Only close family and a handful of trusted friends are permitted through the high gates of Michael Schumacher’s house on the banks of Lake Geneva.
And silence surrounds the German’s condition since he hit his head while skiing in the French Alps six-and-a-half years ago. Several life-saving operations and 254 days in hospital followed.
One of the few welcome callers is Jean Todt, Schumacher’s former Ferrari team principal and now in his penultimate year as president of Formula One’s governing body, the FIA.
FIA president Jean Todt (left) has opened up on his stricken friend Michael Schumacher (right)
Todt was the team prinicipal for Ferrari when Schumacher drove and won titles for the team
Speaking in Budapest, where Lewis Hamilton took pole position — the 90th of his career — for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Frenchman chose his words carefully, loyally, and only when pressed. ‘I saw Michael last week,’ he said. ‘He is fighting. I hope the world will be able to see him again. That is what he and his family are working towards.’
The two men collaborated in symbiotic union to restore Ferrari’s fortunes after two dormant decades, and Todt, 74, considers Schumacher, 51, to be like a second son. They sometimes watch races together at Schumacher’s home in a wooded corner of Gland, a 13,000-people town between Geneva and Lausanne. And Todt keeps in close contact with Corinna, Schumacher’s devoted wife of 25 years.
It is she who has insisted on the near-total secrecy, barring the odd official comment, reflecting her husband’s essentially reserved and proud nature.
The Frenchman opened up about Schumacher’s current condition and expressed his ‘love’
Reports last month suggested Schumacher was about to undergo stem cell surgery, though a source close to the family — not Todt —indicated to The Mail on Sunday that this was an unlikely treatment, for now at least, given the restrictions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Schumacher’s name crops up more than once in my wide-ranging conversation with Todt in his office at the top of the Hungaroring paddock. However, medical bulletins are strictly off-limits.
I ask him whether he considers Schumacher the greatest driver ever, and how he feels now that Hamilton is closing in on his friend’s two supreme records, of 91 wins and seven world titles. The Briton, aged 35, stands on 85 and six respectively.
‘I love Michael,’ said Todt, ‘but it is impossible to say who is the best ever. There is Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and Michael. You can only think in terms of who is the best in a certain generation.
Todt explained that ‘it is impossible to say who is the best ever’ in F1 as the German has 91 wins
‘I know it can happen that Lewis beats Michael’s record as the most-titled driver in history. All the ingredients are there with Mercedes for him to do that. I honestly don’t mind.
‘I remember in 2000 when I was on the podium in Suzuka with Michael after he won his first title with Ferrari and I said to him that our lives would never be the same again. We had achieved all we wanted. After an accident like the one Michael has had, does it matter whether Lewis has won more?
‘It is a question of proportion. We are all lucky in Formula One when you see what is going on in the world, and not just with the monster that is Covid-19.’
Todt, a UN special envoy for road safety who still works long nights that would exhaust many a younger man, calls it a miracle the season has started despite the virus — a tribute, he said, to the hard work of the whole Formula One family. Today’s grand prix is the third round in the packed opening three weeks of a rejigged championship that has 10 races confirmed so far. The target is between 15 and 18 rounds.
One major topic of the early season has been Hamilton’s campaign for racial equality in light of George Floyd’s killing by a white policeman in Minneapolis. Todt revealed that the world champion wrote to him to ask for his and the FIA’s support. He responded supportively.
Todt revealed that he told Michael their ‘lives would never be the same’ after his first title
Todt, the son of a Polish Jewish doctor, has committed nearly £1million from FIA to fight discrimination. He said: ‘As child I was told not to say anything about my father’s origins. But when I was an adolescent, 17 or 18, I decided I would never deny it.
‘My wife (actress Michelle Yeoh) is yellow. She is Chinese. She sometimes has problems as a result.
‘Lewis feels strongly about racism. It is a cause dear to him.’
However, not all his fellow drivers have ‘taken a knee’ on the pre-race grid, including Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, though all have worn ‘End Racism’ t-shirts.
Todt understands reservations over enforced gestures, adding: ‘All individuals must express what they believe in the way they choose. People are different. Some are loud, others put their case quietly.
‘But we all aim for the end of racism.
‘I say: life matters. Lives matter. Not just black lives. Or yellow lives. Or white lives. All lives.’