Even as he careered at 150mph around notoriously dangerous racetracks, Corinna Schumacher remained confident that her husband, Michael, would avoid catastrophe. She had watched in 1994 at the San Marino grand prix, as Ayrton Senna (Schumacher’s Brazilian rival) collided with a concrete wall at 145mph, a crash which killed him instantly. But still, she didn’t think it would happen to them.
"We’d always made it through his races safely, which is why I was sure he had a few guardian angels that were keeping an eye out for him," Corinna, 52, tells a new Netflix documentary, Schumacher. "I don’t know if it’s just a kind of protective wall that you put up yourself or if it’s because you’re in a way naive but it simply never occurred to me that anything could ever happen to Michael."
And in a tragic sort of way, she was right. It wasn’t a racing collision that ended Schumacher’s bill of good luck, but a skiing accident in the Three Valleys region of France, an area he was said to know intimately. It was a surprisingly warm day in the French Alps on December 29, 2013, when the seven-time world Formula One champion fell while descending an unmarked slope on the Combe de Saulire with his 14-year-old son, Michael. He hit his head on a rock, incurring a brain injury – despite the protection of a ski helmet – and spent six months in a medically induced coma at Grenoble Hospital. After regaining consciousness, Schumacher, now 52, spent a few months at a rehabilitation clinic, before being transferred home to his mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva. And outside a tiny circle of friends, family, and doctors, not a soul has seen him since.
Keen to protect his dignity, the Schumacher family have operated what some Formula One commentators describe as a ‘code of silence’, releasing virtually no information about the health of the man.
It’s why Corinna’s recent interview with Netflix, in which she says that her husband remains "here, but different", has proved so newsworthy. "We live together at home, we do therapy," she tells the cameras. "We do everything we can to make Michael better and to make sure he’s comfortable, and to simply make him feel our family, our bond. And no matter what, I will do everything I can. We all will. We’re trying to carry on as a family, the way Michael liked it and still does. And we are getting on with our lives." It is, admittedly, a vague description of her husband’s condition, but nonetheless surprising from a woman who has to-date kept her counsel.
But still, some F1 fans have been startled by the family’s decision to cooperate with the film at all – a chink in the ultra-protective shield of privacy they built for Schumacher in the terrible days after his accident.
So why, after eight years of near-total silence, has the family decided to lift their curtain of privacy?
Lee McKenzie, a sports presenter for BBC and Channel Four, and friend of the Schumachers, thinks the decision may be about the needs of Schumacher’s kids: Gina, 24; and Mick, 22, who is now on the first rungs of his own career in Formula One. They were just teens when their father was paralysed – an experience that can prove difficult for any kid. Intense media attention might well have made that worse.
"The timing seems right," says McKenzie, who met Schumacher several times before his accident. "The children are older: they can handle it, they have their own lives."
The racer’s many fans hope the Netflix film might signal a new era of transparency, one in which they learn more about his condition and might even, one day, see their hero speaking on camera.