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Is Schumacher Too Slow?

Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes W01 at Bahrain

Much ballyhoo surrounded Michael Schumacher’s return to Formula 1 racing.  His new team mate, Nico Rosberg, must have cast a worried glance over his shoulder when he first learned that the seven-time world champ would be partnering him at Mercedes.  In light of the fact that Schumacher and Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn had previously formed the most successful driver/technical director duo in the sport’s history, the younger German had legitimate cause for concern.

But based on the results at Bahrain last Sunday, Nico has thrown down the gauntlet and proven that he can hold his own.  He consistently outperformed Schumacher all weekend in the same equipment.

Of course, we should cut Schumacher a bit of slack on this.  The popular conception of Schumacher has been that he’s a cut above mere mortals on the racetrack.  Expectations ran high that he would be able to take up where he left off three years ago.  In the wake of a merely good performance on Sunday, there is now a general feeling of letdown in some quarters.  But is this reasonable?

First of all, let’s not forget that Schumacher is 41 years old.  While he’s still quick by anyone’s yardstick, the fact that he’s able to be competitive with the top young guns of today, all of whom are exceptional drivers in their own right, should be seen as an achievement in itself.

Secondly, coming back to the sport at this level after a three-year layoff is something that’s virtually unheard of.  Both Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell made F1 comebacks with Williams in the early nineties, but Prost had been out of action for only a year when he did his final tour of duty, and while Mansell had been absent from F1 for two years, he’d been racing full time in the IndyCar series during the interim.  It’s true, IndyCar wasn’t on the same level as F1, but it helped keep Mansell in racing trim, even if he did have to shed a few pounds to squeeze  back into an F1 cockpit.

In returning to Formula 1 after a three year sabbatical, Schumacher seems to be as fit as he ever was – again, no small feat.  As for adapting to the new cars, which tend to understeer because of narrower front tires and heavier fuel loads, this has been more of a challenge.  Schumacher is known to prefer oversteer.  He likes the car setup to be on the nervous end of the scale, so the current cars are a bit sluggish for his liking.

Schumacher himself acknowledged this in The Guardian earlier this week, saying, “Tyres are the thing that has changed most since I last raced three years ago.  With my driving style, I have to get the car to the point that I work better with this narrower front tyre. I want the car to move around the corner the way I think it should be doing it. That’s something we have to work on.”

This is an interesting line of discussion for Schumacher.  In earlier years, he never spoke of the car’s handling characteristics in relation to his driving style, or vice versa.  He was known for driving around a car’s problems, and just coping.  In fact, Ross Brawn has said that Schumacher had so much raw talent that he often flattered the car, which made it more difficult to diagnose areas that needed improvement.  Apparently this year, the car’s flaws are readily apparent.

Schumacher also noted that the cars are slower now than they were in 2006: “If you look at the lap times, you can see that we are a lot slower than when I was driving before. That’s because of the tyres we have now. It’s not possible to push as hard as before, so therefore it’s easier for the driver.”

In fact, he sounded almost as if he’d run the race on cruise control. “The race wasn’t very hard for me,” he said.  “It was good fun…I’m quite happy about the way it worked out. When it became clear later in the race I would not be able to overtake, I was concentrating on the driver behind me [Jenson Button], trying not to make any mistakes and bringing the car home.”

While some have been critical of Schumacher’s sixth place finish, the fact is, once he was slotted behind Rosberg, there was little chance he’d be able to pass his younger team mate unless Rosberg either lost time in his sole pit stop, or made a mistake on track, neither of which happened.  Schumacher was a victim of the processional aspect of the race, as were all the other top finishers.  In the end, he drove a measured race, with an eye to conserving equipment and racking up points.

As for Rosberg’s performance in Bahrain, it’s a track where he’s always done well (he won there twice in GP2), and apparently he also prefers an oversteer characteristic in the car’s handling, which means that the new front tire and heavy fuel load combination should suit him to a T.  Certainly this seemed to be the case in Sunday’s race.

Team mate dynamics are always interesting (the Alonso-Hamilton-Dennis brouhaha at McLaren in 2007 was perhaps more dramatic than anything Kimi Raikkonen did on track to clinch the title that year), and most onlookers will be curious to see how the Schumacher/Rosberg pairing unfolds.  My own opinion is that both drivers will improve over the course of the season, each one using the other as a benchmark.  It could be that they’ll attain a certain parity, which might be the ideal result for the team.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that Schumacher’s performance curve will be steeper than Rosberg’s.  He’s returning from a three-year sabbatical, while Rosberg has been inactive for a mere four months.  Schumacher might well talk about his batteries being recharged, but Ross Brawn has predicted on more than one occasion that it will take at least a few races for Schumacher to find his old form again.  If so, we might eventually see him fill a de facto number one status at Mercedes, as he has done at his previous teams.  However, I also think that both Ross Brawn and Nick Fry are invested in keeping both drivers happy, and will do whatever is required to maintain a congenial setting for them.

Team executive Nick Fry, for one, is optimistic on this score.  As he told Autosport, “I am very encouraged. I think it is a good team, the drivers seem to work together well and I think we are going away from [Bahrain] knowing we have work to do but far from downhearted. We have plenty of upside potential and that is what counts…I absolutely believe that we have the people, and the equipment under Ross’s guidance to come out of this very well at the end of the year.”

I suspect that Ross Brawn invited Schumacher to join the team as insurance.  Nico Rosberg had never been tested at a top team, so there was a question mark hanging over his ultimate performance potential, even though he’d been rated highly by Frank Williams.  While Rosberg might be seen as the future of the team, Schumacher would give Brawn a certain confidence level regarding the team’s current capabilities.  And Schumacher’s development skills are well known, which again would give Brawn the feeling of having something in the bank.  If they can make the car a bit quicker, in a way that both drivers can adapt to (their driving styles seem to be divergent), I expect we’ll see both drivers winning races this year.

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