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How Would You Grade Schumi’s Comeback Thus Far?

Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes W01

Formula 1 journalists are notorious for rushing to judgment.  Moreover, they tend to have remarkably short memories.  Most drivers and teams are only as good as their last race or two.  A case in point: just a couple of months ago, the F1 world was thrilled at the prospect of Michael Schumacher’s comeback, but now, after three races in which he’s been outpaced by his younger team mate, Nico Rosberg, Schumacher’s comeback is being labeled by some as a disaster.

One German publication went so far as to suggest that Schumacher might not see out the term of his three-year contract, which should take him to the end of 2012.  Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug has rubbished this notion, however.  As he told Bild, “It’s quite the contrary.  I know that Michael is highly motivated and wants to make his comeback for the long term, with long term success.”

Haug also asserted that Schumacher would be winning raceas again, once he had the right equipment.  “As soon as the car can do it, so can Michael,” said Haug. “The fact that he has not had better results so far is not his fault. The true fans are experts and know exactly what has happened so far and why there is the points deficit.”

Of course, this says nothing of Shumacher’s performance relative to Rosberg’s.  But there seems to be an assumption in the Mercedes camp that Schumacher is still working his way back to his former world-beating speed, and that he has been hampered by a car that is slightly off the pace.

Mercedes GP team boss, Ross Brawn, has echoed this notion.  “Michael is getting more up to speed with every race, although circumstances beyond his control limited his race performance in Melbourne and Sepang,” Brawn said.  “We hope to continue these signs of improvement in China and it would be particularly good for Michael to be able to have a clean race and show the progress that he has made since the start of the season.”

Meanwhile, three-time world champ Jackie Stewart has weighed in with his own opinion (a commodity of which he’s never in short supply) on Schumi’s comeback.  “It’s very clear that Michael has not lost any of his skills,” Stewart told The Observer. “You don’t just check out from the experience and knowledge that made him champion seven times.”

But Stewart went on to suggest that Schumacher might be a bit rattled by the fact that he hasn’t been able to beat his team mate, a situation he’s never encountered in F1.   Schumacher has never been number two.  “Michael has not been able to deliver on the pace yet,” Stewart said, “and the fact that he has been beaten in qualifying and in the races by his team-mate will trouble him more than he has shown.”

Stewart also noted that Schumacher is facing a deeper field of talent than he’s used to.  During Schumi’s peak years, he often faced one or two primary rivals.  Of course,  it should also be said that when Schumacher first joined the F1 circus he faced the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet Sr, and was quite competitive against the best of them from day one.

Stewart’s point, of course, is that Schumi is once again facing that kind of competition when he lines up against Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, all world champs, but for Vettel.  And, Stewart observed, “Outside the main teams you’ve got drivers as good and as experienced as Rubens Barrichello and Robert Kubica.  It’s the best group of top drivers that I can remember.”

And then there’s Schumi’s own team mate, Rosberg, who’s been something of a question mark up till now.  Williams (Rosberg’s former employer) is no longer a team where a driver can prove his true worth, but judging by the way he’s upped his game against Schumacher at Mercedes, Rosberg seems to be the real deal.  Very likely he’d be a title contender in the right car.

But Stewart has defended Schumacher’s comeback.  Or, at least, he’s rationalized it, by suggesting that it was inevitable. “Michael retired too early,” Stewart said.  “He shouldn’t have quit because he hadn’t finished with it. I knew I wouldn’t race again when I retired and so did Gerhard Berger. When Niki Lauda finally retired – after a successful comeback, mark you – he even left his helmet on the seat of the car. He knew, we all knew, that he just wasn’t going back there. But Michael always had unfinished business.”

And, if nothing else, Stewart insists (characteristically) that Schumacher should certainly get full points on the commercial aspect of his return: “The sponsors are getting their delivery because Michael will be good news at every race this season. Wherever he goes he is making a comeback and the cameras are rolling.”

In other words, while it might be too early to tell if Schumacher’s comeback will be good for Schumacher, it’s certainly been good for his sponsors, and also for Formula 1.

Image by f1photo.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

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