Who’s the world’s highest-paid athlete? Need a hint? It’s not Alex Rodriguez. And it’s not Tiger Woods, either. The multimillionaire in question stands on the cusp of breaking the most important record in what might just be the world’s biggest spectator sport, and hardly anyone—at least anyone in America—has even noticed. It’s Michael Schumacher. The 32-year-old reigning world champion of Formula One auto racing, he has 50 career victories, just one win behind the legendary Alain Prost, and he’s all but certain to tie Prost in another way by winning his fourth season-long championship this year.
That résumé earns Schumacher a salary and endorsement package, according to Forbes, of $59 million a year, which puts him ahead of Tiger, A-Rod, Shaq, Kobe, MJ, and anyone else who sweats for a living. How much does the rest of the world want to be like Mike? A German insurance company is paying $8 million for the right to put its logo on the ball cap that Schumacher wears before and after races. Crunch the numbers another way: Schumacher races 17 times a year, each race a maximum of two hours long. That puts his hourly wage at a cool $1.7 mil per. This in a sport in which some of the back-of-the-pack drivers actually pay millions for the privilege of being lapped by the greatest driver of all time.
To the folks who pay his salary, Schumacher’s worth every penny. Although he failed to get the record-tying win in last month’s German Grand Prix (a mechanical failure ceded the victory to brother Ralf), Schumacher has racked up his 50 victories in only 156 starts. Every time he puts on his fireproof underwear, the German driver’s got a one-in-three shot of taking the checkered flag and a better than 50/50 chance of finishing in the top three. His championship last year was the first for a Ferrari driver in 21 years.
What makes him so good? Sure, Schui’s blazingly fast—probably a second a lap quicker than his nearest competitor, all other things being equal—but to end the discussion there is like assessing Michael Jordan by his vertical leap. Schumacher is also the sport’s best test driver, feeding Ferrari’s army of engineers the stream of technobabble they need to hone the car’s handling to a razor’s edge. Beneath his genial, almost geeky exterior, Schumacher also harbors a Jordanesque nasty streak. His trademark move—an opening-turn chop across the front wheels—requires a competitor to choose between slowing down to let him through or risk tasting a concrete wall. Schumacher doesn’t always win these high-speed games of chicken: In 1997, he intentionally crashed into rival Jacques Villeneuve in the last race of the season, rather than let him pass for the championship. This sort of macadam melodrama helps ensure that an estimated 350 million people in 150 countries watch every Formula One race on television.
What’s the source of Schumacher’s wealth? Part of it comes from automakers. Fiat, Ferrari’s parent company, spends an estimated $285 million annually on the Schumacher team, assuming that if they win on Sunday, they’ll sell cars on Monday. And Formula One relies as heavily on tobacco money as does Jesse Helms. Schumacher’s car is a rolling billboard for Marlboro, which uses the sport to sidestep Europe’s superstrict cigarette-ad laws. By keeping his car in the front of the pack, Schumacher provides Philip Morris with prime TV exposure. When all is said and done, Schumacher is a typical athlete in one respect: He’s a highly paid cash cow. His star power has helped the sport’s majordomo, Bernie Ecclestone, become the third-richest man in Great Britain, worth a cool $3 billion.
Still, as Schumacher pursues Prost’s record, he is surrounded by reminders about the one thing that his immense wealth and power can’t insulate him from. After winning last year’s Italian Grand Prix, tying the late Ayrton Senna for second on the career win list, Schumacher broke down in tears during the postrace press conference. He was no doubt remembering the fatal 1993 crash that killed Senna only a few wins short of Prost’s record. And perhaps he was thinking of his own 1999 season-ending crash—an accident eerily similar to the one that claimed Senna’s life. Only recently, Schumacher walked away from a horrifying stunt at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track. While the world looks at Schumacher and wonders, “Is he worth it?” Schumacher surely looks at the mangled remains of yet another race car and wonders, “Is it worth it?” As he tries to rewrite auto racing’s record book, the world’s highest-paid athlete understands one thing: When he climbs into the cockpit, he’s risking a lot more than a double play or a double bogey.