Schumacher: The career of a sporting legend and the dark days ahead

The Northern Echo: DARK DAYS AHEAD: Michael Schumacher DARK DAYS AHEAD: Michael Schumacher

MICHAEL Schumacher spent his career cheating death at 200mph but last night the seven time Formula One world champion lay in a coma after an accident while skiing with his family. Nigel Burton looks at Schumacher’s career and what may lay ahead…

Michael Schumacher spent 17 years in Formula One. For 307 races he was strapped into a single seat racing car capable of more than 200mph. Behind him was a rubber bladder, containing 40 gallons of highly volatile fuel, sandwiched between his back and an engine spinning at 18,000rpm.

When the lights turned to green 26 drivers in similar cars funneled into the first turn - all trying to occupy the same piece of track.

Is it little wonder that, despite continual improvements in safety, Formula One remains a very dangerous sport?

Schumacher, more than most, pushed the limits. His overtaking manoeuvres were legendary - the German could see and exploit a gap that didn’t seem to exist - prompting some rivals to accuse him of dangerous driving.

Who can forget his collision with Damon Hill on lap 36 of the Australian Grand Prix in 1994 - a crash which gave Schumacher his first championship - and Jerez 1997 when he deliberately turned into Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams?

Yet for all the crashes Schumacher left Formula One relatively unscathed. His worst injury - a broken leg - was sustained at Silverstone in 1999. The crash wasn’t even his fault. The cause was due to a rear brake failure.

How ironic, then, that Schumacher should be fighting for his life after an accident while skiing with his 14-year-old son.

Schumacher may have walked away from Formula One in 2012 but his love for the adrenaline rush a driver gets at high speed was as strong as ever. The competitive instinct is hard-wired into racing drivers and the will to win doesn’t end when the flag falls on a career.

To sate his desire, Schumacher took up motorcycling, entering races under a pseudonym, and skydiving, despite his phobia of heights.

However, his favourite high speed pursuit was skiing. When he was at Ferrari a traditional mid-winter treat for the team’s drivers was to spend time skiing and snowboarding at the Madonna di Campiglio, in Italy.

Schumacher loved skiing - the beautiful scenery, the fresh air and the rush of speeding down a slope offered a respite from the noise and fumes of the F1 pressure cooker. He has a home in Miribel, which forms part of The Three Valleys, one of the world's most famous ski resorts, and is a frequent visitor.

Five-time Grand Prix winner John Watson summed it up in an interview with the BBC: “Part of the reason ex-drivers enjoy things like skiing is because of the physical rush you feel, which is something you become addicted to [during your racing career] and you can’t get rid of it.”

Schumacher was skiing off-piste, on unmarked slopes, when the accident happened in the Meribel resort in France. Watson described so-called backcountry skiing as “like driving on B-roads rather than a motorway - the sensation [and thrill] is much greater off-piste…”

Luckily, Schumacher was wearing a crash helmet when he hit his head on a rock. The helmet almost certainly saved his life. Indeed, immediately after the accident the seven-time F1 champion, was dazed but conscious, prompting early reports that he was in no danger.

According to Tony Belli, a specialist in traumatic brain injuries at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham, this is not unusual: “Initially, from what I gather, he was talking and trying to reassure people but then he became unconscious quite rapidly. That would suggest that he probably had brain swelling and that’s something that can happen quite often - people initially seem to be okay, and then the brain begins to swell up and things get more serious.’’

Friends believe Schumacher’s determination will stand him in good stead. Rob Smedley, the Middlesbrough-born engineer who worked across the garage when Schumacher was at Ferrari, said: "If you had to put someone in a hospital bed to fight for their life then Michael Schumacher would be that person. He is extremely fit and mentally tough - probably the toughest I have ever known."

However it may be several days before he is out of imminent danger. Christopher Chandler, of the London Neurosurgery Partnership, explained: “‘Brain swelling takes a number of days to reach its peak. The brain has a rigid unyielding box around it - the skull - which allows no room for growth, making swelling very, very dangerous.

‘‘And once that injury occurs it’s a vicious circle where a little bit of swelling causes more pressure, which causes more swelling, more pressure, and it starts to accelerate and affect vital parts of the brain.

‘‘When that happens, you are in really deep trouble, but this man received probably the best possible care that you could imagine in the circumstances.

“(Cerebral) contusions are often the most significant injury. Once you remove the clot, the swelling carries on and bruising precipitates and propagates that swelling.

‘‘If you have a brain injury with sufficient severity to cause a coma, that indicates a very serious situation. The longer a patient is in a coma, the less likely they are to make a full recovery. You can’t say that they won’t recover, and you can’t say they won’t be brain- damaged, but an injury such as bilateral bruising, which means on both sides of the brain, is very serious, and can be very dangerous.’’

Schumacher once put his will to win at all costs down to an innate stubborn streak. His rivals also point out his incredible fitness levels and a dogged refusal to give up whatever the odds.

As he lies in a hospital bed today, his friends, family and former racing rivals will be praying he can summon those qualities once more.


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