Formula 1 great Alain Prost says Schumacher is past it. The four time world champ, formerly the record-holder for total race wins until Schumi cam along (Prost has 51 wins, while Schumi has 91), recently told L’Equipe that the returning champion should have set his sights lower, and lowered the expectations of his critics in the process.
“He should have said he was coming back to help Rosberg, or Mercedes in its first year, or his friend Ross Brawn,” Prost said. “It would have been easier for him.”
Instead, Schumacher acted as if he he would take up where he’d left off, battling against the front runners in the field. It soon became apparent that this would not be the shape of things to come — at least, not in the near term. Schumacher has spent much of the season struggling to keep up with his young team mate, Nico Rosberg.
Alain Prost suggests that this was inevitable. Says Prost, “For me, it’s just a question of age. I think the tires are just an excuse, because Schumacher always adapted to any sort of car. It was his great strength. It’s just not possible to return to the top after being away for three years at that age. It’s a matter of physiology.”
True? Will Schumi’s comeback be blunted by the unavoidable realities of the aging process? Or is Prost underestimating Schumacher’s talent and tenacity?
In one respect, Prost is right. In his prime, Schumacher could jump into a pig of a c ar and make it go fast. Ross Brawn has said that Schumi’s gift was a double-edged sword. He was so adept at driving around the deficiencies of a car that it would be difficult to determine just where the car was lacking. Clearly, that’s not happening now. It’s only too apparent that the Mercedes W01 is suffering from a performance gap. Unfortunately for Schumacher, it seems to be young Nico Rosberg who is better able to drive around the car’s shortcomings, rather than Schumacher.
On the other hand, one must ask whether Schumacher’s performance curve can be expected to flatline if he sees out his three-year contract, or if we might see an upturn next year, after he’s had a year to fine tune his reflexes, and after the car has been retooled to better suit his driving style.
Certainly, in the recent grand prix in Japan Schumacher looked every bit as quick as Rosberg. Schumacher claimed that he’s finally coming to grips with the handling of the car. Perhaps. Ross Brawn has said that Schumacher has always been his own sharpest critic. That might be. It should also be said that during Schumacher’s earlier career one thing he never had to criticize himself for was being slow.
Brawn has also said, that the older, more mature Schumacher is much more relaxed than the younger iteration. Such was Schumacher’s stature during his prime that he was expected to win every race as long as he had a decent car under him. He was the benchmark for the field. He now faces a new pressure of living up to his own reputation, but Brawn says that he takes it in his stride, and get on with the job at hand.
Alain Prost didn’t say, as other Schumacher critics have, that Schumacher never should have made a comeback; he only said that he should have framed it differently for the public. There might be something to this. After all, Schumacher was a great development driver, and, in the case of Felipe Massa, a great mentor. If his comeback had been framed in these terms, the F1 community might have had their expectations set at a reasonable level.
Time will tell whether Schumacher is able to recapture more of his old fire during the next season or two. Personally, I agree with Mercedes morosport exec Norbert Haug, who has said people should shut their pie holes, and just let Schumi get on with the job. Schumacher didn’t return to the sport because he thought he could add to his already stellar record. He came back because he missed racing.
During his so-called retirement, he dabbled in various other forms of motorsport, racing motorcycles and karts, and participating in the annual Race of Champions. It was clear that he needed the old adrenaline rush. When he tested to replace Massa last year, after the latter’s accident in Hungary, it became clear to him how much he missed it. “I felt alive again,” he said. These are not the words of a man who looks forward to retirement.
Unlike other multiple champions, such as Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen, all of whom seemed to have had their fill of the sport by the time they’d hung up their helmets, Schumacher retired too soon. Even Jackie Stewart, no great Schumacher fan, has made this observation. The only real question now is, has he left his comeback too late?