They not only are great at their respective sport, but they are exemplary individuals. That's why Michael Schumacher is high on my list of sports heroes. He not only is one of the greatest drivers in the history of motor racing, but he enjoys life to the fullest, not to mention the pleasure of a good cigar.

The thought occurred to me this past summer as the 35-year-old German racked up another world championship -- his seventh -- during the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on August 29. I saw the race thanks to Jeremiah and Joshua Meerapfel, the European distributors for Padrón, Fuente and Ashton cigars. The Meerapfels organized a cigar lounge at the VIP stand located at the starting line of the race. Hundreds of people were smoking excellent cigars as they watched the 44-lap race on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in Belgium.

There was more than a little irony smoking a cigar that day with fellow Formula One fans. Last year, the Belgium Grand Prix was not held following the government's banning of tobacco advertising at all sports events. Apparently, though, the country's bureaucrats quickly realized that the Grand Prix was a boon to their economy. They had to allow tobacco back at the event if it wanted the Grand Prix to return. It's nice to see that common sense can prevail occasionally in the world of politics and antismoking campaigns, particularly in Europe. But that's only one positive case in hundreds going against the people's right to smoke. And there's not much we can do about it.

In any case, Schumacher finished second behind Fin Kimi Raikkonen, who was driving a Mercedes. However, the German didn't need to win. He had already totaled enough points from previous races that he earned the championship with his second-place finish. His team, Ferrari, had also already won this year's Constructor's Trophy, which was wrapped up in Budapest during the Hungarian Grand Prix a few weeks earlier.

Ferrari and Schumacher seem invincible together. Is it his terrific driving? Or is it the fabulous race machines of Ferrari? It's probably a combination of the two, but whatever the explanation, Schumacher now wins nearly every race. His dominance has prompted some people to even say that he has made Formula One boring.

But his consistent winning makes him a living legend. Schumacher earned about $80 million last year as the head driver for Ferrari, according to a list of top-paid athletes published in Forbes magazine this summer. Half was for driving and the other half was in for endorsements. That was only $300,000 less than the top-paid athlete in the world, golfer Tiger Woods.

I wouldn't presume to judge which athlete is more deserving of such astronomical amounts of money. But let's get real. Tiger doesn't put his life on the line every time he steps onto a golf course. Schumacher defies death the moment his machine leaves the pit. With about 900 horsepower, his car reaches speeds of well over 200 miles per hour, and he must navigate hairpin corners, "S" curves and other obstacles, where every tenth of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Schumacher also is a keen cigar smoker. According to a friend who works in Formula One, Schumacher often heads to the hospitality trailer of Formula One big boss Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock area of a Grand Prix and enjoys a fine cigar with a couple of schnapps following a race. "He likes nothing better than a drink and a good cigar to wind down after a race," my friend said following the Belgium Grand Prix.

He also said that Schumacher's attitude and style are strikingly different from most of the other drivers in Formula One, who spend most of their time in gyms getting in shape when they are not on the track. The thought of a good smoke and drink would be out of the question. "I guess Michael has nothing to prove," my buddy said. "He is just a regular guy that enjoys life when he is off the track."

In fact, I remember a night about two years ago when I had dinner with Schumacher in Italy. A neighbor who's a friend of mine is a good friend of the son of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the then head of Ferrari. Matteo Cordero di Montezemolo brought Schumacher over to my friend's house for dinner following a charity soccer match in Arezzo where the race driver played with some friends.

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