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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher's side

January 03, 2014 15:38 IST

Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher's side

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Raja Sen

'Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don't want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don't care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest-ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn't even wearing warpaint.'

Raja Sen, who shares a birthday with Michael Schumacher, joins in the prayers for the incomparable Formula One great.

I owe Michael Schumacher my career.

Writers write, quite simply, because they must. What they write, however, makes for a far more fiendish decision. I'd dabbled with journalism, copywriting, poetry and bad drafts of first novels nobody will ever get to read, but it took a certain hero to spur me on and find a voice.

Michael Schumacher mattered right from the time I'd heard his name. It was irrational, this admiration of a man in blue-green overalls dominating a sport I -- or anyone else I knew -- didn't really watch, but there was just something about the young German popping up so frequently in the sports pages.

A youngster who looked assuredly at home on top of the world; a champion racing for a team that made most of my winter-wear.

At the time, my Formula One viewing was occasional and erratic, and I refused even to become a casual fan daunted by the technical intricacies of the sport, harsh-sounding multi-syllabic names, and decidedly too much cricket-fanaticism for any other sport to make a difference.

Then, fifteen years ago, I shuddered as I read about Michael breaking his leg in an accident at the British Grand Prix. I thought of the thirty-year-old, wished him well, and wondered how barbaric the sport was.

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Image: Michael Schumacher
Photographs: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

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Raja Sen

A few months later, he returned. And almost won. Actually, to be fair, he more than won: he made his teammate win.

From that day to this one, I've missed watching maybe eight Grands Prix over twice as many years.

Cricket became insignificant in comparison. And this passion was born out of that one extraordinary man.

I was, admittedly, Michael obsessed. I wore vampire-red sunglasses to watch races through (Ferrari-tinted, I called them) and made friends, dates, colleagues 'wear red for Michael' on those all-important Sundays.

I vividly remember rounding third-base and closing in on home for the first time ever, on a park bench in Delhi, but choosing instead to bolt in time to catch the five red lights going off at the race-start. (I can still recollect that exact podium.)

I still only ever play F1 video games as Michael's partner -- never daring a try as Michael himself -- and, if when rounding the final corner he happens to be a few hairs behind me, I can't help move over and applaud instead of being applauded.

Seeing anyone else on the top-step of even a virtual podium feels wrong, you see.

Quiz masters hosting at sports bars soon stopped letting me answer questions, and I won a gigantic Ferrari flag by betting on a Michael streak despite impossible odds. But there was no scheming here, no form-book to look up: I bet on Michael because anything else would be inappropriate.

In 2003, as a student in the UK, I whimsically placed a Ladbrokes bet with hard-scraped savings despite the season looking madly bleak at the time, and, at 8/1, made back enough to buy my first Macbook. The odds were never unreal enough to be of consequence.

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Image: Michael Schumacher jumps for joy after winning a stunning race in the Italian GP, September 8, 1996.
Photographs: Mike Cooper/Allsport/Getty Images

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher's side

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Raja Sen

I was a copywriter in 2004 when Rediff asked me -- based on an impassioned Dravid-bashing blogpost -- to write for their sports section, and I suggested I start writing about Formula One. Because of Michael; because of the compulsion to write about true genius.

My first column was about a Michael win, and in that and the ones that followed, the words rushed out all at once, struggling to keep up with the tremendous sporting feat, the historic run we were all fortunate enough to watch in real time. The rush of capturing the immense drama of a race in words soon put my day job to shame.

Rediff, however, needed someone to write about films. So then, um, that happened. But the Formula One columns -- especially those about Michael magic -- have always been remarkably close to my heart.

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Image: Michael Schumacher and the Ferrari team study qualifying times for the French GP. Schumacher went on to win the race, June 28, 1997.
Photographs: Mike Cooper /Allsport/Getty Images

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher's side

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Raja Sen

How good is Michael Schumacher?

It is dashed difficult to explain Michael Schumacher to someone who doesn't know Formula One. The world of sport, usually a fine provider of parallels, fails to throw up a satisfactory legend, leaving us to clumsily nail together an invariably inadequate amalgam from elsewhere, and here's mine: Imagine if The Beatles lasted as long as the Rolling Stones.

If the Fab Four wrought their revolution not over ten glorious years but sixty, outlasting and triumphing over not just their contemporaries but rubbing shoulders with modern bands, getting used to the new realms of punk and metal and rap and beating Bowie and Radiohead and Madonna at their games.

And even when they finally abdicated, and were visibly not the best or loudest in the world, they still played on with gusto and -- despite some calling them a bit long in the tooth -- still occasionally conjured up something special enough to turn hearts to yo-yos.

Imagine, if you will, what that discography would be like.

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Image: Michael Schumacher.
Photographs: Tony Gentile/Reuters

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher's side

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Raja Sen

The last few days have been spent manning the news wires, in prayer, in wish-making, in questing for hope.

On Sunday a friend who works at a news channel texted me saying Michael was hurt in a skiing accident. An hour later the news was that it wasn't serious. Two hours after that it began to look like a nightmare.

It is one thing getting a piece of news and coming to terms with it, but social media gets hold of a developing story and runs with it terrifyingly fast, often too blinded by its own pace to look at the facts.

I spent the next days and nights on Twitter, hoping for updates, hoping for news, hoping for a picture of him lying in a hospital bed, winking that world-conquering wink at the camera.

What I continue to get is a steady stream of information and rumour, with old facts being republished by Web sites fishing for traffic, sensationalists who want to be the first to break bad news, and -- alongside the rare but reliable daily updates -- a few informed people who care enough to discuss the situation and explain its severity.

A former Formula One doctor, Gary Hartstein, has been invaluable as a sane voice on Twitter (@former_f1doc), giving us perspective.

The rest is prayer.

Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don't want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don't care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest-ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn't even wearing warpaint.

The rest of us, prone to tearing up, are cheering him and chanting for him and awaiting good news. The world, it is abundantly clear, has its fingers crossed.

David Coulthard, a former McLaren driver who once gave Schumacher the finger on the racetrack, and a man who was once almost beaten up by a furious Schumacher, has written the finest column about the legend and the situation.

It is a column that, in its honesty and its timing, is worth more than Coulthard's career, and I urge you all to go and read it.

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Image: Corinna Schumacher, Michael's wife, arrives at the hospital in Grenoble, where her husband is hospitalised.
Photographs: Charles Platiau/Reuters

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Raja Sen

"You only like him because he's born on your birthday," a girl accused, back in college. My jaw dropped open. Not out of indignation (for it was patently untrue) but out of the sheer thrill of discovery.

We all share our birthdays with people worth admiring, but somehow sharing January 3 with Michael Schumacher matters.

He turned 45 and I turned 33 today. And all I want for my birthday is what millions around the world -- millions touched by his brilliance, his spirit, his myth, his philanthropy and his grace -- want, as they pray to varied gods and continue to hope: For him to smile that smile again. And yes, that wink he winks after winning a race.

This 92nd win would be extraordinarily well-deserved.

I choked when Michael teared up as he went past Ayrton Senna, and again when he announced his retirement in 2006. I scampered to the next race in Shanghai and saw his last race win, in grand style.

Then he returned to the sport, buckled down and learnt to lose, and even came to India where I got to see him, talk to him, say a couple of things that made him grin back at me.

And now that super smile feels distant. Distant, yes, but far from insurmountable as the odds he beat every alternate Sunday, so, so many times over.

Conquer this too, Michael. Happy birthday to you, and may you get well soon. Wearing red today, naturally!


Image: Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture of Michael Schumacher at Puri.
Photographs: Reuters

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