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.
Schumacher was standing by himself in one corner of the room, looking rather isolated and lonely as 30 or so Italians occasionally glanced at him. I guess they were too embarrassed to talk to the driver, or they were simply in awe. It was easy to understand their bashfulness because after the Pope, Ferrari and Schumacher are considered national icons.
Schumacher was dressed casually in his jeans, plaid shirt and brown suede jacket, and I was trying to figure out a cool way to walk over and strike up a conversation. Then I saw that he was smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of red wine.
I walked over and said. "Hey what are you smoking tonight? Is that a Davidoff?"
"Yes," he said, puffing away on a No. 1, the slim elegant cigar from Davidoff in the Dominican Republic. "I enjoy smoking a cigar when I am relaxing like tonight."
He said that he buys most of his cigars near his home in Switzerland. "I smoke lots of different cigars, from Cubans to Davidoffs, but I find that the Davidoffs are always good and they are less strong than the Cubans," he went on.
"But when you smoke Cubans, what do you normally buy?" I asked.
"I like the Partagas 8-9-8," he said. "They have good flavor and I like the size…so what do you think about this wine?
Schumacher was drinking a glass of 2000 Sette Ponte Crongolo, a Tuscan red made of Sangiovese and Merlot. My neighbor, the party's host, makes it.
"I like it," I said rather timidly. "It's a good, elegant Tuscany red."
"Seems sort of thin to me," Schumacher said, looking at his glass of wine as if there was a hole in it. "I prefer a wine with more body, like a Australian Shiraz."
I thought to myself, "Is this really happening? I am speaking to the greatest driver of all time, a man who my son and hundreds of thousands of others believe is part God, and we are standing around like old friends talking about cigars and wine!"
I literally pinched myself to make sure that I would not wake up and find myself in some sort of smoke- or drink-induced dream.
With that, I thought to myself, "Michael Schumacher cannot drink a thin wine. I must find something he likes."
"Let me find something with a bit more body for you, Michael," I said, taking his glass and dumping the wine into a nearby flowerpot.
I quickly dashed into my friend's cellar in hopes of finding something more to the liking of the grande pilota. There I was in a Tuscan's wine cellar, and the chances of find a jammy fruit bomb from Australia were about as likely as finding buried treasure in the same place. I settled for a bottle of Tuscan Merlot from Fattoria di Petrolo. The cork of the wine was quickly pulled and a glass was served to Schumacher.
"What do you think of that?" I asked.
"It's better, but it's not an Australian Shiraz," he said.
The winemaker of the Merlot was standing next to me, and I was sure that he was going to slit his wrists on the spot. He is a hard-core Ferrarista (his 1978 308 GTO spends most of its life in the garage in some state of disrepair) and he kept on repeating in Italian, "Oh my God, Michael Schumacher doesn't like my wine. Oh my God, Michael Schumacher doesn't like my wine."
Luckily, someone announced dinner, and we were all spared what was already a rather awkward situation. I was seated at a small table of eight in front of Schumacher. We spent the night speaking about everything under the sun except for Formula One racing. We talked about normal things that polite strangers speak about over dinner, from the weather to European politics.
After the first course of pasta with mushrooms, Schumacher began to relight his Davidoff. "Michael, if you wait, I will give you a Cuban Davidoff," I said, now clearly under the influence of numerous glasses of non-Australian Shiraz. "Have you ever had one?"
"No. I didn't think you could find them anymore," he said, looking slightly suspicious. "I would like to try one, though."
I stole the keys of my neighbor's All-Road Audi and sped down the dirt road towards my house, About halfway there, I began dreaming what it would be like if Schumacher was hot on my backside trying to pass as he always does on one of the tracks in Italy, such as Imola or Monza. After two minutes, I arrived at home, went to my cellar and grabbed a box of 1989 Davidoff No. 1's and a bottle of 1997 Montezemolo Barolo (perhaps a long-lost cousin of the then head of Ferrari). I raced back to the dinner without losing my way on the dark, dirt road.
Schumacher and Montezemolo, as well as the rest of the table, had already polished off a huge side of roasted pork. I poured the new wine and passed around the cigars. It didn't take long before a new euphoria swept over the table as we spoke about life's great pleasures.
Although I can't remember the exact conversation, I do recall that Schumacher enjoyed his Cuban Davidoff, and that he said something about looking him up next time I went to a Grand Prix -- something I have never done nor do I intend to do considering how busy he is during a race.
Schumacher remains a hero for me. He is a great cigar smoker and obviously someone who enjoys life to the fullest -- both on and off the track.