Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Michael Schumacher comes home to F1

Fit, focused and desperate to race – The German F1 driver is preparing to fight for an eighth title with Mercedes GP after three years' absence from the sport

The 41-year-old German formula one driver Michael Schumacher and his teammate Nico Rosberg at the presentation of the new Mercedes GP team in Stuttgart.

Photograph: Reuters

His back as straight as a guardsman's, his chin – that caricaturist's delight – jutting out from beneath the cap bearing the logo of his personal sponsor, with a purposeful gleam in his eye and super-confidence radiating from every pore, Michael Schumacher strode back on to the world stage today. So begins a comeback to match that of Lance Armstrong, another seven-times champion, and – some time in the future – of Tiger Woods, another contemporary exponent of crushing dominance.
Only Italians could dispute the suggestion that, almost 20 years after he made his Formula One debut, Schumacher's reappearance as a member of the new Mercedes-Benz team means that he has finally found his way home. After a single weekend with Jordan, a few years with Benetton and a sporting lifetime with Ferrari, at last he finds himself in a grand prix team where at least some of the workers speak his native tongue.
"Quite a lot of my history and quite a lot of my heart is red," he said, making a diplomatic reference to his 11 seasons with Ferrari. "You can't forget or deny all the good moments we had together. Now we will compete against each other, but that doesn't mean we have to forget the past."
With Ross Brawn, who supervised all his seven championships with Benetton and Ferrari, he has always spoken the same language. When Brawn discovered that Jenson Button, his new champion, had made what amounted to a state visit to the McLaren factory in the middle of negotiations last November, his first instinct was to phone his old colleague and suggest that it was time for all the light-hearted discussions they had shared during Schumacher's three-year retirement to bear fruit.
"Almost every year we have had contact," Schumacher said. "Sometimes it was serious, sometimes it was a joke. When he went to Honda he suggested there was an option, but I wasn't ready at the time."
Both men confirmed that there had been a conversation at the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi, before problems emerged over the renewal of Button's contract with the team. "He touched on it," Schumacher said. "Then he called me and it was clear what his question was going to be."
Very quickly, too, Schumacher's answer became clear, although he referred the decision to his wife, Corinna, before confirming the news that he was willing, at 41, to make his return to the cockpit of a grand prix car and to compete against rivals – men such as the 25-year-old Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, 22 – young enough to be his sons.
"Naturally I had a discussion with Corinna," he said. "She's a very down-to-earth person, as we both are. She ­mentioned the pros and cons, and in the end she left the decision to me. It helped me to make up my mind." He would not specify the precise contents of Corinna's list of "cons".
The comparative youth of his new rivals is clearly not something over which he is fretting. "Whether they're young or not doesn't matter," he said. "You just look at who's in the other car and try to work out how you can be better than him."
Not surprisingly, those brave souls attempting to get him to acknowledge or atone for his old sins – barging into Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994, pushing Jacques Villeneuve off the track at Jerez in 1997 and parking his car in his middle of the track to obstruct Fernando Alonso's quick lap during qualifying at Monaco in 2006 – by saying that he is now prepared to "win in the right way" are clearly wasting their time.
"I'm sure that 91 victories and seven titles you win only in a bad way and you need to prove something," he responded in a tone on the tart side of sarcastic. "Let's be sensible and think about the reality and look forward to what we might all face and enjoy together."
After much gym work and a session in a GP2 car at the Circuit de Catalunya, he is convinced that his physical fitness is up to the demands of a full season of the G-forces imposed by the high cornering speeds of the current generation of Formula One cars. Neck problems caused by a motorbike crash prevented him from deputising for the injured Felipe Massa last summer, but have now been satisfactorily resolved.
"What normally happens with drivers is that they lose the physical capacity to compete and they also lose the determination that you need to compete at every race, every minute, every lap of the circuit," said Brawn. "Michael's showing that he's achieving the same physical parameters as we saw many years ago. He's an exceptional athlete, don't forget that, and his break has refreshed him. And his work ethic has always been tremendous. He's already spent many days at the ­factory, talking to the engineers."
Schumacher stressed his impatience to get behind the wheel of a Formula One car, starting with next week's test sessions in Valencia. "I'm hot," he said. "It's all taking too long. The discussions started in November and we have to wait until February before I drive. I was used to working through the winter and testing in January."
His enthusiasm, he stressed, remains undimmed. "The main reason I'm doing this is that I'm thrilled about it. I've raced karts and bikes while I've been away from Formula One, and that's been great, but I feel very excited about competing again at the highest level of motor sport. I've always been focused and motivated and determined, and that's how it is now. No more and no less."
A slightly more cautionary note came from Brawn. "Until he starts competing, none of us know what his level will be," the team principal said. "But in the latter part of 2006, just before he retired, he had some of his strongest races. We've got an absolute belief in him. Maybe it will take one or two races, but I personally expect him to perform at a very high level straight away."
And on the question of whether Schumacher or Nico Rosberg will be given equal status, Brawn was blunt. "The No1 driver is the fastest one, whoever is winning races. We'll give maximum support to both drivers. Of course if one of them turns out to have a better chance of the championship, there may be different priorities. Last season we gave Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello equal support, and that will be the case this year. I've had a long-standing relationship with Michael, and we can't ignore that, but there will be complete parity of equipment and support. It's a non-issue." You can bet, looking at the glint in Michael Schumacher's eye, that it's a non-issue for him, too.

Richard Williams

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