michael schumacher

The documentary film Schumacher (2021) opens with our hero underwater. Michael Schumacher, seven ­time Formula 1 champ, floats dreamlike in the tides of a cobalt paradise. The parallels between then and now are unmistak­able—it’s been eight years since a skiing accident put Schumi in a coma, floating in purgatory.

It’s misty ­eyed stuff, one part of a film wrangling the legacy of F1’s greatest champ, with footage of Schumi belting out Sinatra karaoke and human­izing recollections from his family. But the docu­mentary shies away from the best bit: Schumacher was a weapons-grade asshole.

This story originally appeared in Volume 9 of Road & Track.


Not off the track, mind you—and Schumacher nails that part, reminding us that the man was the best sort of being, an incandescent bulb who drew us in close. But while fixated on the Atlas-like struggle that defined Schumacher’s career, the documentary fails to understand his villainy.

Schumacher acknowledges a man of grit, hustle, and tenacity who was tasked with delivering Ferrari its first drivers’ championship since the Seventies. We see only glimmers of his darkness. In one earlier “incident,” Schumi torpedoes Damon Hill’s Williams to prevent a pass at the ’94 Australian Grand Prix. A despicable move that won Schumacher his first title.

Rather than condemnation, talking heads ratio­nalize the moment. “Put me in the car . . . and my rival comes up the inside. What would I do?” Hill wonders, almost apologetic. “I don’t know.”

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Here’s the answer: Hill wouldn’t have done that. Because he didn’t. He was never infected by the mania that possessed Schumi—that drove the German to those seven titles, that saw him spear his opponents into crashes that could’ve killed them (and him).

Unwilling to deal with its hero’s darker half, the documentary instead parrots tired clichés about his hardscrabble upbringing. It’s a theory hawked on pseudointellectual podcasts: The most successful athletes had no choice but to win because poverty was their only alternative. Call it virtuous tenacity.

This is alluring in that it allows normies to rationalize limits. “I could’ve gone pro, but I went to school instead,” we assure ourselves. But how does that explain Ayrton Senna, who grew up on waterskis behind his family’s yacht? Or current champion Max Verstappen’s silver spoon?

And how does that explain Schumacher? Because even when he was flush with cash, Schumacher was ruthless. Recall Schumi’s un-retirement tour with Mercedes, when he ran midpack—and nearly steered Rubens Barrichello into the pit wall at 180 mph anyway. For his near-death experience, Barrichello received one of the most feckless nonapologies in history.

“I didn’t want to endanger him,” Schumacher said. “If he had this feeling, I am sorry, this was not my intention.”

For more proof of Schumacher’s innate ruthlessness, listen to voices outside the documentary.

“It was the worst thing I have seen in Formula 1,” Keke Rosberg said after Schumi parked on track to try to prevent rival Fernando Alonso from qualifying at Monaco. “I thought he had grown up. He is a cheap cheat. He should leave F1 to honest people.”

We don’t see that Schumacher in the documentary, not fully. Nor, then, do we fully understand the man. So what was it that made Schumi so ruthless? What made Michael Jordan the greatest shit-talker in NBA history? What makes Cristiano Ronaldo crumble in a screaming heap to earn a penalty kick?

The truth is, there’s no shared narrative among the greatest of greats. There’s only some innate and alien quality, some aberration of the DNA, that drives them past sanity in pursuit of victory.

Sure, poverty is a crucible that molds tough, resourceful, tenacious competitors. Schumacher understands that. What it doesn’t understand is that morality does not exist inside the vacuum of sports. Not for our greatest champions—the Jordans, Schumis, Sennas, and Ronaldos. For them, the ultimate sin is not killing an opponent, it’s losing. On the racetrack, the laws of God and man are sacrificed on the altar of victory.

Our heroes are mountains of complexity, built on a bedrock of contradiction. They are both glorious and villainous in the extreme. They are not like us, which is exactly why we can’t look away.