clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s Michael Schumacher Documentary Brings Formula 1 Back to Its Roots

‘Schumacher’ offers insight into a previous F1 era, told through the life and career of one its most iconic champions. It’s a useful lesson for a generation of new fans brought to the sport by the reality series ‘Drive to Survive.’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first voice we hear in Netflix’s long-awaited documentary Schumacher comes from the seven-time Formula 1 champion himself. As Michael Schumacher speaks, we see footage of him completing a lap at the Monaco Grand Prix, one of motorsport’s most iconic venues.

“You have to be at one with the car,” Schumacher says, as the film’s score plays in the background. Schumacher begins with its subject talking about finding his limits and his pursuit of perfection. “I don’t like to talk about my quality very much because I would sound arrogant, and I don’t like to talk about my failures because it’s your job to find them.” These are the final lines of introduction, spoken as Schumacher navigates Monte Carlo’s famously bumpy street circuit in his scarlet red Ferrari. The score fades as he passes through the legendary Grand Hotel hairpin and Mirabeau corner; his vehicle’s engine noise becomes audible for the first time when he approaches the Portier curve.

Schumacher traces the life and career of one of F1’s biggest stars. Beginning with his first race for the Jordan team at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1991, the film follows Schumacher’s entry into the sport, his immediate move to Benetton—where he won two of his seven world championships—through to his early struggles at Ferrari before eventually delivering the team its first world championship in 21 years.

Schumacher was made with the full cooperation of Michael’s family and provides a wonderful portrait of a legendary driver who has receded from public view since sustaining head injuries in a ski accident in 2013. Almost two decades on from his seventh and final world championship, Schumacher might not be as familiar to a new generation of F1 fans who were too young to experience the German phenomenon at his peak.

The film’s timing is uncanny: It debuted on Netflix last week, ahead of the first weekend without a Grand Prix in almost a month and on the heels of the final race in a rare triple-header on the F1 calendar. It also fills a gap until the fourth season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive arrives next year, a series credited by many F1 journalists and broadcasters with attracting new fans to the sport. Schumacher provides a timely context to modern-day F1: For fans more familiar with Lewis Hamilton’s dominance in the past decade-plus, the film offers context for a previous era when Schumacher dominated the sport; for those exposed to the personalities, celebrity, and culture of F1 through Drive to Survive, the film offers insight into one of the biggest celebrities and personalities in the sport’s history.

Schumacher’s absence looms large in the film. His family has remained intensely private about his condition and he has not appeared in public since the accident. He appears in Schumacher via archival interviews—at the end of the film, his wife Corinna, his daughter Gina-Maria, and his son Mick, who made his F1 debut this season, emotionally explain that while their husband and father is still with them, he’s not the same since his injury. “Michael is here,” Corinna says. “Different, but he’s here, and that gives us strength, I find.” It seems so cruel that Schumacher’s condition is so severe that his presence—or even an appearance—was not possible in the film.

Schumacher arrives 10 years after Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a film about Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian three-time world champion. Anyone familiar with Senna knows how that film would end—with his tragic death after a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Kapadia doesn’t explicitly mention Senna’s death until the end of the film, but the impending tragedy lingers over every moment. It begins with a young Senna, early in his career, talking about “pure racing”—already, it’s impossible not to be reminded of how the story ends.

When the moment arrives, it is brutal. It was brutal on the first watch and it never stops being so. Prior to the race, Rubens Barrichello flew into the safety barrier during a Friday practice run; Roland Ratzenberger died after a crash in a qualifying run on the following day, leaving many drivers to wonder whether the race should take place at all. When it did, Pedro Lamy drove into the back of JJ Lehto at the start, which brought out the safety car. Senna and Gerhard Berger had complained in the pre-race briefing that the safety car—only reintroduced to Formula 1 in 1993—was too slow, causing tire temperatures to drop way below optimal levels. The race resumed at full speed on Lap 5, and Senna crashed on Lap 7.

The event also plays a prominent role in Schumacher. Following Senna’s crash, the race was briefly halted but resumed again, with Schumacher eventually winning. He crossed the line at 6:40 p.m.; Senna’s death was confirmed at 8 p.m. In the documentary, Schumacher becomes visibly emotional as he discusses how Senna’s death affected him. In fact, Senna’s death at the San Marino Grand Prix seemed to serve as a tragic passing of the torch: Schumacher would clinch his first world championship that year.

Much like Senna, Schumacher provides an intimate glimpse into a legend of a sport that for so long has felt exclusive and inaccessible. Many fans who became familiar with F1 via Drive to Survive were likely not even born when Senna was battling Alain Prost, or old enough to remember Schumacher going toe-to-toe with Mika Häkkinen. For newcomers, it turns myths into reality; for seasoned fans, it is reliving iconic moments as well as tragedies.

As Drive to Survive has converted so many new F1 fans in recent years, I’ve often thought back to what drew me to the sport as a kid. It felt like an accidental discovery—Sunday visits to my grandparents for lunch would often end up with me sitting on the arm of my grandad’s chair as he would take it on himself to hype the Grand Prix that was about to start. He whooped and clapped at any on-track incident. The chair itself was in front of a full cabinet displaying Bburago model cars, all in 1:18 scale, all in the same shade of red. If they didn’t come in that specific red, he didn’t buy them, no matter what model they were.

I remember being skeptical. As a kid who would rather kick a ball around, it was hard to see the hype of cars going round and round for over an hour. I was partly drawn by my grandad’s infectious excitement, but what really drew me in had something to do with the onboard camera inside the driver’s car. The shaky picture showing the view from the side of a driver’s helmet, with fleeting moments of interference, felt like peering into another world. And the speed—holy shit, the speed! I remember being in awe, trying to imagine what it would feel like to go that fast.

But I also remember Senna’s death. I watched the crash. I remember my grandad’s sadness. Behind the bravado, the excess, and the quest for engineering perfection that typifies the sport, Formula 1 remains extremely dangerous. The Drive to Survive generation has already seen Anthoine Hubert die in an F2 crash in 2019 and Romain Grosjean emerge from an inferno in Bahrain, after the halo on his Haas car saved his life. It takes a very specific type of person to drive at speeds of well over 200 mph, or to head into a high-speed corner trusting your car will stick to the road, all while carrying out small adjustments on a steering wheel seemingly from the future.

To me, witnessing this combination of fearlessness and calculation formed a huge part of the sport’s appeal. I could go outside and know what it felt like to kick a soccer ball, throw a pitch, or hit a drive down the fairway. But submitting myself to higher G-forces than astronauts or risking that kind of impact? Most of us will never, ever know what that feels like. Whether it was Schumacher and Senna when I was a kid, or Hamilton and Max Verstappen to a new generation of fans, being a Formula 1 driver will always feel as mythical as going into space.