Michael Schumacher’s Netflix documentary is both heartbreaking and ironic given his aversion to the public gaze. Though this is ostensibly an exploration of one of the great Formula One careers, it is also viewed through the prism of the skiing accident in 2013 that cost him any semblance of a normal life.
What the present looks like within the walls of his home we have no idea. Netflix has not penetrated the privacy that the family guards with an iron determination.
It is this sense of the unknown that gives the project a certain piquancy, layers it with an aching tension and a feeling of profound sadness since it cannot avoid the fate that befell him in the French Alps.
Schumacher’s wife, Corinna, recalls his dissatisfaction with the condition of the snow on that tragic day in Meribel, and his suggestion that they should go sky diving in Dubai instead. If only they had.
The conditions are not optimal, he said using quintessential Schumi phrasing that put me in mind of an exchange I had with him in a similar setting during one of Ferrari’s epic PR weeks in the Italian Dolomites, scenes of which feature among the documentary clips.
My employers had paid a fee of £1,000 to a photographer for exclusive pictures of the great man and yours truly together in the resort of Madonna di Campiglio. On the last day, with the assignment as yet unfulfilled, I was forced to intercept Schumi as he disembarked the chair lift at the top of the Groste piste ahead of the traditional, end-of-week ski race.
He agreed reluctantly, saying: “Okay, but be quick, I must test the course.” He had only media and guests to beat but he wasn’t taking any chances. The name Schumacher duly topped the time sheets on each of the five occasions I was in attendance.
Through the testimony of family and close confidants using historic and current interviews the documentary traces the development of a historic figure, knitting together his early years at the karting track in Kerpen, where his father, a man of modest means, would shoe his son’s kart in tyres discarded by others while his mother helped out in the café, with the more familiar rise through the F1 ranks.
It is the story of a boy from an ordinary background transformed by a preternatural ability and an almost pathological desire to succeed, twin elements that combined to take Schumacher to unprecedented heights until Lewis Hamilton came along.
I first encountered Schumacher at the British Grand Prix in 1998 where he won in the wet. A year later at the same circuit he was denied a shot at his first title with Ferrari when brake failure resulted in a heavy shunt at Stowe and a broken leg that kept him out for six races.
From 2000 to 2004 he was imperious, adding five consecutive drivers’ titles to the two he won at Benetton in 1994 and 1995.
How to watch the Schumacher documentary
- Title: Schumacher
- Release date: Wednesday 15 September
- Stream: Available on Netflix. Plans range from £5.99 to £13.99 a month.
The controversies that attended his career, including cynical collisions during championship duels with Damon Hill (Japan 94) and Jacques Villeneuve (Japan 97), the switching of positions with leader Rubens Barrichello at the final corner of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, the blocking of Fernando Alonso at Rascasse during qualifying for the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix, knocked him down the purist’s pecking order in the pantheon of greats.
Neither did the absence of a challenge from within at a team constructed entirely around him sit well with Corinthian observers. If you listen, however, to the testimony of Eddie Irvine, his first domestique at Ferrari in 1996, it would not have made any difference. Schumacher, he said, was insanely good.
For evidence of that we need only watch re-runs of his final race for the Scuderia in damp conditions at Interlagos in 2006. A mysterious failure in qualifying left Schumacher tenth on the grid and a puncture early in the race dropped him to 19th.
From there he would scythe through the field to finish fourth in a demonstration of mastery in the wet that evoked Jim Clark at Spa in 1963, Ayrton Senna at Donington 30 years later and Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone in 2008.
Three years into his four-year hiatus I intercepted Schumacher again in southern Spain where he was fulfilling sponsor obligations. The two mind-bending laps I spent with him in the passenger seat of a rapid Maserati are among the most treasured moments of my career. Put it this way, I had none of his ease with speed and was relieved when, finally, he took his foot off the gas.
I quote from the account that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. “We are on the limit of the tyres now. I have to take it easy,” he said with a few corners remaining. Don’t mind me, old boy. “Look,” he said when we stepped from the car. “What did I tell you?” He was pointing to frayed bits of canvas protruding through gaping holes where rubber used to be.
In our subsequent repose we discussed his life in retirement. His days, it seemed to me, were spent finding ways to satisfy the need for extremes. He spoke of his love of thrashing about on his motorcycle and of sky diving, which he had just taken up. It was not a surprise then when he announced later that year that he would be returning to F1 with Mercedes in 2010.
Three unproductive seasons in an uncompetitive car cured him of his F1 infatuation. In a development of historic import Schumacher was replaced by Hamilton, who would go on to equal his championship total in a period of unprecedented dominance during the hybrid engine era.
Hamilton was grateful for the three seasons he shared with Schumacher, despite neither running at the front during that period. He could at least say he raced against the best, a driver whose legendary contribution to Formula One is chronicled sympathetically through the soft lens of Netflix.