Much has been said about Michael Schumacher’s struggle to come to grips with the Mercedes this year, while relatively little has been said about the sterling job that Nico Rosberg has done in getting the most out of an underperforming car. At least, that’s the way Rosberg sees it.
“I don’t think my performance is well enough recognized,” Rosberg recently told the German publication Sport Bild.
It’s generally recognized that Schumacher likes a car that oversteers, and the Merc W01 does just the opposite, in part due to its being designed to the preferences of Jenson Button, and also due to the handling characteristics of the new, narrower Bridgestone tires. The assumption in some quarters is simply that the car suits Nico better than it does Schumacher.
But Rosberg has been telling anyone willing to listen that, in fact, he too prefers a nervous car, and that he’s faced the the same struggle that Schumacher has. In fact, he’s even asserted that Schumacher should have the edge, due to his longer experience. “Actually I think Michael has been able to adapt his driving style better than I have,” Rosberg said. “Michael has 15 years of experience in Formula One.”
True enough, although it’s also true that Schumacher had a three-year layoff after his 15 years of uninterrupted Formula 1 racing, which makes his time off equal to 20% of his career span. And in the world of Formula 1, staying away even a single year can have its ramifications.
Schumacher’s fans tend to assume that once he gets the car to his liking, he’ll be back to his old winning ways, and won’t be shown up by his younger team mate any longer. Of course, there’s also the chance that Rosberg will benefit from an improved car every bit as much as Schumacher will, and will be even quicker himself.
Personally, I think that one shouldn’t underestimate the effect that three years away from active driving might have had on Schumacher’s performance. Tennis great John McEnroe once explained that he knew he was inching towards retirement when he found that he was perhaps half a step slower on the court than he’d been during his prime. To the average weekend player, that’s nothing, but at the very top level of the sport, half a step can mean the difference between a successful return of serve and a miss. Or between making the finals at Wimbledon and packing your bags after the first round.
So it is in Formula 1, which is the top rung of motor racing. Schumacher is still quick by anyone’s standards, but after his layoff, by his own admission, he was “rusty.” But Schumi is no fool. Part of his brilliance is his methodical approach to racing. He knew in advance that he would need time, which is why he insisted on a three-year contract. I suspect that he’ll be quicker next year, and that scenes such as the one we saw at Suzuka, where Schumi and Nico were dicing for position, will be more common.
I also, think, however, that Rosberg hasn’t quite gotten his due from the F1 community at large. He’s never had a car good enough to put him in contention for wins. If he were sitting in a McLaren, Ferrari or Red Bull this season, I don’t think that would be the case. I think he’s at least as quick as the likes of Mark Webber, Felipe Massa or Jenson Button, the de facto number two drivers at their respective teams, and he might well give Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton a run for their money if he had the benefit of equal equipment.
Mercedes got an early start on their 2011 contender this year, and they’ll probably have a better car next year, relative to the competition, than they’ve had this year. Which means we’ll likely learn two things: if Rosberg can hold his own against Michael Schumacher if the seven-time champ has a car that suits him, and also if Rosberg is capable of challenging for wins, if not the title, if he has the right equipment. Only time and luck will tell.