Michael Schumacher is still the man F1 s young guns most want to beat if this week s test at Barcelona is anything to go by.
The seven-times world champion turned up at the Circuit de Catalunya on Monday with his consultancy hat on as he set about reliability and set-up testing. But his presence was to have a far more significant impact on proceedings as Lewis Hamilton and Mclaren finally showed their true pace.
Hamilton, unlike chief rival Alonso, has never done battle with Schumacher, let alone beaten him to a world championship. So, the Mclaren driver was never going to turn down the opportunity to show the most successful F1 driver of all time what he is made of. The “Schumacher-Hamiltonâ€ debate being whipped up off the track by Willi Webber, Schumacher s manager, only ensured this further.
Raikkonen too had something of a point to prove against the 39-year-old German. The Finn has consistently had to put up with predictions that Schumacher would have had a performance edge over him without ever having the opportunity to prove otherwise. He was also harshly accused mid way though 2007 of lacking commitment and large factions of the tifosi were calling for Schumacher s return. Not that any of this mattered of course, the Finn needed no such excuse to go hammer-and-tongs at his old rival.
In the context of these egos and rivalries, it was unlikely that the front-runners would give the Ferrari driver an easy ride. Great news for the sport s commentators: we finally had an opportunity to benchmark Mclaren against Ferrari, and far more importantly, Hamilton against Raikkonen.
The overcast conditions did little to rob of us the spectacle: Schumacher lured the sandbaggers out of hiding faster than the lap-times themselves.
Hamilton, who until this week had had a relatively quiet time in pre-season testing, was the driver to come out victorious. He topped the time-sheets with a 1m 22.276 edging out second place man Kimi Raikkonen by just four thousands of a second and going over a tenth of a second faster than Michael Schumacher in third. Kazuki Nakajima and Nico Rosberg underlined Williams pace by going fourth and sixth quickest.
In going fastest Hamilton quashed several pre-season theories swinging around the paddock. First, that he has been struggling to get to grips with the ban on driver aids. No problems here.
“Falling back into my old style of driving has been pretty easily. I drove without traction control for many years, so it is what I am used to – there is nothing new,” the ever confident Hamilton declared.
If anything it is his hotly tipped team-mate Heikki Kovalainen who seems to be finding it harder to adapt. When asked if he had fully adapted to driving without traction control he responded with considerably less certainty than Hamilton: “Probably not fully as there is always room for improvement and I must improve all the time, but I think I have found a consistent level now.â€
There has been talk of the very impressive Kovalainen out-doing the Briton this year. Although the Finn has been consistently faster than Hamilton throughout testing on this particular test day the best he could manage was fifth place some half a second a drift of Hamilton. It will be close for certain but one can t help but feel it is Hamilton that will have the edge given his familiarity with the team. Some strange and twisted logic. Hamilton was very evenly matched with Alonso in 2007. When Alonso was at Renault he was anywhere between seven tenths to a full second faster than Gincarlo Fissichella. Yet Kovalainen was rarely ever more than half a second quicker than the Italian when he was at Renault last year. Therefore, Hamilton will be quicker than Kovalainen
The other rumour that Lewis Hamilton and Mclaren put an end to on Monday was the expected Ferrari white-wash in 2008 following supreme pace from the F2008 at testing in Bahrain. Hamilton and Mclaren have shown that they are well equipped to take the fight to the Italian team which is excellent news for F1 fans.
A word of thanks must go to Michael Schumacher then. Long may his hunger for racing continue. He may have just given the F1 community the clearest indication yet of what to expect at Melbourne in a few weeks time. Expect a close fight between Mclaren and Ferrari with Hamilton and Raikkonen leading the charge.