Thursday 17 January 2019

Michael Schumacher special report: 'Those round him love him - and thank God keep the curious away'

Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher

Oliver Brown

Beware the malevolence of mundanity. Michael Schumacher's skiing prowess was well known to Formula One journalists, who would watch him tear down black runs around Madonna di Campiglio each January, at a winter retreat convened by Ferrari in the Italian Dolomites.

And yet it was on a cut-through between two groomed pistes in Meribel, on a pristine morning five years ago today, where the German fell, hit his head on a rock and suffered a neurological injury that would rob him of the rest of his life.

It mattered not that he was wearing a helmet, or that he knew the vagaries of the Three Valleys ski region just as intimately as he did the chicanes of Monte Carlo or the Lesmos of Monza.

The angle of impact was such that by the evening of December 29, 2013, his doctors at Grenoble Hospital were warning that the seven-time world champion had sustained catastrophic brain damage.

Fans who remembered Schumacher as the indestructible Teuton, with 91 wins and no health dramas worse than a broken leg, dared to believe that his condition would still improve. But beyond a small coterie of family, friends and medical specialists, not a soul has seen him since.

The omerta is total. As Schumacher continues to receive care at his home in Gland, a vast and closely-protected mansion on the shore of Lake Geneva, his spokeswoman Sabine Kehm refuses any requests for updates.

As Schumacher continues to receive care, his spokeswoman Sabine Kehm refuses any requests for updates. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire
As Schumacher continues to receive care, his spokeswoman Sabine Kehm refuses any requests for updates. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire

Several relatives, not least his brother Ralf, an ex-F1 star in his own right, and son Mick, a talented racer competing in F2 next season, are prominent in the public eye but shed little light. The theory is that wife Corinna, whose personal life Schumacher would ferociously guard during his career, wishes to do the same for him in these desperate times.

A tension has arisen though, between the family's demands for privacy, exercised through Frankfurt lawyer Felix Damm, and the overwhelming public interest in Schumacher's situation.

No man can call himself a more fervent follower of Schumacher than Reiner Ferling. Based close to his idol's home town of Kerpen, near Cologne - where they would spend the odd evening together at his old karting track - Ferling is chairman of the official fan club, having cut a dash on the F1 scene since the early nineties, by virtue of his extravagant headgear.

Since 2013, Ferling's efforts have been devoted to the meticulous curating of Schumacher's legacy.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of that dreadful day in the French Alps, he and fellow fan-club members are in Gran Canaria, where they have created a sand sculpture of the man who remains their inspiration.

Next Thursday, the occasion of Schumacher's 50th birthday, a party is being held in his honour at Kopi Eck, a German-run bar in Playa del Ingles, with readings and laudations galore. Messages from well-wishers will be burnt on to a CD and then sent to the family in Switzerland.

Ferling, for one, is accepting of the lack of any medical bulletins, believing that such a policy follows the instructions of Schumacher himself. "Our fan club has 3,500 members, and we respect the family's opinion," he says.

"No one has acquired the right to a seriously ill person by buying a cap or a T-shirt. At the appropriate time we will learn more, but until then, we grant Michael his peace. Michael has always protected his family. Now the family protect him."

What can be said with certainty about Schumacher's circumstances? We know that he regained consciousness six months after the accident, and that he is being cared for within the perimeter walls of his Gland estate.

Anything else is essentially conjecture. Reports that he would be moved to a luxury compound in Majorca turned out to be misleading. Suggestions that he had learnt to walk a couple of steps were flatly denied. Unattributed recent observations in 'Paris Match' - that "when you put him in his wheelchair facing the beautiful panorama of the mountains, Michael sometimes cries" - verged on voyeurism.

Details seldom emerge from his few select visitors. Bernie Ecclestone, so close to Schumacher that they played backgammon games together, did contemplate going, but resisted out of a desire to "remember Michael as he was".

Curiously, the only extended depiction of Schumacher post-crash has come courtesy of Georg Ganswein, a German prelate of the Catholic Church and personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Ganswein, who has acted as a spiritual guide to the Schumacher family, told 'Bunte' magazine this month: "I sat in front of him, I touched him with both hands, and I looked at him. His face, as we all know, is the typical face of Michael Schumacher, only that it has become a little more puffy. He feels that around him there are people who love him, who care about him and, thank God, keep the curious public away."(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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