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 penny-pinching 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.
“One can understand that he’d enjoy himself, because it’s a great job to have and it’s fun to drive racing cars.”
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 two-decade mark. Indeed, there are very few sports where the most outstanding talent of the generation has been active for so long.
The F1 return’s not been all bad… Schuey’s still wanted by the fans
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.”