Michael Schumacher made an historic comeback to the sport of F1 this season, to race with the Silver Arrows Mercedes GP team. Here, forumula1.com assesses how he has done so far, what questions still remain, and crucially, whether the comeback will continue into the future.
Schumacher’s race and qualifying performances have been basically unsatisfactory, as he himself has admitted. He has been outqualified four times by his team-mate and a best finish of sixth, in Bahrain, would not have been what he envisaged after four races. Last weekend’s race in China was a particularly lacklustre result, as he qualified ninth and finished tenth.
There are some commentators who make the argument that he should not have come back. They look at Schumacher battling with Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso in Australia, failing to provide even token resistance to Sebastian Vettel in China and think about how the mighty are fallen. It is this more than anything else that gives Schumacher’s critics their ammunition – the Red Baron has lost his aura. Back in 2004, even up to his last year in 2006, he commanded a certain respect on the racetrack that today’s young guns simply do not show. They pay him lip service off-track, but on-track he is not what he was, and his rivals know it.
Moreover, up to the Chinese race where he admitted being frustrated by the results, he seemed bafflingly confident, as though he was working through the car issues and would suddenly become very competitive at a later date. Whether that confidence was bravado or not, the fact is that Schumacher is simply not at home in this Mercedes. The Ferrari he vacated in 2006 had been honed for years to suit his driving style and was designed with him in mind. Even if on occasion there were car balance issues or setup problems, Schumacher would drive round them. It never used to be the case that getting the power down on the exit of slow corners, as Schumi is struggling to do now, was such a problem.
Then there is the other side of the argument, that Schumacher will come good and that the detractors should have more faith. Such is most F1 fans’ memories of the great German that we still half-expect him to come charging through the field, sweeping all before him, and would not be unduly surprised if that happened next time out in Barcelona. Perhaps everyone has been underestimating him. He still has that age-old Schumacher confidence, and as much as some in the British press liked to call it arrogance, it was never misplaced before.
What’s more, there is no doubt he is still relatively close to the pace, and in the event that he was able to iron out the problems with the balance of the car, he would be on that pace. Yes, Rosberg is ahead, but not by much.
The simple fact of the matter is that Schumacher has entered a more competitive F1 environment than the one he left in 2006. Ushered out by Ferrari that year, Schumacher was beginning to have his hands full with a fully-fledged Fernando Alonso. Now, there are at least two others on the grid as talented as Alonso – Vettel and Hamilton – and a whole host of other top line drivers who are mind-numbingly quick and competitive. Button, Webber, Kubica, Rosberg, the list goes on. In terms of competition to Schumacher in his heyday, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen do not compare favourably to the modern-day chargers. Some have said that this era of F1 is a golden one in terms of driver talent, and Schumacher is finding that out to his cost.
So what will be the end product of this as yet inauspicious return to the track? It depends largely on how much effort the great man is willing and able to put in, to correct the car’s problems and find his own sweet spot. Many have little doubt that Schumacher is capable of doing that, but whether he has the stomach for it is another matter. How long it will take is another consideration – does Schumacher envisage another year, or two, or three? How much patience will Mercedes have?
The comeback is not as easy as it might have seemed, in a world championship-winning team. He will have to prove himself all over again and stamp his final claim to the mantle of all-time greatest that many believe is his. If he does not at least get the measure of Nico Rosberg, it will have been a sad and undignified end to competition, and may well besmirch his legacy.