FORMULA One legend Michael Schumacher may have retired in 2012 from a glittering career but his love for speed and risk remains and may have led to his life-threatening head injury sustained while skiing in France.
Schumacher, hailed by his family as a fighter “who will not give up,” spent his 45th birthday on January 3 lying in a coma in a French hospital following the skiing accident.
After years of racing in the high-risk world of F1 and winning a record seven world titles, his accident suggests that perhaps retirement has not dulled his relish of dangerous pursuits. As a racer, Schumacher was known for his daring overtaking maneuvers, his at-times almost reckless abandon in the pursuit of victory, and his mastery of the tricky conditions presented by rain.
When he won his first world title in 1994 with Benetton, he did so in controversial fashion, crashing into his title rival Damon Hill at the final race after he had already dashed his own hopes by going off the track when pushing hard despite leading comfortably. It was indicative of Schumacher’s win-at-all-costs attitude and his willingness to take huge risks in order to do so.
He almost provoked a similar crash in the final race of the 1997 season when battling Jacques Villeneuve for the title, an incident for which he was retrospectively disqualified from the whole season. His career was also punctuated by accusations of dangerous driving following incidents such as a near-collision with former teammate Rubens Barrichello in 2010.
Schumacher’s duels in his heyday with Hill, Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen, fired by an unquenchable competitive spirit, have gone down in Formula One folklore. The irony is that after a life spent negotiating potentially fatal turns his only serious injury was breaking his leg at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone in 1999 after his car failed and he hit the tire barrier.
Such mishaps didn’t slow Schumacher down or quench his thirst for success as he went on to win five successive titles with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004. He retired at the end of the 2006 season before making a comeback in 2010 with Mercedes.
During his retirement he survived a horror accident that knocked him out when racing a motorbike in Spain. That time he was released from hospital after just five hours. A holder of a pilot’s license, an accomplished motorbike rider, parachutist, skier and mountain climber, Schumacher had not lost his love of risk-taking, turning his back on the career of television pundit, and even embraced by many of his former opponents.
Longtime rival David Coulthard believes that only now can Schumacher receive the long overdue recognition he deserves for his stunning achievements.
“For years Michael was the perfect pantomime villain. . . German, of course, ruthlessly efficient, ultra-aggressive,” wrote Coulthard in the Daily Telegraph. “He was marked down by some, including me, as a tainted champion. But 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.”
Schumacher holds every major statistical benchmark; the most world titles (7), wins (91), poles (68), fastest laps (77) and races won in a single season (13).
Even before his seventh place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 24, 2013, for his 308th and final grand prix, Schumacher had also taken on an ambassadorial role for Mercedes on road safety projects—a surprising choice for a man who was never able to do things slowly.