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Michael Schumacher Is the GOAT. Michael Schumacher Is Absent.

The greatest Formula One driver of all time suffered a traumatic brain injury while skiing in 2013. He is alive, but the racing world has agreed not to talk about his condition.

 

Head north on the E25 Highway, hugging the turns and ignoring the optional speed limit, as it curls above Gland, Switzerland, and it’s easy to feel like a European race car driver. Lausanne is up ahead. Geneva resides in the rearview mirror. Down below, the sun bounces off Lake Geneva. The whole tableau is framed by assorted snow-capped Alps, sitting regally off in the distance.

 

But take the exit ramp and head into Gland and there’s no indication that the greatest driver there ever was—an athlete once thought to be in competition with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan to see who would be first to earn $1 billion—resides in the town. No museum. No plaques. No photos of him hang in shops or restaurants. There’s no sports bar or steakhouse bearing his name. No jerseys or souvenirs available for sale. In fact, if you merely mention his name at the APlus bakery or Balthasar steakhouse, the locals close ranks.

 

Michael Schumacher is 53 now. Though German by birth, he is a longtime resident of Gland. Twenty years ago, he and his wife, Corinna, bought Sur Le Moulin, on the shores of Lake Geneva, a mansion that recalls the estate of the von Trapp family. Notwithstanding some trips for treatment and some stealthy warm-weather escapes to Mallorca, Schumacher is believed not to have left his home in Gland in nearly a decade.

Schumacher has been out of sight from the world as he continues to recover from a severe skiing accident. Just as second- and third-hand accounts of Schumacher bounce around the racing world, rumors flit around Gland, a town of 11,000. Inside the café of Migros grocery store, Christianne Kuhn, a Gland resident, says, “We used to see him, he was among us. Now, of course, no one sees him. Maybe we see his wife sometimes riding her horses. But Michael? Never.” Says another resident, who declined to give his name: “We don’t want to forget about him. But we don’t really want to discuss, either.”

This very much mirrors the delicate challenge confronting Formula One, the sport Schumacher dominated for the better part of 20 years. F1 is, of course, vroom-vroom-vrooming in popularity, catalyzed by the compulsively watchable Netflix series Drive to Survive. This surge—catching a gear, in the parlance—is especially pronounced in the U.S., where Formula One, long a curiosity at best, has not only become the hipster sport of choice but has also siphoned fuel from NASCAR and Indy fans. Reportedly, Formula One is shopping its U.S. media rights for $75 million annually, up from the $5 million ESPN will pay through the end of 2022. And like any international breakthrough act, inevitably, it’s coming to Vegas.

All the while, the most successful driver in the sport’s history—the great F1 titan—resides behind a gate and hedges and high fence of a lakeside mansion, his status and prognosis and quality of life wrapped in secrecy and mystery.Before there were Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, there were Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. It was a fledgling rivalry but had all the necessary ingredients, not least contrasts. Different men, different generations, different origin stories, different organizing principles.

Senna, nearly a decade Schumacher’s senior, was a dazzlingly accomplished Brazilian driver with charisma to burn, once described as the rare athlete that all fans felt they knew intimately. Schumacher was the arriviste, an earnest and straightforward German who embraced a sort of clipped efficiency. But when Schumacher was seated in the cockpit, his car seemed like an extension of his body. Equal parts technician and tactician, he was deeply interested in his racing team, and hacking the car and the track for every incremental advantage. He grudgingly accepted fame; he wanted little to do with celebrity. He wanted to drive and he wanted to win.

When, immediately after the race, Schumacher inquired about Senna’s state, he was told that his rival was in a coma. In a bit of terribly heartbreaking foreshadowing, Schumacher later recalled what he thought when he first heard about Senna. “A coma can mean many things. It can just be something which can be O.K. the next day or very bad. But you don’t judge it. …There was so little information you don’t know what you should think.”

At the podium that afternoon, Schumacher hoisted no champagne and wore a look of deep concern. Senna never came out of his coma.

After Senna’s death, Schumacher would go on to become the dominant driver not just of his era, but of any. The embodiment of confidence, the encapsulation of crisp precision, Schumacher won a record seven World Driver’s Championships in his 19-year career, most of them driving an iconic red Ferrari.

 

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