Ever since Michael Schumacher’s accident in 2013, the press and media have speculated endlessly on the driver’s condition. One of the best drivers the sport has ever seen, if not the best outright, Schumacher was a prodigy, the likes of which will probably never be seen again.
The once exuberant, agile driver was left a shadow of his former self after a skiing accident in the French Alps left him with severe brain damage.
Ever since, fans have clung on to any piece of information that may provide a hint as to the driver’s physical and mental condition while his longtime manager Sabine Kehm remains tight-lipped, as do those closest to him.
4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who was mentored by his compatriot and idol, and former Ferrari boss and FIA Chairman Jean Todt, under whose management Schumacher had his most successful years in Formula One, have both visited him at his Swiss residence, but have not revealed much – or in Vettel’s case, nothing at all.
The 46-year-old (who will be 47 in a week’s time) and his family have been cloaked in complete secrecy, under a virtual media blackout as he goes through what is likely a very long recovery process, one that will probably not have the results either his family or fans really wish for.
The media have resorted to several means to extract any information on Schumacher, most of them underhanded. Posing as his medical crew, hospital workers, dressing as a priest – it has all been done, and it is likely there are several still trying.
Fans, media, spectators and speculators alike have appeared to suggest – on the internet and otherwise – that the Schumacher family could do as the Bianchis did in the wake of Jules’ accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. The young Frenchman had then sustained a diffuse axonal injury, and remained comatose until his tragic death this year at only 25-years-old.
German glossy magazine Bunte recently published an editorial in which it quoted “reliable sources” ‘close to the family’ as having definitive information that Schumacher was now walking again, albeit with major help from carers. But for fans of the Red Baron, starved of any information on their idol’s condition, even mere speculation will have sent hearts soaring.
Sadly, Kehm immediately denied the news, calling it “hurtful and irresponsible, especially to those close to Michael.” It appeared that the publication had attempted to use the editorial to force the hand of Schumacher’s team, as if to coerce information out of them. Asked for clarification, however, Bunte stood by the story.
A comment by an anonymous user on a popular online forum suggested the family would “ ...get more privacy by putting speculation to rest,” and if Kehm, Corinna or anybody associated with the driver were to give out periodic updates, it would help the press leave his family alone.
Given Schumacher’s meteoric fame, and the fact that his name is synonymous with the sport even to those who do not follow it in the least, however, this is likely to be very untrue. Even in his Formula One heyday, the notoriously private Schumacher kept his family outside the public eye, but was pursued relentlessly by the press.
Comparing his case to Bianchi’s is also an exercise in futility. While Bianchi's death was a major tragedy, one that had hit the sport two decades after one of its biggest losses – that of Ayrton Senna – it had been different. Not less tragic in any way, but just different from Schumacher’s case.
Bianchi had potential, was young and certainly had a fan following. He had been tipped for great things in the future. Ferrari seats, world championships, glowing praise and worldwide adulation.
But he was not the man who had done all of that, and had fans follow his every single move since he joined Jordan in 1991 and then Benetton, and in only his second year in the sport, set fire to the track like few had before him, perhaps nobody else.
The beginnings of Schumacher’s fan following
In 1992, only his second year in Formula One, Schumacher had won 8 podiums in 16 races, one of those a win: at the toughest circuit on the track, Spa-Francorchamps.
He finished only his second year in Formula One in third in the drivers’ championships – something virtually unheard of.
Immediately, he had amassed a following that, justifiably, had latched on to his every move, and would follow his career for more than two decades to come. And 1992 had set the Schumacher ball rolling and how.
He wouldn’t be out of the top 5 drivers for the next 7 years – with his first two world championships coming in quick succession in his fourth and fifth seasons in the sport.
The immense talent and aggression he displayed, that many drivers since have attempted to emulate (and not succeeded entirely), had rarely been seen – and among those who had exhibited that talent, many of them had their lives snuffed out tragically on the race track – Jim Clark was a legend, as was the tragically more recently deceased Ayrton Senna, another leading name in the pantheon of F1’s all-time greats.
The Brazilian would likely have won more championships himself if it had not been for his untimely death, and had a fan following just as significant as Schumacher’s. It was a combination of reckless abandon and immense driving skill that drew fans to both Schumacher and Senna, and the German kept his fans on their toes with each passing year.
Even disqualified from the championship in 1997 for causing an accident, Schumacher’s finishes meant he would likely have won the championship had he not done something even his biggest fans admitted he did: indulge in the aggressive driving that sometimes translated to unfair racing.
After a ‘lull’ (at least with respect to Schumacher) that involved one second place finish and a 5th, the dangerous driver thrilled fans of every age, every demographic possible. Young, old, German, English, Indian – every part of the world would know Michael Schumacher and his battles with Hill and Hakkinen.
Every fan saw him zip through torrential rain, with both water and car appearing to fly across the track as the Rainmaster worked his magic.
A name on top of the podium, the standings and on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It is not inexplicable, therefore, that his following was, and is, both widespread and deep, and will likely continue for years to come. The stuff of legend.
And it is this immense popularity, tied so closely into his extraordinary talent, that sets him apart from anyone the sport has seen, or will ever see. His talent set him light years ahead of not only his contemporaries but those before him, and all those since. He was the Han Solo of the Formula One world, each of his Ferraris a Millenium Falcon, making that Kessel Run in twelve parsecs.
It is not, then, unfair that fans crave anything, any knowledge of the man they have legitimately worshipped – but to expect the family to pander to these wishes is not only selfish but also unfair.
Considering the severity of Schumacher's injury and the slow, steep progress he has been said to be making, it is highly unlikely he will ever be back to himself.
There are doubtless fans waiting to see their favourite icon back on the podium, if only for an interview, or speaking again.
But with Schumacher having suffered brain damage – unlike former Superman actor Christopher Reeve, whose injuries left him paralysed, it is possible that the best fans could hope for is some semblance of speech or movement, two years on from his injury.
It is the fans who need to realise that their idol Schumacher, the family man, the media hermit, the recluse, would have wanted their needs first, the needs of a family who are likely grappling with more pain than most could ever imagine as they see the man they once knew, known all his life for his coordination, speed, skill, his precision, his quick wit and intellect, unable to perform basic human functions.
They also perhaps do not see that seeing Schumacher in that condition would irreparably change their memories of the great Red Baron, the brilliant Schuey, the man who could hold off any opponent in the worst racing conditions and the most minimal visibility.
The extra shock perhaps came from the fact that he was the best of the best in one of the most dangerous sporting careers a person could be part of. Racing high-speed vehicles day in and day out, pushing them to their limits was far more likely to strategically cause serious injury or death than skiing, which is also something Schumacher was very experienced at.
How could someone who was behind the wheel of the world’s fastest cars for two decades be reduced to bare functioning as he fell down a slope? It’s hard to believe.
Respecting his wishes
It is best that Schumacher be left to fight his battles in private, with his family, to manage whatever (likely minimal) recovery is possible. Fully conscious and in his racing heyday, he was always one of the sport’s most reclusive when it came to his personal life. If he could take that decision for himself, it is likely what he would have wished to continue.
We can all hope that the Regenmeister and 7-time Weltmeister will be able to ‘meister’ this new obstacle. But for whatever level of recovery Schumacher is able to manage, and though it is likely he will not be seen in public for a long time, it is important that he is left to do it alone, with only those closest to him.
It’s what he wanted when he was fully conscious and sentient, and it is likely what he would have wanted now, as his young son Mick carries on his racing legacy and the rest of his family pursue their own endeavours.