PARIS (AFP) – From a young driver with a delinquent temperament to the all-conquering ‘Red Baron’ of Formula One, Michael Schumacher has long been the undisputed king of the circuit.
A ruthless competitor, Schumacher won an unprecedented 91 races, seven world titles including five in a row with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004. But despite his unrivalled record on the track the German, who turns 45 years on Friday, remains a figure of controversy because of his win-at-all-costs attitude.
On Wednesday, Schumacher remained in an induced coma in Grenoble after brain surgery following an accident while skiing off piste with his 14-year-old son Mick in France.
Long-time rival David Coulthard believes that only now can Schumacher receive the long overdue recognition he deserves for his stunning achievements.
“For years Michael was the perfect pantomime villain… German, of course, ruthlessly efficient, ultra-aggressive,” wrote Coulthard in the Daily Telegraph.
“He was marked down by some, including me, as a tainted champion. But you cannot argue with his achievements.
“At the end of the day he had the same rules and the same race marshals as the rest of us. And he destroyed us.”
Schumacher retired in November 2012 holding every major statistical benchmark – the most world titles (7), wins (91), poles (68), fastest laps (77) and races won in a single season (13).
After his seventh place in Sao Paulo for his 308th and final Grand Prix, “Schumi” had for a time considered a switch to another type of horse power … rodeo.
“My wife Corinna has already chosen the horse, I’m ready,” said the German after his second retirement, the first being between 2007 and 2009.
Not rodeo, however, but an ambassadorial role for Mercedes on road safety projects. A surprising choice for a man who was never able to do things slowly.
After years of racing in the high risk world of Formula One, his skiing accident suggests that retirement had not dulled his relish of dangerous pursuits.
Holder of a pilot’s license, an accomplished motorbike rider, parachutist, skier and mountain climber, the young retiree had not lost his love of risk taking, turning his back on the career of television pundit embraced by many of his former rivals.
He already survived a motorbike accident in Spain in 2009 suffering head and neck injuries but that time he was released from hospital after just five hours.
As an F1 racer, Schumacher was known for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, his at-times almost reckless abandon in the pursuit of victory.
When he won his first world title in 1994 with Benetton, he did so in controversial fashion, crashing into his title rival Damon Hill in the final race in Adelaide, Australia after he had already scuppered his own hopes by going off the track when pushing hard despite leading comfortably.
He almost provoked a similar crash in the final race of the 1997 season when battling Jacques Villeneuve for the title, an incident for which he was retrospectively disqualified from the whole season.
His career was also punctuated by accusations of dangerous driving following incidents such as a near collision with former teammate Rubens Barrichello in 2010, which the Brazilian later described as “the most dangerous thing” he had been through.
He retired at the end of the 2006 season before making a damp squib of a comeback in 2010 with Mercedes.
Schumacher’s duels in his hey-day with Hill, Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen, fired by an unquenchable competitive spirit, have gone down in Formula One folklore.
Schumacher was born in January 1969 near Cologne, Germany, the son of a bricklayer who also ran the local go-kart track, where his mother worked in the canteen. His younger brother, Ralf also became a successful Formula One driver.
By 1987, Schumacher was the German and European go-kart champion and had left school to work as an apprentice mechanic, although he was soon racing professionally.
In 1990 he won the German F3 championship and was hired by Mercedes to drive sports cars. Just a year later he burst onto the Formula One scene, qualifying seventh for Jordan in his debut race at Belgium.
The young German was immediately snapped up by Benetton, where he won his first Formula One race in 1992, again at Belgium’s tough Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
Schumacher won 18 races over the next four seasons with Benetton, claiming back-to-back world titles in 1994 and 1995.
In 2002 Schumacher won 11 times and finished on the podium in all 17 races.
In 2003, he broke Argentine Fangio’s record by claiming his sixth world title and in 2004 he won 13 races, his greatest season.
He was also given the title of “Rain King” because he was at his best in the most challenging conditions – winning 17 of 30 career races in the wet.
Married to his wife Corinna since 1995 with two children Gina-Maria, 16, and 14-year-old Mick, Schumacher may have retired in 2012 after a glittering career but his love for speed and danger never left him.
The irony is that after a life spent negotiating potentially fatal turns his only serious injury was breaking his leg in 1999.
Schumacher told German television in 2009 about his accident at Silverstone on July 11, 1999, when he drove into a wall of tyres and broke his leg.
“I lie there and think about how I can start to feel my heartbeat again. And I feel how it gets less and less and then completely stops. Lights go out. And then I think this is how it must feel when you are on your way up.”