He was a controversial figure during his Formula 1 days, but a new documentary reveals a more intimate side to the F1 great.
Michael Schumacher deserves this. The seven-time world champion is a true sporting colossus and should be lauded as such, despite the controversies that peppered his 20-year Formula 1 career. Like Maradona in football, the flaws are integral to the story and Schumacher fired deep emotions on both sides of the love-hate divide because of his actions on and off the field of play. But whichever side you take, no one can deny he will be forever remembered as a grand prix game-changer. This new documentary, simply titled ‘Schumacher’ and available now via Netflix, is long overdue.
The trouble, of course, is how to celebrate and mark his life with the correct tone and tense when he’s disappeared from public view. In the wake of the devastating head injury he suffered in a skiing crash nearly eight years ago, it’s so easy to speak about him in the past tense, and yet he’s still alive, even if his existence now is difficult beyond comprehension. What a terrible situation for him and for his poor family, who are understandably fiercely protective of his privacy. Schumacher was never comfortable in the public glare, but now he’s strictly off-limits for very different reasons.
It’s pleasing then that his resilient wife Corrina finally agreed that the time was right to support and take part in a feature-length film that tells her husband’s story from the perspective of those who know and love him best. As his long-time manager Sabine Kehm has described the project, “It is his family’s gift to their beloved husband and father.”
Inevitably, that means it’s perhaps a little softer on Schumacher’s dark moments – taking out Damon Hill at Adelaide 1994, trying and failing so scandalously to do the same to Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997 – although it’s not as if the German filmmakers sweep that side of his character under the carpet. Ross Brawn admits, “he overstepped the mark that day” in Spain, Damon Hill wonders whether he would have acted the same had the roles been reversed in Australia, Mika Häkkinen speaks openly about racing against the man who put him on the grass at nearly 200mph at Spa and David Coulthard recalls Michael admitting he never thought he was wrong in one memorable conversation after their collision at the same circuit in 1998.
There are plenty more big-name voices who contribute to give a colourful sketch of Schumacher the sportsman, including Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore, ex-Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine and current Aston Martin racer Sebastian Vettel who grew up idolising Michael. But it’s the warm, loving and deeply personal insights into the man beyond the race tracks from Corinna and her children Gina and Mick – now of course an F1 driver himself – that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
The archive action of his roots as a dedicated kart racer and mechanic from rural Kerpen is superb, including a lovely clip of him celebrating a win with champagne on a very modest podium. Shades of things to come on much bigger stages. His father Rolf recalls the pair going for a pizza the weekend of his grand prix debut at Spa in 1991 as the last occasion Michael could go anywhere without being recognised, and the narrative then pulls us through his rise at Benetton and the back-to-back world titles in 1994-95. The story is well known, but only rarely told from his perspective and there are some truly enlightening moments. An interview with Michael (in English) on the death of Ayrton Senna shows how deeply and genuinely affected he was by the tragedy, challenging to its core the old perception that Schumacher was some sort of cold-hearted sporting machine.
The focus is largely on Schumacher’s early years at Ferrari following his switch from Benetton in 1996, and how the pressure built as he failed to deliver the world title glory the whole of Italy was demanding. The sense of adversity is perhaps a little laboured in the interests of building to the watershed moment, when Michael overturned Häkkinen’s lead at Suzuka in 2000 to claim his first championship in red. The floodgates were now open for a domination the like of which F1 had never seen and the film skips through these years, mistakenly using shots of team-mate Rubens Barrichello a few times to offer a montage of the incessant red-wash.
But inevitably the shadow of what was to come begins to loom. The skiing accident and the new reality of Schumacher’s limited life are handled subtly and with great care, and the family interviews are deeply moving. When speaking about Michael at the height of his career, Corinna reveals the self-doubt he battled – “Can I still do it?” following the Jerez controversy – and how he was a “suspicious person” with most people until he got to know them. Now she emphasises that “Michael is still here. Different. But still here.” And she knows, accepts and embraces her current role in life: “Michael always protected us and now we are protecting Michael.”
A family-endorsed portrait was always going to play down the blemishes – but then it’s not as if they haven’t been talked and written about countless times before. Instead, we are privileged with this documentary to be allowed a glimpse behind the public mask and understand the deeply private, fun-loving and emotionally open man his family knows and adores. It is, as we said at the top, everything he deserves – and also the least, given the difficulties he and his family now face. As they say, keep fighting, Michael.