Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Schumacher will be fighting rivals and the sands of time

Lewis Hamilton, it is safe to assume, will be having a very happy Christmas this year.
When he started his Formula 1 career in 2007, the man who became F1's youngest world champion said his one regret was that he never got to race against Michael Schumacher. Now, following the German legend's decision to come out of retirement and race for Mercedes in 2010, Hamilton can fulfil his ambition.
For those of us watching from the sidelines, Schumacher's return is an equally mouth-watering prospect.
At 41, Schumacher will not only renew his battles with Fernando Alonso - the man who beat him in a straight fight for the world title in his final season in F1 in 2006 - but start new ones with Hamilton, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and the new world champion Jenson Button, whose cars rarely afforded him the chance to take on Schumacher before.

Schumacher's ability to mix it at the front seems to me a given.
Even if he is not quite as quick as he was, as his former team-mate Eddie Irvine suspects, Schumacher will be more than good enough to win races assuming Mercedes provide him with a competitive car - a Michael Schumacher at 90% of his best is still better than the vast majority of the F1 grid.
"I still feel absolutely on the edge," Schumacher said on Wednesday. "This year, when I got back in a go-kart, I was straight away on the pace. I have to prove it, of course, but all the people (I will be working with) have no doubt about my ability."
Ross Brawn, the man who will be masterminding Schumacher's return just as he did all seven of his world titles, is also in no doubt that his new driver will be able to compete at the highest level.
"I asked Michael exactly that," the Mercedes team boss said. "He is the best judge of what he can do. He told me he can do it and I have absolute trust in him, so I'm very confident. He'll do the job."
Whatever happens in 2010, this latest venture is unlikely to harm Schumacher's reputation. Nothing can erase the memory of seven world titles and 91 victories, of a driver to compare with the very greatest names in F1 history.

Schumacher will no more diminish his legacy than did Lance Armstrong when he came back to the Tour de France four years after the last of his seven titles, and, at the age of 38, finished third in arguably the world's toughest endurance event.
If anything, Armstrong's achievement enhanced his standing, and such is the work ethic that Schumacher applied to his career - one of several characteristics he shares with the American cyclist - that the same will surely to apply to him.
But that is not the same as saying that, at 41, he can be the force he was at, say, the beginning of this decade.
Racing drivers tend to slow down as they get older. The reason for that is not that they lose their ability, but because their desire and commitment diminishes.
The willingness to put everything on the line in pursuit of that last scintilla of speed reduces as a man's mind opens to other aspects of life and an awareness of his own mortality grows.
For all Schumacher's talk of his motivation returning after a three-year break from the rigours of F1, of his being thrilled to race finally for Mercedes, not even he will be able to prevent this natural law having some effect.
There are a handful of moments, any one of which could be seen as illustrative of a time when the mantle of greatest driver in the world began to pass from one generation to the next.
Alonso beating Schumacher in a tactical battle in Bahrain at the start of 2006, and the desperation with which Schumacher deliberately crashed his car at Monaco to prevent the Spaniard snatching pole position in the dying moments of qualifying are two that stick in the mind.
But the one that perhaps stands out most of all was during the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, when Alonso passed Schumacher around the outside at Suzuka's 130R, one of the most demanding corners in F1.
As he swept around the outside of the Ferrari, Alonso's speed at the apex of the corner was 208mph. Knowing that any contact between the two cars would have resulted in an accident that at least one of them may well not have escaped unhurt, the bravery required to pull that off against a man who had built his reputation on bullying and intimidation was immense - the more so given that, two years before, Schumacher had edged Alonso on to the grass at Silverstone at more than 180mph.
But it was not so much the move itself that was telling - once Alonso was alongside and going faster, Schumacher had no choice but to give way - as the mindset that allowed him to think about trying it.
Asked about it a few weeks later, Alonso told the veteran F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck: "At times like that, I always remember that Michael has two kids."
So few words, so much said. In the minds of Schumacher and his rivals, those assessments of what is worth risking and what is not will have grown larger, not smaller, in the three years since his retirement.
Be that as it may, we are talking about moments in extremis here, incidents that happen along only occasionally.
It was in these moments that Schumacher's notorious willingness to dabble in the darker aspects of sporting morality in his quest for success reared its ugly head. It is this side of him that means some of Schumacher's rivals will be a little ambivalent about his reappearance on the grand prix scene. Their tolerance of the dubious ethics that went hand-in-hand with the German's towering ability had been stretched to breaking point by 2006. And most of them were glad to see the back of him.
One suspects, too, that many of them may not be that keen on having him back for another reason - because he is so good.
As good as ever, or not quite as good as that, probably still amounts to a man capable of winning the championship. And that leads one to believe that his chances of success depend on his car.
There are question marks to varying degrees over all the potential title contenders next year.
Can Ferrari, where Alonso now occupies Schumacher's former seat, recapture the form that abandoned them in 2009? Can McLaren make a car that performs on fast circuits as well as it does on slow? Will Red Bull, using a Renault engine, be compromised by the uncertainty surrounding the French manufacturer's involvement in F1 following the decision to sell 75% of the team to a private equity company?
There are uncertainties over Mercedes, too, particularly after the team's slide from competitiveness in the second half of 2009 in its former guise as Brawn. But with them there are arguably less than over any of the other teams.
Given that his new team won the drivers' and constructors' championships in 2009 with a car that was compromised by former owner Honda's withdrawal from F1 last winter, the new Mercedes car will almost certainly be pretty handy.
On that basis, it could even be argued that Schumacher - who will surely have the upper hand over team-mate Nico Rosberg - will start the season as title favourite, at least until the pace of the teams' new cars becomes apparent.
The fact that it is possible to say that about a man who turns 41 on 3 January proves just what a remarkable sportsman Michael Schumacher is, and underlines what makes this such a compelling twist in the unfailingly dramatic narrative of Formula 1.

By : Andrew Benson (BBC F1 Blog)

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