The Formula One world gasped collectively this week when seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher was serious injured while skiing in the French Alps.
The man who holds almost every F1 record that matters remains in critical condition in a Grenoble hospital as doctors try to deal with the brain injuries he suffered.
Schumacher was skiing with his 14-year-old son when he hit a rock and fell into another, apparently head first. He was wearing a helmet, which his doctors insisted saved his life, but he has still needed two surgeries and an induced coma as treatment.
All week, there has been an outpouring of support for the German driver who retired for a second time at the end of the 2012 season. Schumacher originally called it quits at the end of the 2006 campaign, but came out of retirement to race another three seasons with Mercedes beginning in 2010.
When he departed F1 for good, he left behind a completely rewritten record book, with numbers that many felt would be completely unattainable by any other: seven world titles, 91 wins, 155 podiums, 68 poles, 77 fastest laps, and 5114 laps led.
The gravity of his medical situation also led many to start thinking about the Schumacher legacy. In a column this week in the U.K.’s The Telegraph newspaper, former F1 driver David Coulthard, who finished a distant second to Schumacher in the 2001 world championship, wrote: “If I beat him to a win or a podium, I knew I had done a very good job. He gave my career credibility.”
Schumacher wasn’t always the most liked man in the paddock; instead, he was a hugely polarizing figure. He was a god-like figure for Ferrari fans who watched him take five straight titles beginning in 2000, the scarlet team’s first driver’s championship since Jody Scheckter took the 1979 title.
To many, he was the epitome of ruthless, and capable of doing just about anything to win. On track, Schumacher could be cold and calculating, twice using his car as a weapon in an attempt to cripple a world championship challenger in the final race title showdown. The first incident happened in 1994, when Schumacher ran off the track while leading, and then used his damaged Benetton to cause an accident with challenger Damon Hill as his rival attempted a pass. The move knocked both cars out of the race and sealed a maiden F1 title for Schumacher.
Three years later, Schumacher tried a similar tactic on an overtaking Jacques Villeneuve, only to bounce off and find himself beached in a gravel trap while the Canadian continued and snatched the title.
Although many thought the Hill accident was just racing when it happened, the second incident with Villeneuve changed minds about the 1994 crash.
While Schumacher fought jealously for every win, he also humbled rivals like no other driver before him. Schumacher often seemed to be on another plane, conjuring up the pace needed to score a win. There were also some spellbinding drives, such as the incredible second place in the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix in a car that was car stuck in fifth gear from about one-third distance. In addition to running at an almost impossible pace, Schumacher also completed two pitstops in a car with only fifth gear.
Off the track, Schumacher was always protective of his private life. While wife Corinna often attended races, his two children, Gina-Maria and Mick, did not.
He was also wary of media and rarely opened up to journalists or fans, with some notable exceptions. After winning the 2000 Italian Grand Prix at Monza and tying Ayrton Senna’s mark of 41 wins, Schumacher sobbed so uncontrollably when asked about the significance of the feat, so much that he could not continue the post race press conference. In typical Schumacher fashion, he never explained the reason for the massive emotions he felt at reaching Senna’s win total.
But being guarded didn’t mean he was unfeeling, as the German champion often showed tremendous generosity. When the tsunami hit Thailand on Boxing Day in 2004, Schumacher was one of the first to step up with a donation, pledging $10-million to help the victims. The tragedy struck close to home for Schumacher, as one of his bodyguards died in the disaster. He also supports several causes in Third World and donated huge sums to the Bill Clinton Foundation.
Ultimately, Schumacher will likely be remembered most for his work ethic and team building inside the Ferrari squad, which won five driver’s titles and six constructor’s championships in his 11 seasons with the Scuderia.
Those arriving early to the paddock during Schumacher’s days with Ferrari would often find him returning from a run and about to get ready for his day. And you’d have to leave the track pretty late to be there after the German, who often stayed with his mechanics.
It worked fantastically.
As Coulthard noted: “You cannot argue with his achievements. At the end of the day, he had the same rules and the same race marshals as the rest of us. And he destroyed us.”
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