'Am I alone in anticipating the 2010 Grand Prix season with more relish than for many a year?'

By Nigel Roebuck

Apparently not. Although Formula 1 history shows it is invariably better to travel than to arrive, there could – should – be four ultra-competitive teams this year. And although we may have lost Kimi Räikkönen, at least temporarily, we have picked up the gentleman who dominated an entire generation of Grand Prix racing, and now feels he’d like to do it all over again.

Say what you like about Michael Schumacher – and I’ve said plenty in my time – the fact is that for a dozen years, following the retirement of Alain Prost and the death of Ayrton Senna, he was the driver against whom all others were measured. And in the short term at least, even if Michael proves to be not quite the force he was, that will not change.

Ageism – the only ‘ism’ tolerated in the contemporary age – is alive and well in F1, as everywhere else, and there are plenty who believe that, at 41, Schumacher cannot be the driver he was. Frankly, I think that nonsense. Michael was always Olympian fit – more so than any of his rivals – and in three years of retirement he has not let that go. So long as his neck injury is behind him, I’ll warrant that no one on the grid in Bahrain will be in better shape.

A different matter is recovery time. Many a driver of my acquaintance has conceded that as the years roll by it takes – like jet lag – a little longer to get over the strains of a Grand Prix weekend than it did. There are 19 races this year (two more than in ’09), and the schedule includes four double-headers: Melbourne/Sepang, Barcelona/Monaco, Hockenheim/Budapest and, to round the season off, Interlagos/Abu Dhabi.

However, even if Schumacher’s stamina should prove a little less than that of a driver half his age, consider the weapons at his disposal simply not available to many of his rivals, most notably that unmatched experience. Can there be a scenario in Grand Prix racing which Michael has not faced, and dealt with?

What fascinates me most about his return is that he will face greater opposition than he ever knew in the past. It was indeed a brief shining moment when he competed against Senna and Prost, but after 1994, while others occasionally bothered him a little, the only true opposition came from Mika Häkkinen and, in the last years, Fernando Alonso.

Alonso has always been rightly proud that his two World Championships to date, in 2005 and ’06, were won in competition with Schumacher, and although he dislikes him personally, we can believe him when he says that he is delighted to see Michael back. Fernando likes his coffee strong.

Jackie Stewart has pointed out that the overall standard in F1 at the moment is higher than for a very long time, and Schumacher will inevitably have a target on his back – such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have never competed against him, and they can’t wait to take him on.

“There are some very strong partnerships this year, aren’t there?” says Martin Brundle. “Jesus! Schumacher/Rosberg, Alonso/Massa, Hamilton/Button, Vettel/Webber… I’m massively excited about the coming season – I think an incredible story is coming our way.

*******

"Let’s be blunt: if you were starting an F1 team, there are three guys on the ‘must-have’ list, aren’t there? You’d need to have one of them: Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso. That’s what I thought a few months ago – and now you put Michael Schumacher into the mix…

“Look at all the scandals we’ve had in the recent past, and how depressing F1 got at times, with the endless rowing between Max [Mosley] and FOTA… Yet now, as I start year 14 as a commentator, I can’t remember when I’ve ever been more excited about a season ahead. I mean, what is going to happen next? Bernie must be sitting there, believing he can do no wrong – thinking that, whatever happens, F1 can weather the storm.

“A lot of the manufacturers have legged it, and so now you’ve got the adventurous entrepreneurs taking their places. When the tobacco companies went, the banks arrived. When the banks go, the entrepreneurs arrive. It’s as if F1 keeps re-inventing itself.”

It is a fact that many expect effectively a two-tier F1 in 2010, with the new teams – all powered by Cosworth – unable to get on terms with the establishment. Brundle isn’t so sure, believing that at least one of them will cause a surprise.

“I think the Cosworth will have some grunt – although whether or not it’s reliable is a different thing – and some of them will get their chassis right. I don’t think they’ll be an embarrassment, I really don’t. Some people are saying they’ll be five seconds adrift – they won’t.

“A guy said something recently that made me angry – he said, ‘I suppose you’ll be taking the piss out of these new teams…’ I said, ‘I don’t do that – OK, if Toyota spend £400 million a year and don’t win anything I’ll refer to it, but I don’t take the piss out of people.’ On the contrary, I think the new teams need a bit of leeway, a bit of support – and it’s the same with Cosworth.

“Think about it: Cosworth have got to get a lot of motors together, for five teams – and they’re starting off with four ‘flyaway’ races. The logistics of that are terrifying. So I think we’re going to have to turn a blind eye occasionally, support them, be impressed by what they achieve – and then, if they’re not showing improvement by mid-to-late season, we’re going to think, ‘You know what? They’re not going to cut it…’

“I’m going to walk onto the grid in Bahrain, and if there are 26 cars there I’m going to be a very happy man, because the human story of these guys is – to me, anyway – so much more interesting than Toyota or BMW. I don’t think I ever did a story on either of those teams – they just didn’t inspire me at all. That’s not saying anything against any particular person – it was just that there was nothing whatever inspirational about Toyota going F1. Some of these new teams, though… it’s going to be ‘Calamity Jane’ in some cases, I would think, but it’s going to be a great human story. Maybe it will be division one and division two at the end of the race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the new teams outperform their budgets, and that’s good news – David and Goliath…”

Bernie Ecclestone has said he has doubts that all the new teams will make it to Bahrain for the first race, but Lotus and Virgin may be regarded as certainties, and it will be fascinating to see what such as Trulli, Kovalainen and Glock make of their new, financially reduced circumstances.

Ecclestone also reckons that Vettel will win the 2010 World Championship for Red Bull, and there is little doubt that overall Adrian Newey’s RB5 was the quickest car of 2009. Unfortunately for Sebastian, though, attempts by the team to organise Mercedes power for ’10 failed, and he and Mark Webber continue with Renault engines, good but not the best.

Amid the flurry of driver changes elsewhere, it has been a quiet winter for Red Bull, the only team of potential championship-winning status which is unchanged for the new season. That stability – familiarity – could be worth a lot.

As I write, though, the new Red Bull has yet to run, the team having calmly skipped the opening test at Valencia, where the pace was set – apparently – by Ferrari. I say ‘apparently’ because this year, more than ever, testing times are not something by which you should set your watch. Refuelling is banned as of now, so educated guesswork is the only guide to who was using how much fuel when a time was set. On the strength of Valencia, however, Ferrari and McLaren, each keen to atone for a disappointing 2009, appear to be in fine shape.

From the moment I first heard of contact between Ferrari and Alonso, two years ago, it seemed to me an exquisite match: Fernando, surely, is one of those people – like Clay Regazzoni, like Gilles Villeneuve – put on earth to drive for Ferrari.

Brundle agrees that Alonso is the most complete driver in F1. “I know Fernando can be a difficult character sometimes, but boy, does he deliver! I view him as a mercenary – he’s passing through F1, and he’ll take from it everything he needs, and then disappear. He’s got his circle of management and friends around him, and I don’t blame him for that.

“Putting all that aside, however, Alonso is a great racing driver, of that there’s no doubt at all. When he was at Renault, first time round, he had a bizarre driving style, coping with the car’s terminal understeer, and I began to think that was his natural style. I remember wondering how ever he would get on in a McLaren – and he went there, and drove in a completely different way. The bizarre style in the Renault was simply him adapting to what the car needed – it wasn’t his natural style at all, but he could produce it if he had to. He can adapt to whatever he has to drive, and that is a skill that’s a step above the others. He’s awesome.

“Whenever I’ve interviewed Alonso, I’ve always felt there was a sort of glass wall between us, and at first I thought that was a bit disrespectful. It’s a feeling of, ‘Will you make any difference to my career? No, so I’ll do whatever it is I have to do with you, but if it’s not affecting my salary or the stopwatch, then don’t expect any more from me.’ And you know what? He’s absolutely right!

“As for Massa, well, he impresses me enormously, because he’s just kept polishing his act and raising his game when he had to. I mean, he had much the upper hand over Kimi, didn’t he? Do I think Felipe is a Senna or a Schumacher? No, I don’t, but I do think he’s a seriously good Grand Prix driver, who has improved and improved. It seems pretty clear there are no after-effects from the accident.”

An immensely strong driver pairing at Ferrari, then, and the same is true of McLaren. Like everyone else, I was more than surprised when Jenson Button announced his decision not to re-sign with Brawn/Mercedes, but I’m not one of those who believes he will be completely shaded by Lewis Hamilton. Very well, you might expect Lewis to have it on sheer pace, particularly over one lap, but in the race it might sometimes be a very different matter. With no more refuelling, it will be essential, particularly in the early laps of a Grand Prix, to be relatively kind to your tyres, at which the Prost-like Button is historically rather more adept than Hamilton. That said, if the MP4-25 sometimes requires a bit of bullying, you would look to Lewis to get more out of it than Jenson.

Brundle sees it in more clear-cut terms. “There’s only going to be one winner there, isn’t there? And one loser. I really don’t understand why Jenson opted to leave Ross Brawn for McLaren – but then I think his thought processes in the past have sometimes been questionable.

“It all depends on how it plays out, doesn’t it? If it turns out that the cars need nurse-maiding a bit through the race, particularly with regard to tyres, Jenson will look very good. But if the cars need manhandling through various stages of oversteer/understeer imbalance, I think Lewis will have him.

“If you look at all the multiple World Champions – Schumacher, Senna, Prost, Lauda – they’ve always owned the team, haven’t they? They had a team inwardly focused 100 per cent on them, and I’d have thought Jenson had a chance to do that at Brawn/Mercedes. But he walked away from it – and into the lion’s den.”

So he did, and, whatever else, it was not for the money, McLaren’s offer being somewhat less than the final one made by Brawn. People have said that Button was bowled over by the McLaren Technology Centre, not least by the lobby area, with its long line of cars that have taken people to the World Championship.

“Yes, sure,” Martin responded, “but the MTC’s lobby area won’t give you one point of downforce or one horsepower. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a former McLaren driver and extremely proud of it. I remain impressed to this day by the expertise of McLaren. But I can see the sales process – I can hear the words…

“Time will tell. We don’t need to second-guess what’s going to happen – but somebody’s going to get burned, and at this point I’d have thought it was going to be Jenson.”

For much of last year the word was that it would be Nico Rosberg at McLaren in 2010, replacing Kovalainen, but in fact it was some time ago planned that he would take Rubens Barrichello’s place at Brawn/Mercedes as team-mate to Button. Once Jenson had made other arrangements, Nico looked set to be de facto number one, perhaps with Nick Heidfeld as his team-mate. The return of M Schumacher necessarily changes that, although Ross insists that the two will have identical equipment, and that there will be none of the team orders for which Michael had such a taste in his Benetton and Ferrari years.

“Nico’s a great little driver,” said Brundle, “and I said that to Ross. I really enjoy watching him race. Nice kid, too. The big question is: has he had it too comfortable? Actually, I fancy him fighting his way through it.

“A guy we haven’t talked about yet is [Robert] Kubica and I must say I was amazed, when the future of Renault was up in the air, that someone didn’t step in and grab him. I think Nico and Robert would have been an awesome partnership – and Nico and Michael… that’ll do, won’t it? I’d have that…”

Difficult to argue, really.