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Michael Schumacher: Over-Paid and Over-the-Hill?

Michael Schumacher in Melbourne

Is Michael Schumacher over the hill? The seven-time champ has been taking a pasting in the Italian press following his performance in the Australian Grand Prix.  The German ace was outqualified by his younger team mate Nico Rosberg, and went on the finish tenth in the race.

Italy’s La Stampa printed a scathing review of Schumacher’s performance in Melbourne, saying, “The (W01) car is not the best, but one of its drivers – the one with seven titles and earning £30 million – seems to have lost the instructions. The proof? He was overtaken by the Virgin. Are we confident that Michael Schumacher is really under that red helmet? Perhaps Montezemolo was right when he said it is his twin.”

The Italians, of course, are still bitter that Schumacher defected from Ferrari.  Fiat/Ferrari CEO Luca di Montezemolo went so far as to suggest that it was Schumi’s evil twin who had signed a contract with Mercedes, rather than Schumacher himself.

The London Times heaped on further criticism, saying, “[He] cut a disconsolate figure as he swept out of Albert Park last night, having discovered that his reputation counts for nothing among the new generation. He became almost a sad postscript …. once the greatest exponent of overtaking simply had to accept a lowly tenth place.”

To add to the ignominy, it’s been reported that Schumacher is actually being paid a 30 million euro salary, rather than the 6 million euros that had been publicized previously.  This would make him the highest paid driver on the grid (albeit it would still keep him somewhat south of Kimi Raikonnen’s pay rate during the Finn’s three years at Ferrari).

But is the press being fair to Schumacher?  He’s attempting something that hasn’t been tried within recent memory.  While the likes of Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda have all made much heralded returns to the formula, they did so after shorter breaks from the sport, and with varying degrees of success.  Prost had been gone a year, and he came back for a single season, with the strongest team (Williams) to win his final title.  Lauda came back after two years, but it took him three years to win another championship.    Lauda himself (and he should know if anyone does) has said that it will take Schumacher several races to regain his old form.

And Mercedes VP of motorsport, Norbert Haug, has said that he has complete faith in Schumacher, and believes that he has lost none of his old magic.  When asked if Schumi was as good as he’d ever been, Haug told Autosport, “Absolutley.  He has got it. And we have one of the strongest driver pairings in the field. It is up to us to improve the package further. It is fair to say we improved it on this track compared to Bahrain, which was a completely different story.”

Haug also believes that Schumacher’s results in Melbourne were misleading.  “If you look Saturday morning, if you look at the times, if you look at qualifying Michael was handicapped behind Alonso, and it is fair to say it was a very comparable lap to Nico,” said Haug. “And I think Nico is one of the highest rated guys of the current generation, with four years experience.”

And Haug gives Schumacher full points for taking the risk of entering the F1 fray again: “Michael is missing three years of these fours years, but he is here to be competitive. And he could sit on his sofa saying, ‘nobody won more than I did’, but this is his passion.  He is a more relaxed guy than ever, he has fun, he is a very good team member, team player – the two guys, you see it in press conferences, they have fun with each other and make jokes with each – but still very focused.”

The fact is, if Schumacher’s 2010 results had been attributed to anyone else, they would be seen as respectable.  But Schumacher raised the bar so high in his earlier career, anything less than astonishing results now are now apt to be viewed as failure.  I suspect that Niki Lauda has it right.  Schumi will need a few races to get back up to speed.  Ross Brawn said as much before the season started.  He might not be 100% of what he was 15 years ago, but he should be competitive enough to make his rivals dread the sight of the red helmet in their mirrors.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

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