GRENOBLE (AFP) - Michael Schumacher, the greatest champion in the history of Formula One, was in a coma fighting for his life on Monday after sustaining serious head injuries in a skiing accident in the French Alps.
The German racing legend was helicoptered off a mountain in the upmarket Meribel resort on Sunday after falling and slamming his head on a rock while skiing off-piste with his 14-year-old son.
News of the accident stunned the Formula One community and racing stars joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and legions of fans in expressing their hopes for his recovery.
Doctors at the hospital in the southeastern city of Grenoble where Schumacher is being treated said on Monday their famous patient was fighting for his life.
"He is in critical condition, his condition can be described as life threatening," Mr Jean-Francois Payen, head of the intensive care unit, told reporters.
Formula One legend Michael Schumacher had been skiing off-piste in the upmarket Meribel resort in France, where he reportedly has a property, when he fell and hit his head on a rock.
- SOURCE: AFP
Doctors said it was too early to say whether Schumacher, who is due to turn 45 on January 3, would pull through.
"It usually takes 48 hours, or even longer, to be able to formulate an opinion" on injuries of this severity, said neurologist Jean-Luc Truelle.
Mr Payen said he had been placed in an artificial coma to limit the impact of his head injuries on his brain.
Schumacher's condition was initially described as non-life-threatening, but gradually deteriorated and the hospital where he was being treated eventually announced late Sunday that he was in a critical condition and had undergone an emergency operation.
Mr Stephan Chabardes, the professor who operated on Schumacher, said the former racer arrived in hospital Sunday in an agitated state - his arms and legs jerking uncontrollably - and was not able to answer questions.
His condition "rapidly deteriorated" and he fell into a coma, he told reporters.
Mr Payen said Schumacher had been operated on immediately and had suffered "serious and diffuse brain lesions". Doctors do not expect to perform a second operation.
He added that Schumacher would not be alive if he had not been wearing a helmet.
"Given the violence of the impact, his helmet partially protected him. If someone had had this type of accident without a helmet, they would definitely not be here," Payen said.
In a statement released later Monday, Schumacher's wife Corinna and the rest of his family thanked well-wishers and gave a special nod to the doctors treating him.
"We would like to thank the medical team who, we know, do everything possible to help Michael," Corinna said in a statement.
Schumacher's 'most difficult race'
News of the accident made waves, shocking fans, racing stars and leaders alike.
Damon Hill, who fought several memorable on-track battles with Schumacher, said he was "praying" for his former rival.
Mrs Merkel was "extremely shocked" by the incident, her spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters, while Italian racing driver Giancarlo Fisichella wrote on Twitter: "I know you Michael, you're a man, you're the best... This ordeal is your most difficult race but I am sure that you will win it too."
Mr Michael Viehmann, president of a Schumacher fan club in the small German town of Kerpen where the retired racer grew up, said fans were "very upset".
"We know him really well. He's a fighter, we're crossing fingers that he will win this battle," he said.
The star's accident comes after several off-piste skiers died or were injured in the Alps, and on Sunday authorities in the Savoie department where Meribel is located asked skiers to be extra "vigilant".
Schumacher, who won the last of his world titles in 2004, towered over the sport since his debut in 1991, winning more Formula One world titles and races than any other. He had a record 91 wins and is one of only two men to reach 300 grands prix.
Formula One legend Michael Schumacher is no stranger to crashes and injuries. Here are some that he has sustained in his career.
- SOURCE: AFP
His duels in his heyday with Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, fired by an unquenchable competitive spirit, have gone down in Formula One lore.
Schumacher was born in January 1969 near Cologne, Germany, the son of a bricklayer who also ran the local go-kart track, where his mother worked in the canteen.
By 1987, Schumacher was the German and European go-kart champion and was soon racing professionally. In 1991 he burst into Formula One by qualifying seventh in his debut race in Belgium and a year later, he won his first Formula One grand prix.
He joined Ferrari in 1996 and went from strength to strength over the next decade, dominating the podium, before retiring aged 37.
During his retirement he survived a horror accident that knocked him out when racing a motorbike in Spain, though that time he was released from hospital after just five hours.
But the father of two could not resist the lure of the track and in 2010 he came out of retirement, signing a deal with Mercedes before quitting for good in 2012.
His helmet had a message for fans: "Life is about passions - Thank you for sharing mine."