FORMER Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher is “fighting for his life” after a ski accident in the French Alps, with a doctors saying yesterday that the German would have died had he not been wearing a helmet.
The driver is in a critical condition in hospital in Grenoble with serious head injuries suffered on Sunday morning at the resort of Meribel.
The seven-time world champion underwent surgery on arrival at the University Hospital in Grenoble and remains in a coma with his family by his bedside.
Speaking at a news conference, the hospital team’s chief anesthesiologist, Dr Jean-François Payen, said Schumacher was still in a medically-induced coma and doctors were focusing only on his current condition.
He said: “We cannot predict the future. He is in a critical state in terms of cerebral resuscitation. We are working hour by hour.”
Schumacher was skiing with his son when he fell and hit the right side of his head on a rock. He was wearing a helmet, but doctors said it was not enough to prevent a serious brain injury.
Dr Payen yesterday said he believed the driving legend would have died had he not been wearing the protective headwear.
The neurology team at Grenoble University Hospital is recognised as among the best in France and the hospital, in a city that is the gateway to the French Alps, sees a large number of skiing accidents every year.
Gerard Saillant, a trauma surgeon who operated on Schumacher when he broke his leg in a 1999 race crash, was among a number of people to visit the German in hospital yesterday.
He told reporters that Schumacher’s age – he turns 45 on Friday – and his fitness should work in his favour as he battles to recover from his injury.
In addition to the broken leg in a crash at Silverstone, he also suffered serious neck and spine injuries after a motorcycle accident in February 2009 in Spain.
Experts say the area where Schumacher was skiing is part of a web of trails that slice through a vast and, in parts, very steep snowfield. The runs are broad and neatly tended, and the ungroomed area in between, known as off-piste, is free of trees.
Officials at Meribel said Schumacher was conscious when paramedics arrived after he fell, although he was said to have been agitated and in shock. However, Dr Paven yesterday said that after the fall, Schumacher was not in a “normal state of consciousness”. He did not respond to questions and his limbs appeared to move involuntarily.
Schumacher was airlifted to a local hospital and then later brought to Grenoble, where he was operated on immediatly.
His manager, Sabine Kehm, said the driver’s family still appreciated the outpouring of support from people around the world.
She added: “The family is not doing very well obviously. They are shocked.”
Speaking in Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said: “Like millions of Germans, the chancellor and members of the government were extremely dismayed when they heard about Michael Schumacher’s serious skiing accident.”
F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel, for whom Schumacher was a boyhood idol, said “I am shocked and hope that he will get better as soon as possible.”
Retired F1 driver David Coulthard said that “if anyone knows how to muster inner strength and determination, then there’s no doubt in my mind Michael Schumacher is the man to do it”.
The Scot described how Schumacher was “risk averse” as an F1 competitor, like other drivers, which is contrary to the popular image of the sport. “It’s all about finding the limits of your car, and staying within the limits,” he said.
British former world racing champion Jenson Button said his “thoughts are with Michael Schumacher at this tough time. Michael more than anyone has the strength to pull through this.”
The French prosecutor in Albertville has opened an investigation into the accident, according to the Mountain Gendarmerie in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, which will participate in the probe.