Formula One must be the most dangerous of spectator sports. Cars reach speeds in excess of 300 kph, requiring drivers with lightning fast reflexes, steely nerves, an intuitive feel for the track – and luck. If something goes wrong with your steering column when rounding a bend at 180 kph, no amount of skill will prevent a catastrophe.
Such a sport appeals to larger-than-life personalities who get their kicks from things that would frighten the life out of most of us. It’s a diverse group, in which champions have emerged through winner-take-all contests with each other. In Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) – surely the best feature film about Formula One – James Hunt is a handsome playboy; his opponent, Niki Lauda, is small, abrasive and calculating. Their rivalry resembles a medieval romance played out with late 20th century technology.
Each new generation of drivers has generated new personality clashes and competitions. Ayrton Senna’s legendary rival was Alain Prost, another case of instinct versus calculation. Michael Schumacher’s major obstacle was the “Flying Finn”, Mika Häkkinen.
If there are relatively few dramatisations of Formula One that may be because the real life stories are better than fiction. It would be hard for Hollywood to outdo Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Senna (2010), and to a lesser extent, Schumacher, currently screening on Netflix.
There are a lot of similarities between Senna and Schumacher, both constructed from vivid archival footage and interviews with friends, family and associates. The Brazilian, Ayrton Senna (1960-94), came from a well-to-do family in a desperately poor country, while Michael Schumacher (b.1969) hailed from a working-class background in prosperous West Germany. Both men honed their skills from childhood as invincible go-kart drivers.
The most telling difference between these documentaries is that one sits down to watch Senna (which may be viewed on Stan) in full knowledge that the story will culiminate in the driver’s death, after a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May, 1994. This lends the entire film a tragic aspect, especially when we hear Senna talking about the future.
In Schumacher, German filmmakers, Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker and Michael Wech, bring us the story of a man who is still alive but constantly spoken of in the past tense. Whereas the book of Senna’s life was slammed shut, Schumacher’s has gone missing following a serious head injury sustained on the French ski slopes in December 2013. For almost seven years the star driver has been cared for by his family, who have insisted on their privacy. The details of his condition have not been revealed to the public.
As a consequence the documentary has an elegaic feel, looking back over a stellar career that began as Senna’s came to an end. It was Schumacher, the young tyro, who was hard on Senna’s heels when the Brazilian suffered his fatal crash. We hear from Schumacher himself how he couldn’t believe that Senna had died. He says it took about two weeks to sink in. The next time he got into a car he found himself studying every part of the circuit as a fatality-in-waiting.
Nevertheless, Schumacher would go on to become world champion that year, the first of his seven titles – a record that has only recently been matched by Lewis Hamilton. From 2000-2004 Schumacher won five titles in succession, a sequence that has never been bettered.
Schumacher’s perfectionism and will to win are spelt out within the first few minutes of the film, when he tells an interviewer: “To reach one hundred percent. That’s my target. I’m just that kind of person. I couldn’t live with anything lower.”
For his biographer, James Allen, Schumacher’s “philosophy” is: “You have to go all in, otherwise you won’t come out on top.”
Although the filmmakers portray Schumacher as a good family man and a warm friend, he had his own special demon that appeared whenever he got into a racing car. Smiling and happy when things were going his way, a contrary aspect of Schumacher’s personality appeared when there was trouble. After a collision with David Coultard we see him incandescent with rage.
The most alarming incident is when he veers to cut off an overtaking manoeuvre by Jacques Villeneuve and only succeeds in knocking out his own car. Although footage makes it clear the accident was Schumacher’s fault, he was fully convinced Villeneuve was to blame. This belief took a battering when Schumacher was suspended for the rest of the 1997 season – a penalty that allowed him to switch off and spend time with his family.
Schumacher’s erratic behaviour testifies to the extreme pressure under which drivers operate, but in his case the most intense pressures were self-generated. According to one of his competitors, Mark Webber, “he was racing with himself, he was battling with himself.” In 2000, after a miraculous victory, Schumacher breaks down in tears at a press conference.
The goals Schumacher set himself meant that he constantly needed new challenges. When he seemed destined for a long and fruitful association with McLaren he decided to switch to Ferrari – a prestige brand that had slipped behind the pack in recent times. In his first year with Ferrari, 1996, he discovered the reason for the team’s failures: their cars were vastly inferior to those of their competitors.
Even with a second-rate vehicle Schumacher found ways to win, but it took a several years, a lot of hard work and strife before he was able to secure a championship for the company. After five in a row the hunger was gone. He would retire from the sport at the end of the 2006 season, having finished second to Fernando Alonso. There would be a brief comeback from 2010-13, but now in his 40s, he couldn’t recapture his youthful form.
Where Senna portrayed Formula One as a sordid business riddled with politics and scandal, in this film the emphasis is on Schumacher himself. We focus on the conflicts and struggles of the 1990s, while his years of greatest success are quickly skated over, as if Schumacher became less interesting when he was the undisputed world’s best. In this we recognise one of truisms of sport: the champion that wins handsomely every time earns our admiration, but mastery is boring. We only feel fully engaged when the contest is close. Schumacher may have aimed at perfection but it’s his flaws and failures, the points where his self-belief cracks, that reveal the qualities of a true champion.
Written & directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, Michael Wech
Starring Michael Schumacher, Corinna Schumacher, Rolf Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, James Allen, Richard Williams, Mika Häkkinen, Jean Todt, David Coulthard, Willi Weber, Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine, Ross Brawn, Mark Webber, Mick Schumacher, Gina Schumacher
Germany, rated M, 112 mins
Streaming on Netflix
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 September, 2021