Seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher defied death dozens of times on the racetrack during his long career driving for Italy’s Benetton and Ferrari teams. His daredevil talent catapulted him to global fame as one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. The 44-year-old German survived fiery crashes and dozens of wall-smashing rollovers before retiring definitively in 2012. His off-track hobbies include moto-cross driving and skydiving. Throughout all of it, his worst injury had been a broken leg.
But a banal tumble on an off-piste ski run in the French Alps this weekend has proved far more threatening to the world-class athlete than any of his previous activities.
Doctors say Schumacher, who was considered to be an excellent skier, would not have survived the accident at all had he not been wearing a helmet at the time he fell and hit his head on a rock on Sunday. The helmet was damaged in the fall, which apparently happened when he slipped on a backcountry run. He was skiing with a small group, including his teenage son, but authorities say no one else was involved in the accident. Schumacher is being kept in a state of therapeutic hypothermia in a medically-induced coma after emergency brain surgery on Sunday to alleviate pressure from lesions on his brain. He was conscious immediately after the accident, according to his 14-year-old son, who called for help for his father, but his condition deteriorated when he tried to get up. He was airlifted to safety by helicopter, arriving at the hospital in an “agitated state” and was unable to answer simple questions, according to attending physician Jean-Francois Payen.
On Monday, Jean-Marc Grenier, care director of the Grenoble hospital where Schumacher is being treated, said the champion athlete is fighting for his life, “suffering from a serious cranial injury and is in a coma and required immediate neurological intervention on his arrival. He remains in a critical condition.”
The doctor did not rule out a second brain surgery, and he would not comment on Schumacher’s chances of survival, or whether he could be paralyzed or suffer permanent brain damage if he does survive.
France’s leading brain surgeon and a F1 racing fan, Gérard Saillant, flew to Grenoble from Paris to assist in the surgery, commenting that a lesser man could not survive the type of head injury Schumacher is battling. “Someone of 70 is less likely to survive this sort of accident than someone who is 45, and someone like Michael who is in top condition is more likely to survive than someone else,” he said after the surgery.
Tension was high in Maranello, Italy, where Schumacher brought Ferrari to the podium in F1 racing more than any other racer. He won 91 victories for both Benetton and Ferrari, 40 more wins than any other F1 racer in the record books. “These are hours of great concern for everyone here at Ferrari since hearing about the accident with Michael Schumacher,” Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo said in a statement on the Ferrari website, adding that he was in constant contact with Schumacher’s family. Schumacher acted as an advisor to the Ferrari team after a brief retirement in 2009 and is considered one of Italy’s favorite adopted sons, despite having a reputation for being a ruthless competitor. Tributes and well wishes trended on Twitter for the champion’s speedy recovery. Several high-profile F1 luminaries, including Jean Todt, who managed the Ferrari team during Schumacher’s glory years, are holding vigil at the French hospital with Schumacher’s immediate family.