Fifteen thousand e-mails in a few hours, expressing happiness, disappointment, predictions, surprise: this was the reaction on December 23 after the announcement that Mercedes had hired Michael Schumacher. It was all over the website of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the biggest sporting daily in the world and a bible for Italians. In the following days, and even now, the discussions continue on the web, in living rooms and in bars on what Michael will be capable of aged 41 when he gets to the first GP of 2010.
Above all, though, the talk centred on one main theme that involved the heart more than the brain: had Schumacher betrayed Ferrari?
And in this opinions are divided. The logic of the choice made by Schumacher is not disputed. He is a champion of the sport with every right to make his own choices and manage his own expectations, crazy or not. But, in my view, a return to Ferrari would not have had the same fascination as one with Mercedes. Finding himself clothed in red, in a red car, would have been a film we’d already seen, and probably not as interesting after the initial burst of enthusiasm reserved for any legend making a comeback. And in Italian eyes Schumacher would have had more to lose than to gain, considering that a glorious past like his – in which he was the main protagonist between 1994 and 2004 – will be impossible to replicate. Italian fans, as we know, are not known for their subtlety and will judge in a fraction of a second, often without reason. For them the risk of a Ferrari flop, even if down to a deficiency in the car, would have been pinned on Michael. Because, as everyone knows, Schumacher is a medicine man capable of healing any poor mechanicals and as a result going on to win everywhere. (I repeat, we are talking about the imagination of most Italian fans, not about the initiated.)
But also the president of Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo, fell partly into the same trap when, in July 2009 after Massa’s accident, he immediately thought of Schumacher, the saviour of the country (obviously without underestimating the media effect and the popularity of the choice), imagining that his contribution would be decisive in improving a car that was underperforming and extremely difficult to drive. In fact neither Luca Badoer nor Giancarlo Fisichella, both elated by the prospect of driving for Ferrari, coped with the scale of the challenge and soon left deflated, with a lasting black mark on their careers.
Montezemolo, however, sparked the desire in Michael’s heart to put himself to the test, despite the time lapse, his age and the new rivals. But Schumacher chose Mercedes and Montezemolo immediately used a word that could easily have been interpreted as an insult: ‘traitor!’. Complete idiocy for two reasons. Firstly, Ferrari did not have a car available for him as they already had contracts with Alonso and Massa. Secondly, he could not blame a German racer who wanted to drive for a German team in the second phase of his competition career: it’s nice to think that even the cold-hearted Herr Schumacher will sometimes surrender to sentiment.
There was plenty of disappointment at Ferrari when, two days before Christmas, the news became official, because by now everyone was convinced that Schumacher would become the living icon of the celebrated marque of Maranello, a sort of human Cavallino Rampante. And there were those who went and reread the unfortunate press release from Luca Colajanni, the head of racing PR, distributed after the first practice session at the Italian Grand Prix on September 11: “The relationship between Michael Schumacher and Ferrari seems destined to last for ever…” The same Schumi had used honeyed tones on his website that day: “President Montezemolo and I are in agreement to prolong our collaboration for another three years. I am pleased about this because I am always happy to be part of the Ferrari family…”
Montezemolo, during a Christmas supper with journalists on December 9, was already aware of Michael’s decision to come back: “We have talked on the phone, but obviously I must have been talking with Schumacher’s twin. The one who promised me eternal fidelity,” he said.
But what burst the bubble of patience at Maranello was the public filming of Schumacher with a Mercedes SLS, provocatively painted red. A lapse in taste by Stuttgart that was by no means appreciated. When Montezemolo saw it, he spread his arms: “I don’t want to say anything, it’s something that only he can comment on.”
However, questions of good taste aside, Ferrari feared Schumacher coming back as a driver, understanding his ability and bravery all too well. If he wins the first race, beating Alonso and Massa, Italy will divide in two, with a gap much more pronounced than the one between the supporters and detractors of Berlusconi. Then we will no doubt see plenty of experts explaining in the press why a driver like Schumacher could never race only for Ferrari.
To stoke the fires even more, Flavio Briatore, the man who was next to Schumi during his golden years at Benetton, jokingly added: “I read that Schumacher has dyed his hair. But I don’t think that this will be enough to win the war of the ever advancing years…” A realistic joke and a friendly one, because in the end Italians are gifted with a good (occasionally excessive) sense of humour. Enzo Ferrari often said that “races are a confrontation of technology, but also a game”. And it’s that game that is the most enticing for Schumacher. One which on March 14 he will go out to play, with the ex-team principal of Ferrari, Ross Brawn. He will aim to outdo his own past and the Ferrari of today – but will it bring another Schumi era?