Michael Schumacher’s F1 return has not followed the script: no triumphant podium celebrations, even outscored by his team-mate… So is he beaten? Don’t bet on it
Was Michael Schumacher’s F1 comeback in 2010 as big a flop as many people have made it out to be? Certainly on the most basic measures of performance — comparisons with team-mate Nico Rosberg in terms of qualifying results and points scored — it wasn’t what Michael or anyone else in the Mercedes outfit either wanted or anticipated.
He finished the year on 72 points, some half of the 142 scored by Rosberg. Unlike Nico, Michael failed to get on the podium, taking a best of fourth place in Spain, Turkey and Korea. On only four occasions in 19 attempts did the former World Champion qualify ahead of the younger man.
Schumacher didn’t sign up on the basis that he was just taking part, and clearly last winter he concluded that he was being offered a winning package. The Brawn team and Jenson Button had just won both World Championships as the underdog privateers — albeit given a head start by Honda funding — and with Mercedes coming on board, it could only get better. And Michael convinced himself that his own contribution would make the difference.
Neither driver was helped by the poor quality of the Mercedes relative to the Brawn that preceded it, as the silver car was at best the fourth-fastest on the grid and was very often outpaced by the Renault as well. That was something that no one could have predicted.
Having said that, Brawn’s form towards the end of 2009, when Button was often struggling to bring the car home fifth or sixth, gave some indication of where things were heading. The team enjoyed a flying start to its championship year when the massive Honda R&D investment and the double-diffuser advantage gave it some momentum. But the staff cutbacks and pennypinching came at a price, and during 2010 Mercedes drivers and management often slipped the phrase “we are a small team” into any discussions of what had gone wrong.
Crucially, all season Schumacher also struggled to come to terms with Bridgestone’s “weak” front tyres and often told us that with a fresh start on Pirellis in 2011 he will be in a much better position. Was that wishful thinking? Only time will tell.
And time is the key word here. Michael turns 42 on January 3, and heading into the new season he continues to push the limits. At Spa in August he will also celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Grand Prix debut, which took place when Sebastian Vettel had just turned four. He may have taken three years out, but no Formula 1 driver has reached the twodecade mark. Indeed, there are very few sports where the most outstanding talent of the generation has been active for so long.
Whatever you think of the man and his decision to return, you have to give him credit for trying. His motivation to succeed is clear, even if in 2010 it sometimes manifested itself in unfortunate ways, such as his clumsy attempt to keep ‘old pal’ Rubens Barrichello behind in Hungary. But don’t forget the opportunistic (if ultimately punished) pass of Fernando Alonso on the last corner in Monaco — that wasn’t a move by someone who was past his sell-by date.
Suggestions that he would give up after a year, because he was worried about his reputation, are wide of the mark.
“From what I can see, he’s enjoying himself,” says Rosberg, the man who has given Schumacher such a hard time on the stopwatch. “And it shouldn’t be important to him what other people say. Yes, he needs to respect other people’s opinions, but what counts is whether he’s enjoying himself or not. One can understand that he’d enjoy himself, because it’s a great job to have and it’s fun to drive racing cars. But I don’t know how much fun it is if you’re not winning…”
That is a key question, of course. However, Schumacher himself insists that he is having a good time, even if 2010 didn’t go entirely to plan.
“First of all, one thing is clear,” he says. “Despite maybe the ups and downs and not having the success we were looking for the whole thing is fun, and that’s what I’m always expressing. Some people don’t understand that, because I’m not winning races.
“That seems to be the only correlation that people have with me, that I can only be happy when I win races. I would be more happy, certainly! Still, I am happy. If you consider where the team had been last year, having Mercedes as a partner, me joining the team, there can only be one target. And that was winning a World Championship, another one.
“In hindsight, looking at how this car has developed or how this car was born, it’s natural and clear why we are where we are. We are in this process that is team and character-building, that I do enjoy in a certain direction. To do all this together with Mercedes, that’s something which is great fun, because it’s some old mates who I know from the past. Mercedes is pushing and supporting the whole build-up in a very good way. It gives a good atmosphere.”
Indeed the battle with Rosberg has been a friendly one, despite the fact that when Nico originally signed up, he had expected to partner Button. When Michael arrived on the scene he had good reason to be concerned about what direction things might take.
“I was happy because it’s important to have a strong team-mate,” says Rosberg. “I like the challenge of beating a strong team-mate also. The last two years I didn’t have that, so I looked forward to it. Michael coming to the team brings a lot, which helps me too. He’s just an asset for everything. I think I’m technically quite strong now, but there are always things he adds that I maybe missed, or whatever.
“Of course, there was a concern because I didn’t know Ross, I didn’t know Michael personally, I had no idea. I’d just learned a lot of bad things about him, so there was a concern on that side. But I’ve been fortunate. For one thing Ross is very ‘straight ahead’.
“And also Michael is not a bad, evil person like many people said! Yes, he’s clever and he tries to get his advantages when he can. That’s just him doing a good job, that’s not people helping him in any way. So I just need to keep an eye open and do better myself. From that sense it’s all gone well.”
Schumacher’s comeback is something of an experiment in many ways. It’s not just his age, but also the length of his absence from the top flight. Alain Prost took a year out, and Niki Lauda two, and both came back to win the title. After three years it has to be that much harder.
“One thing is this, and the other is the competition or playing field is a lot tighter than it was in the past,” says Schumacher. “You shouldn’t forget about that either. But then each time period should not be compared one to another, because you can’t compare Fangio’s record against mine. They are just different. If I look back, and sometimes I’ve had the opportunity to drive those cars that Fangio raced, I’m so scared! I have to say those guys had to be brave to do what they did.
“I don’t know the circumstances of Niki. Anyway, there’s a distinct difference. One was doing it because he needed financially to do it, the other is doing it because he likes to do it!”
It’s worth noting that Lauda was still only 33 when he returned with McLaren in 1982, and it was that much easier for him to get back into the swing. Michael may be super-fit, but there is no escaping the fact that time can have complex effects on psychological and physiological processes.
For all those years it was race, test, training, race, test, training, with every part of his brain and every sinew of his body attuned to the job of driving a racing car fast. To return to that level was always going to be hard — and don’t forget he also had a neck-crunching motorbike crash in early 2009. Perhaps the fact that he has been able to get within a few tenths of the 25-year-old Rosberg should be applauded. After all, Prost ultimately outpaced the older Lauda, just as Senna subsequently beat Prost.
“This is the funny thing,” Michael concedes. “My very first go in Valencia, it didn’t take long. I was there pretty quickly. But then it is one thing to do something at a test, and then you go for real qualifying when everybody is really at the peak. Because when you do the first test [of the season], everybody suffers a little bit to get there. But then they’re in a sort of rhythm, and they probably have a quicker chance to rediscover all the little details which I did notice took me a bit longer than I was thinking.
“One of my strengths is to adapt immediately to circumstances, and that worked out pretty well initially, but to get this last bit you need to be at the absolute top, that took a bit longer. And still occasionally I find I do learn, especially how to operate the tyres — that was a big thing. I was not nailing that all the time in qualifying.”
It is ironic that one of the key reasons Schumacher was tempted back — the ban on time-consuming testing between races — has bitten him hard. This is a man who would spend day after day at Fiorano, seeking whatever advantage he could.
“I was happy, and this was part of the reason I accepted to come back, not to do the testing every week. But to have no testing at all is a bit stupid as well. It’s something that I’m lacking right now.”
Crucially, during his years of ultimate success, there was tyre competition. Ferrari exploited its special relationship with Bridgestone to the full, and Schumacher was deeply involved with developing the Japanese company’s products on a weekly basis. In 2010 he had to use the same tyres as everybody else, and he never felt comfortable.
“I never had any issues with whatever tyres we were driving in the past. But when a tyre company changes, for some drivers it suits them and others it does not. These  tyres were very specific, very unusual for high-competition F1 tyres. Maybe because I’m getting older and I’m not as quick onto it, and then the three years of break… I think in the end it’s a combination.
“But again I’m pretty happy, because I don’t feel that I’m behind and I can’t do it. It’s just sometimes I’m a little bit slow to arrive there, because it takes me a bit longer to get all these details and be right on the point. But I do manage it, though. In this respect I feel pretty confident on what will happen in the future.”
Cynics may have thought Schumacher sounded like a broken record with his constant references to the tyres. And coming from a man who rarely criticised his package in the past, it did sound strange. However, he’s certainly not the first driver to complain in recent years that the tyres didn’t suit his style and had compromised performance. Indeed his teammate agrees that the Bridgestones were a key factor in 2010 — but adds that he suffered too.
“Of course he can bounce back, yes,” says Rosberg. “He’s one of the best of all time and there’s no reason why he can’t be strong again, or stronger. Then again, I’m hoping that the Pirellis suit me too. For me the 2010 tyres were the worst possible. I have never liked an understeering car, I’ve always liked going aggressively into corners, and they were very difficult to drive in that sense.
“So I struggled a lot with the front tyres, maybe even more than Michael. Because when I look at his driving style he has a style to suit these tyres actually, because he likes to take it easy on the brakes and carry the speed into medium-speed corners. That’s where the weakness was on the tyres — if you tried to brake hard into the corner, you couldn’t do that.
“I understand his problem, but I adapted a lot to it. I drive unnaturally, I don’t drive with my natural style. But when I look at the data, he’s doing it too.”
Clearly a lot is riding on how the Pirellis behave in 2011. After the first test in Abu Dhabi in November, Rosberg was unenthused, Schumacher a little more upbeat, although it was hard to draw too many conclusions with the old car.
The obvious danger is that Michael has put so much faith in the Pirellis being more suited to his taste that if that doesn’t work out, he has nowhere left to go. If he struggles again, some in the Mercedes camp might start asking whether the experiment should continue into 2012.
“I don’t think these expectations should be set too high,” Schumacher admits. “With the single-tyre competition it’s very difficult to find that level of tyre that you may adapt to your needs. It is what it is. With a new manufacturer coming in I don’t think they are going to produce a tyre that’s on a different playing field to what we have had so far.
“We have to be mindful in getting the car to operate with the tyre, and that doesn’t happen at the moment either. The tyres were a little bit special, the car was a little bit tricky, and the combination was a bit tough for us. You should not expect too much from the tyres, so we have to really focus on the car.”
And that’s where this winter things just might begin to move in his direction. Schumacher has now had a full year to integrate himself with the engineering team, and get his preferences across.
“Being involved in any sort of development of a new car is not periodic, it is a constant procedure. The new car was started concept-wise by April, and with full dedication obviously later in the summer. From the moment I have been involved with the team driving the current car, immediately I pinpointed the weak points.
“That’s what the team is focusing on, not to have the same weakness in the next car. This is a constant development process that both of us [drivers] are involved in. Both of us regularly visit the factory and are in communication and go to meetings with the engineers giving our point of view, and then it’s down to them to come to a solution, because it’s not us who draws the solutions.
“You want to have a low centre of gravity, an optimum weight distribution and also maximum efficiency from an aerodynamic point of view. These are the guidelines and you work according to your concept and the items that you have to implement, and you try to get the compromise as good as possible. Certainly with the 2010 car we didn’t maximise at least one [of those areas], and it is clear in the areas where we are looking that we will improve them.”
Schumacher is in his element, involving himself in car development and looking forward to getting his hands on the new model in testing. It’s what he loves, and it’s what he missed. Messing around on racing motorbikes may have given him some kind of buzz, but it didn’t tick all the boxes.
Of course, he seemed happy enough too in retirement, spending time with the family after all those flat-out years. But just as he chose to stop because he felt it was the right thing to do, so he decided to start again. It’s that simple.
“Yeah, and all the chapters I have been through, they were down to my will, and I was enjoying them in different situations. And so I do again now.”
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