Michael Schumacher's tragic skiing accident will be ten years old on December 29, 2023. The sports journalist Kai Ebel attended more than 500 Formula 1 races and knew Schumacher well.
Mr. Ebel, when was the last time you met Michael Schumacher?
That was a few days before the accident because we met at an event in Nuremberg and I was supposed to speak to him on stage there.
So you were the last journalist who could talk to him?
That's true, yes. Of course we never thought that. On the contrary: When the news came days later that Michael had had an accident, I initially didn't take the reports seriously.
When did it dawn?
Probably when the reports became more and more and my phone stopped working. Suddenly everyone wanted to know something from me that I couldn't answer myself at the time. I only found out about all of this from the media. I then got certainty from Michael's environment, who confirmed the news to me.
When did you first meet Michael Schumacher?
In Formula 1. That was at my first race in May 1992 in Barcelona. Michael had already been racing in this racing class for a year.
How did you get involved in Formula 1? Before Schumacher, this was a fringe sport in Germany.
That was more of a coincidence. At that time, RTL had lost the football rights and I had concentrated on boxing. Then my boss at the time came to me and told me that he wanted to bring Formula 1 from the car editorial department into the sport - and that's how I ended up there.
How did contact with Schumacher come about so quickly?
Michael and his manager Willi Weber understood very early on what is important for a successful career. So Michael sought contact with leading media. These were “Bild” as number one on the newspaper market and RTL because we had the exclusive rights to the picture. Media has always been crucial for Michael because a lot of attention obviously makes it easier to find sponsors. And if you constantly talk to each other on this level, you obviously get to know each other better.
Can you describe the person Michael Schumacher to us?
Michael was always very straightforward and open. A friendly, classic Rhinelander. You could still hear the typical singsong from the area here for a long time. I think it's totally okay too. Why should you deny your roots?
Would you describe your relationship with Schumacher as a friendship?
I wouldn't be so presumptuous, no. He knew who I was and we honestly respected each other for our work. We also told each other if something wasn't right. That was a very good relationship, but for me friends are people I have known since I was a teenager or with whom I was particularly close. But that wasn't Michael.
So they told each other when something wasn't right. What for example?
This didn't happen often, but it did happen. I can remember an interview with him after the race where someone had previously told me that Michael's car had caused problems. I took it with me unchecked and asked him what was going on. Then he just told me that I must not have looked properly. After the interview he became a little more direct and wanted to know if I had had a bad night's sleep because I asked such a question. I explained the editorial information to him and all I got back was: "You don't have to believe everything you're told."
Michael Schumacher obviously didn't like criticism?
That depends on what. Michael was in a really bad mood when he made a mistake himself. Then he was always so angry that he didn't even want to talk. When it came to technology or his team, he always stood in front of the team and answered questions in a routine manner. He was incredibly self-critical and was never good at losing.
You could see where this led from his countless victories.
Sure, of course. Otherwise you won't get anywhere in a competitive sport. Michael never left success to chance. He made a conscious decision to win the thing and then just thought about how.
Which anecdotes do you particularly remember?
Two events come to mind. At the World Cup in Japan I was supposed to do a news announcer and Michael came over, sprayed me with beer and made fun of it on camera that it was live.
Of course it was really well received by the audience. What I will also never forget was an incredible gesture he made in Monza.
Was it champagne instead of beer?
No, something completely different. After the interview about the race, Michael tapped me and casually told me that he and Corinna were expecting children. That was 1996 and it was about Gina Maria. That was a real blast, because at that time there were no bigger celebrities in Germany and we had this crazy news as a world exclusive. That was really a nice number because I knew full well that he had decided to come to me with it, even though all the media had ignored the news.
Have you ever actually ridden with Michael Schumacher?
Yes – and he had an official hangover. That was as part of a Ferrari event that I still host once a year. We had the idea that Michael would give me a ride in a Ferrari and I would comment on the whole thing a bit. Only Michael had partied wildly the evening before and was visibly under the weather. Nevertheless, he switched off all driving aids and started driving. Suddenly he does a 360 degree turn and I thought it was a show. Michael looked over and then just said “I must have lost control.”
Did your stomach survive it?
Did he. But you don't forget that when the best racing driver in the world gives you a ride and then makes a complete driving mistake.
Do you feel very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to be able to follow the careers of Henry Maske and Michael Schumacher?
I have to reject that. That wasn't luck, that was achievement. We had the plan to show Formula 1 and boxing as excitingly as possible on the television program. This also includes identifying the most important talents early enough. That was successful, true. But that was planned - and not a coincidence.
What influence did Schumacher have on his sport?
Huge influence. Few drivers have changed the sport as much as Michael. And only a few could do that - because you need a certain standing and great self-confidence to be able to have a say. Actually, Formula 1 has always been about team owners, bosses and Ecclestone. Drivers were simply there because they were needed. Personalities rarely stood out. As a successful German driver, Michael had very good leverage.
The German market was actually dead before Michael. A country like this needs its own top talent so that the masses are interested in the sport. Tennis, Formula 1 – it depends on people. The only exception is perhaps Italy with Ferrari - it doesn't really matter who drives the cars. The main thing is that the horse is in front.
Why was Germany so important?
Germany was and is a car country. Sponsorship money, development – everything suddenly started moving in this country. Ecclestone was always grateful to Schumacher for waking up the nation to his sport.
How has sport changed after Schumacher?
Of course the attention has decreased. In every sport, a superstar like Michael is followed by a downturn. Luckily, we quickly had Schumacher's heirs: Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel, Nick Heidfeld, and probably Nico Rosberg too - they all got into racing because of Michael and started karting early on. And if, like Vettel, you have someone who wins multiple world championship titles, that's of course great. But, you have to be honest - there was no longer a Formula 1 mania like under Schumacher.
Soon Mick Schumacher also drove in Formula 1. Do you think that being the son of Michael Schumacher damaged his career?
Certainly not, even if it is of course a great shame for Mick that he failed to achieve Formula 1 success. It didn't hurt the name. But it's also clear: Just because someone's name is Beckenbauer, he doesn't immediately become the new football emperor. This is an unfair expectation and does not do justice to the boys. I think it's great that Mick is now racing in other racing classes and is therefore a bit out of focus.
So there is no second Schumi? Max Verstappen would probably be a candidate, but some people find him too minimalistic for a world star.
I have to disagree. In my opinion, Max plays in exactly this league, but he doesn't present himself as a star either. Max is incredibly authentic, you have to be able to deal with that. It's so farty that it can really hurt. I remember many an interview question to which no one would have expected the answer.
Someone once asked Max who he would want as a teammate. All I got back was “I don’t care, I’ll hit him anyway.” Or the question of why he pushed Ocon. Only a Verstappen would publicly call the other driver a “pussy” after a fight – and mean it. Max is incredibly honest and curt. He is still a star.
Do you know how Michael Schumacher is doing today?
No, I don't take the right to ask about it. It's clear to me: If something changes, you will know about it. This is purely a private matter for the Schumachers and they should decide for themselves when and whether the time has come to tell the world how he is doing today.
Does that mean you never saw him again after the accident?
Of course I would have liked to visit him. After all, we've known each other for so long. But I don't think even that would be good. Because if something does leak out at some point, you immediately look at the journalist who visited him. I never want to come under suspicion. Of course I wish him only the best.
RTL has brought Formula 1 back and will broadcast individual races from March. Does this mean Kai Ebel is making a comeback at the station?
Unfortunately I don't have a crystal ball at home.