Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 comeback has thus far failed to meet the expectations of the public, the Mercedes team or the former World Champion himself, who has struggled to match the performance of team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Before the season Schumacher said he should be judged on the first four Grands Prix rather than just Bahrain, but if anything he struggled more in China than he did in the opening race.
Schumacher has also been stymied by some sheer bad luck. Having finished a low-key sixth in Bahrain, he was an innocent victim of the Button/Alonso tangle in the first corner at Melbourne, which led to a stop for a new nose. After dropping to the back he could salvage only 10th in a race that began in the sort of wet conditions in which he has so often excelled in the past.
In Malaysia he was forced to pull off the track early when a rear wheel worked loose, then in the soaking Chinese GP – which again should have been tailor-made for him – he also struggled home 10th. However, he made life as difficult as possible for the likes of Lewis Hamilton when they tried to pass, showing just how determined he is to still get the job done.
The bottom line is that Schumacher has been out-raced and out-qualified by team-mate Rosberg, who took two fifths and two thirds in the opening four races.
Of course, history shows a similar pattern in qualifying, with the younger man often having the edge. Just as Alain Prost outpaced Niki Lauda, so Ayrton Senna more often than not later outran the Frenchman.
The difference is in those days there was a much bigger spread down the field, and team-mates would still very often share the front row. This year there is a tighter pack at the front with some exceptional drivers in the mix.
The Mercedes is clearly the fourth-best car at the moment and, with Robert Kubica also in the frame, Schumacher’s performances have not been flattered. There is a back story, however. In wet qualifying in Malaysia Michael said his tyres went off, and in China he opted for a different rear wing.
Nevertheless, he has clearly struggled more than his team-mate to get to grips with a car that is not as good as last year’s Brawn.
“Quite honestly, our set-ups are pretty much identical,” said Schumacher in China. “There’s not much of a difference between us. That’s why we’re looking at things, at why I’m struggling and what I’m struggling with.”
Ross Brawn, meanwhile, has been delighted with Rosberg’s progress, which has perhaps been underestimated.
“I said before we went into this year that I felt it was a great combination, because Nico would learn a lot next to Michael,” said Brawn. “I think he’d acknowledge that, because Nico’s not had a partner of the calibre of Michael before, and I think he’s finding it both a great challenge and a great help.
“I’m delighted with Nico, he’s incredibly quick. It’s perfect for Michael to have such a strong challenge to match up [to]. Michael’s got to meet these targets. I think he’s relishing the challenge. He gets disappointed of course, but you can see the steeliness in his ambition, and it’s great that we’ve got two good drivers.”