BARBARA MCCARTHY – 05 JANUARY 2014
As a half-German national and Formula 1 fan since childhood, hearing about Michael Schumacher‘s terrible skiing accident last Sunday triggered a deep and genuine concern.
Surely the man Nicki Lauda describes as “the perfect person” can’t be battling for his life just because he skied through an unsecured area on a family holiday?
People across the world have been in shock, nowhere more than in his home country. German Chancellor and sports fan Angela Merkel and her cabinet were “extremely dismayed” upon hearing the news while tennis legend Boris Becker and footballer Lucas Podolski have called on people to pray for Schumacher, who singlehandedly turned his home country into a Formula 1-obsessed nation.
Before him, no Germans dominated the sport. Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips was the only one to come close, but he died at a race in Monza in 1961 after his car crashed into the crowd, also killing 15 spectators. When Schumacher celebrated his first victory at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1992 it was the first full-length race won by a German since Von Trips’ last win 31 years before.
Schumacher, who debuted in F1 in 1991, filled a void left by Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. The German football team lost the European Championship finals in 1992 and was beaten by Bulgaria in the World Cup quarter-finals in 1994. We needed a new sporting hero our newly united people could enjoy together. Luckily, Schumacher came along to win his first of seven World Championships.
And so Schumimania began. Everyone watched Formula 1, even women and children. My friends and I would travel to Grands Prix along with tens of thousands of Germans donning Schumacher flags, wearing Benetton and later Ferrari merchandise and most importantly waving German flags, which pre-World Cup 2006 was something Germans were still hesitant to do.
My enthusiasm was such that I not only watched all the races, but also decided I was going to be a motor racing driver myself and I entered numerous single-seater races in the UK and attended the same racing school as Alain Prost in the South of France. I also embarked on a career within motor sports and Formula 1 commentating.
Everyone took pride in our ‘Schumi’ who epitomised the essence of Germany. Hailing from a small German village of Hurth in the Rhineland, where his father worked as bricklayer, his beginnings were humble, but he never lost sight of this. The German Huffington Post last week wrote of his “country values, modesty, restraint and loving devotion to his family,” while being the kind of sportsman who transcended generations, class and geographical regions.’
He started go-karting at the age of four on a kart built by his father. When they recognised his talents, both his parents started working at the now famous Kerpen go-karting track, which was coincidentally founded by Von Trips and bred the likes of Heinz Harald Frenzen, Michael’s brother Ralf and four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel. Once he started working his way up the ranks of karting and Formula 3, Schumacher looked set for glory. But in true German style, he still wanted something to fall back on and completed a three-year traineeship as a mechanic.
Now he is reportedly worth over €600m, but rather than becoming a womanising, hedonistic, tax-evading party animal, he chose the quiet life with his beloved wife Corinna and two children in Switzerland. He is clean-living, grounded and philanthropic, giving away at least €50m to charity in the last few years he was with Ferrari.
“He is so normal, even though he has achieved so much,” taxi driver Tuncer Yilmaz, said in 2007, after Schumacher took over the wheel of his car in a bid to get to an airport in Bavaria quickly. He claimed the driver, who won 91 Grands Prix, was the best he had ever seen.
I remember watching the Belgian Grand Prix in 1995, where Schumacher started in 16th position only to beat Damon Hill with dry tyres on a wet track. It was an exceptional performance and one which put paid to his critics who saw him as arrogant.
Germans are often accused of being cold or indifferent, but it is just their way. They don’t fake niceness. They say what they think and as a nation have no difficulty taking criticism on the chin.
In Germany it would be unthinkable to celebrate someone like Eddie the Eagle or to enjoy ourselves even if we lost a football game, so someone like Schumacher with his level-headed approach to winning is the perfect stereotypical German hero. He once said: “It is true my life is geared to winning. It has always been so.”
Lucky for him, he became statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.
He won my affection when he showed his human side, by crying after winning the Italian Grand Prix in 2000 and thus matching his idol, Ayrton Senna‘s 41 victories.
So when he celebrated his 45th birthday in an artificially induced coma, surrounded by his family, while fans held a vigil outside the hospital on Friday, he was a broken hero. Though many would state that caring about a celebrity is nonsense, an article in the Nordsee-Zeitung suggests: “There is no need to draw moral conclusions as to why people care more about him, than they do about other sick people in the world. People know him, possibly much better than they know their neighbours. He is no stranger to them.”
His accident has now propelled him to legendary status, and evoked a passion for F1 drivers, not seen since Ayrton Senna died of a serious head trauma 20 years ago. People can see that he is just a human being; a flawed one, even, and we just want him to get better.