The trap Netflix mustn't fall into with Michael Schumacher documentary

Jake Nichol September 13, 2021
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A new documentary on the life and Formula One career of Michael Schumacher will be released on Netflix on Wednesday (15 September). It’s the latest motorsport-themed offering about a team or driver, but Netflix must tread a fine line.

Michael Schumacher documentary to air on Netflix

Entitled simply Schumacher, the film runs for slightly less than two hours.

It promises an “intimate portrait” of Schumacher using footage from the archives and exclusive interviews, including with his son Mick and Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel.

The film comes a month after the 30th anniversary of Schumacher’s debut in F1 at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix for the Jordan team.

Regular driver Bertrand Gachot was in a London prison for assaulting a taxi driver in 1990, and Jordan needed a last-minute replacement.

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Step forward Mercedes sportscar driver and German Formula 3 champion Schumacher.

He stunned onlookers on his debut, qualifying seventh fastest although he conked out on the first lap at Spa in the actual race.

The trap Netflix must not fall into with Schumacher film

Ever since the release of the movie Senna in 2010, every motorsport documentary/film has been compared to this first of the genre’s type.

As the title suggests, Senna has a similar theme to Schumacher as it’s about the life and career of F1 champion Ayrton Senna.

Senna redefined the motorsport documentary/film genre but the execution, rather than the concept, has serious problems.

The film elevated three-time world champion Senna to an almost god-like status – one where criticism of the Brazilian was deemed treachery.

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It’s impossible to gather a fully rounded opinion of a sportsperson unless you are in full possession of the facts.

Senna, and indeed Schumacher’s, off-track lives were and are private – something for their families. This makes their portrayal on the track all the more important.

Senna fails this test miserably. It is an hour and a half dedicated to whitewashing the career history of the driver, for the better.

Warts and all must be explored

On track, Senna was both a genius, and a thug.

His pole lap at the 1988 Monaco GP, 1.427s quicker than teammate Alain Prost, is often lauded as the greatest lap in F1 history.

For every act of genius, there’s one of thuggery: see the start of the 1990 Japanese GP as exhibit A.

To keep your foot floored and crash into another car (Prost), on purpose as he later admitted, is wrong.

It is the most reprehensible act of driving in F1 history.

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In the film, the 1990 Japanese GP is touched upon, as the collision handed Senna a second world title.

But it is quickly brushed over, instead focusing on Prost’s relationship with FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre.

It is a running theme throughout the film, that Senna was fighting against the powers that be. That he is our hero standing up for what is right.

Throughout the film, he is portrayed as this holier-than-thou entity, with Prost as the threat.

It surely isn’t by design but somewhere in the film Ayrton Senna the man is lost to be replaced by Ayrton Senna the myth and legend.

Because of this, Prost refuses to watch the film about his titanic rivalry with Senna.

Netflix must not fall into this trap of elevating Schumacher to god-like status.

It cannot afford to dig those rose-tinted spectacles out of the drawer.

Schumacher’s various faults, complexities and contradictions must be explored by Netflix in the film.

You can’t re-do Schumacher the movie a couple of years from now. It has to be right first time.

Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

Michael Schumacher faults Netflix could explore

Both were extraordinary racing drivers.

Only Senna’s untimely death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix robbed F1 of a generational rivalry the likes of which we’re probably seeing with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen today.

Schumacher has plenty of warts to be examined.

Take the 2010 Hungarian GP.

In his first season back with Mercedes in F1, Schumacher squeezed ex-Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello to the pit wall at high speed.

A collision between the two would have been enormous.

Take the 1994 or 1997 season finales.

In the former, he hit the wall in the Benetton after making a mistake in Adelaide.

The damage would have seen him retire and hand Damon Hill the title.

Instead, Schumacher simply turned back on to the racing line and hit Hill.

The audacity must be commended, but to take out a championship rival to win the title? That’s straight out of the Senna playbook.

In 1997, he rammed Jacques Villeneuve in the finale, realising a fraction of a second too late what the Williams driver was doing.

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It didn’t work as Villeneuve clinched the title after Schumacher beached the Ferrari.

For the act, he became the first, and to date only driver to be disqualified from the world championship.

There’s also the 2006 Monaco GP, where Schumacher clumsily parked his car in qualifying to deny Fernando Alonso a shot at pole.

The stewards quickly saw through Schumacher’s protests, relegating him to last on the grid – from where he scored one point.

Netflix has the material, will they use it?

I don’t mean to demean the Senna film.

It has done its job of introducing Senna to an audience a generation detached from his career.

It’s just the bias shown towards the subject was unhealthy.

Netflix has an opportunity to address this with the release of Schumacher.

By all means promote your subject in a good light. People want to see the greatness of Schumacher at work in an F1 car.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

A charging red Ferrari with the #1 stuck on the front with the soundtrack of a screaming V10 is as iconic an image as F1 has produced.

But to get a full look and complete picture of Michael Schumacher, Netflix must explore his faults and sometimes disgraceful on-track antics.

If they are not, Schumacher will simply become another Senna. Propaganda for the driver concerned, where his darker side is conveniently air-brushed from history.

That will suit no one. Surely it is better to present everything, good and bad, to the viewer and allow them to make their own judgement?

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.