Is Michael Schumacher having an extended senior moment? He returned to Formula 1 last year with fanfare and high expectations, but thus far his ostensibly triumphant return has been something of a bust. It has taken him a year and a bit to grow reacquainted with the sport of which he was once the acknowledged king, but, unfortunately, he has never quite found his old pace.
Last year, the Bridgestone tires were offered as an excuse. This year, there are no excuses…except for the ineluctable passage of time, and the aging of one’s neural networks.
Former F1 driver and Schumi team mate Johnny Herbert recently told Abu Dhabi’s The Nation, “I would not be surprised if my old team-mate Michael Schumacher retires for good at the end of the season. [He] did not return to Formula One just to make up the numbers. He came back to win races and add titles to his already impressive career statistics. It has not happened, and the simple fact is that he is no longer the best driver on the track.”
Herbert went on to express a minority opinion. Herbert accepts the increasingly common view that Schumi simply can’t keep up with the youngsters in the sport, however, unlike many who believe that the German has lost his edge, Herbert has asserted that Schumi is has good as he’s ever been.
“Schumacher has not lost any of his skill,” said Herbert. “The new generation of young drivers are just better than him.”
Personally, I would say this is pure rubbish. For one thing, although Schumi has had challenging skirmishes with the likes of Sebastian Buemi and Vitaly Petrov lately, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have made short work of these midfield runners during his hey day.
Also, there’s the plain and simple fact that Schumi is in his early forties. Both Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell made f1 comebacks during when they were fortyish, after hiatuses of a bit less than two years, and neither driver appeared to be quite the driver that he’d been several years earlier.
True, Prost won his final title during his comeback season, but he was driving a Williams when they were still at their zenith, and team mate Damon Hill had been directed to play a support role to the Frenchman. That said, it was also true that Hill was clearly quicker at times than Prost was, which never would have happened just a few years earlier.
So, on the whole, Herbert’s criticism seems a bit strange. On the other hand, I think he’s always been a bit rankled at having been given second class treatment at Benetton when Schumi was the favorite son at that team. Perhaps a residual rancor has fueled his remarks.
Former F1 star David Coultard has offered a different view. “Taking his cue from Schumacher’s remark that the “big joy” had been missing from his recent race day in Istanbul (during which he seemed to bounce from one midfield skirmish to another), the former McLaren pilot said, “He’s not performing at the same level of his team-mate, that’s a fact. Nico [Rosberg] is getting more out of that car than Michael. I don’t think we should write Michael off by any stretch of the imagination, there’s a lot of talent there, but he must be asking himself questions.”
Coultard went on to compare Schumacher’s predicament to the one he faced during his last active season in the sport: “I think the key thing is he’s not enjoying it, and to be perfectly open and honest with you there was an element of that for me at the beginning of 2008. I wasn’t as competitive as I felt I should be, I wasn’t enjoying the races as much as I used to, and then that’s the moment.”
Ultimately, Coultard said, the hourglass wins. “It slowly builds until you look in the mirror and realise that feeling you’ve been having for a few weeks or months is the internal message. You can’t hold back the clock.”
I think Coultard’s analysis is more credible than Herbert’s. Once should remember that when Schumi was a young hot shoe at Benetton during the early nineties, he held his own impressively with the best of that era, i.e. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, Sr. He was a regular feature on the podium, even when his car was inferior. He was hailed by many to be the new Senna, and, indeed, he surpassed all of his idol’s old records.
Time and the aging process seem to be the culprits here. Whether Schumi can come to grips with them remains to be seen. Of course, as Norbert Haug recently said, part of the reason that Schumacher is subject to so much criticism now is because he set the bar so high for himself in years gone by.