Schumacher’s return begs many questions

Will Mercedes produce the goods? What is the outlook of the drivers’ market now? The return of Michael Schumacher is fantastic for Formula One, but it also has a knock-on effect for many within. Ewan Marshall explains.

So there we have it. After months of growing-speculation Michael Schumacher finally put pen to paper today and signed an optional-three year deal with Mercedes GP.

As the weeks have passed the shock value of Schumacher s return has subsequently diminished. Even so, today s announcement is significant for a number of reasons.

Whether or not Schumacher is still up to the task should not be the topic for debate at this time. It is too early to judge how competitive Schumacher will be in 2010 – only time will tell, with the first inclination coming from the eagerly-awaited pre-season test in Valencia in early-February.

Ultimately the honeymoon period will soon be over and the weight of expectation will once again be placed upon Schumacher s shoulders. Although Mercedes will not be as expressive in their feelings compared to Schumacher s former employer, Ferrari, the German manufacturer will be committed to ensuring that the return of the seven-times World champion is not a failure.

To do this they will have to produce a car to the same, if not better, quality of last year s BGP001. It would be foolish to forget that last season s championship-winning car was born out of months of development over rival teams and Honda s money. Without this same luxury heading into next season and having fought a drawn-out title fight, it could be argued that the Brackley-based team may well have compromised itself for 2010 – similar to both Ferrari and McLaren last season, who despite having significant budgets were uncompetitive at the start of 2009.

However it would be foolish to read too much into this. Next season’s rule changes are no where near as big a departure as was the case in 2008. The team have a solid base with the BGP001 and were well underway with the development of its successor by the time the cars reached Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season.

In the months leading up to start of last season Brawn were also compromised by the insecurity surrounding the team s future and the ominous redundancies which followed the management buyout. Despite this they still managed to win both championships – a remarkable feat. If anything the team will now be in a better position to fight for this years titles, given the substantial investment from Mercedes.

Additionally Mercedes will not have to look far for leadership if times are initially tough. One of Schumacher s many strengths is his ability to lead by example and motivate everyone within a team – from the chief designer to the factory janitor. It can only be presumed that he will still be the terrier that he was during his days at Benetton and Ferrari.

Of all the members of Mercedes GP, it can be presumed that Nico Rosberg will be feeling very vulnerable this evening. When the 24-year-old signed with Mercedes in late-October he might well have expected to continue to play the role of team leader as he did at Williams. Nevertheless doubts still remain given reports which suggest that the young German failed to achieve the full potential of the FW31 last season. Whether or not we will see the same team orders which were evident during the previous Brawn-Schumacher partnership remains to seen. Either way Rosberg now faces a giant in Schumacher – with the presence of the man alone enough to galvanise any team around him. This season is surely make or break for Rosberg s career.

Initially it had been suggested that Nick Heidfeld would be the driver which formed an all-German line-up at Mercedes.  However with today s announcement the former-McLaren-Mercedes development driver will now have to look elsewhere to remain in the sport – and spaces are filling up fast. Heidfeld may well remain with Sauber, a team he knows well, having raced for them on and off throughout his career. But a seat also remains at Renault where the German could link-up with his previous team-mate, Robert Kubica.

Following on from this, Schumacher s return also reveals a chronic problem which has existed in Formula One for many years. Understandably journalists and fans-alike consider Formula One to be the platform in Motor Sport which showcases the very best of talent and Schumacher rightfully fits that bill. However by continuing to favour experience, teams are starving younger drivers from getting a chance to race.

Take those who recently competed in the young drivers test in December. The highly-rated Paul Di Resta has long been a protégé of Mercedes and for years has struggled to break into the top flight of the sport. Although a testing role with Force India looks ever likely, it will be little comfort to gaining a full time race seat. Inexperience is simply not a valid excuse. Did Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton require a vast amount of testing mileage to rocket to the top of the sport? Certainly not. Although the various new entrants will provide a degree of relief for next season a balance must be struck to ensure that although standards are upheld, youth is fostered. Teams must take chances. There is, after all, life after Schumacher.

Finally it is this dynamic of young versus old, youth versus experience which is most intriguing heading into the season opener at Bahrain. How will Schumacher match up against the unknowns of Hamilton or Vettel? Will we see his rivalry with Fernando Alonso reignited, placing Schumacher in direct competition against the team which brought him so much success?

Every scenario is simply mouth-watering as the sport braces itself for one of the most exciting championships in years.

Mr Ecclestone will be very happy.