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Schumacher’s Return: an Ironic Chain of Events

Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher

It seems as though it might be a series of miscalculations that will ultimately place Michael Schumacher behind the wheel of a Mercedes F1 car next year .  The first error in judgment, you might say, was Schumacher’s own, when he retired at the end of 2006.

As reported in a story in today’s Daily Mail, three-time champ Sir Jackie Stewart said, “He obviously retired too early. That’s why he has been racing bikes and cars whenever he could. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shows he got his timing wrong. He was not ready to give it all up.”

When Schumacher got in a 2007 Ferrari F1 car earlier this year to prepare for a limited substitution stint for the injured Felipe Massa, apparently the experience reignited the old racer’s fire, and made him realize what he’d been missing since retiring.  When he announced at a press conference at the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva that he was aborting his temporary return to the cockpit because of a still-healing neck injury (which he’d sustained while racing a motorcycle), he referred to the Ferrari test, and confessed that, “Driving the car was the moment I suddenly felt alive again.”

According to reports, ever since his medical exam ruled out subbing for Massa, Schumacher has been intent on finding another route back into the cockpit.  Earlier this year, former team owner Eddie Jordan was one of the early instigators of Schumacher comeback rumors when he noted that he’d observed Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Mercedes motorsport chief Norbert Haug huddled together in serious conversations at the 2009 season finale at Abu Dhabi.  Brawn and Haug denied that this meeting was significant of anything, but apparently these denials were just your typical F1 smokescreen.

Reports now indicate that it was Schumacher who approached Ross Brawn about a possible drive at Mercedes, and not vice versa.  The Mercedes buy-in hadn’t yet been made public, but Ross Brawn was working out the details of the deal at that point, and it’s very likely that Schumacher was fully apprised of this.  Stories indicate, however, that Brawn was initially cool to the idea.  At that point, it was assumed that Jenson Button would remain with the team, and Brawn was interested in cultivating younger drivers for the future.  Nico Rosberg, of course, is only 24, with most of his career still ahead of him; and putative Mercedes target Sebastian Vettel is only 22.

Here’s where the other miscalculations come into play.  Jenson Button first entertained the notion of switching teams because he misinterpreted Brawn’s sluggish contract negotiations as indifference.  It seems more likely that Brawn was simply preoccupied with hammering out the Mercedes deal at the time, and wrongly counted on Button’s loyalty.  On top of this, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry apparently initially thought that McLaren were using their talks with Button as a ploy to make their putative first choice, Kimi Raikkonen, more flexible in his salary demands.  Likewise, they assumed that Button was using the McLaren talks as a ploy to squeeze more money from the Mercedes/Brawn team.

In the end, of course, everyone got it wrong.  Kimi proved to be as flexible as granite; McLaren decided that Button provided better value than the recalcitrant Finn; Button allowed himself to be seduced by the endless trophy room at Woking; and Brawn/Mercedes, who had actually expected to keep Button, and would have paid him more than McLaren eventually offered, were left with an empty seat.

Mercedes is anxious inaugurate their new team marque with a race-winning line-up, and preferably an all German one. Their current fallback plan, in lieu of snagging Schumacher, would be to hire Nick Heidfeld, who has never won a single grand prix after more than 150 starts.  Neither has Nico Rosberg, after 70 starts.  While they could do worse than a Rosberg-Heidfeld line-up, it wouldn’t be the kind of debut they’d hoped for.

It’s at this point that Michael Schumacher begins to look like an obvious solution.  He’s the kind of marquee name that would suit Mercedes in their first year as outright team owner.  He’s arguably the most competitive they could hope to hire, even at the advanced age of 41, regardless of who else might be on the market.  And Ross Brawn knows full well what Schumi’s car development skills are worth.  Also, if a Schumacher contract were structured for a single year, with an option for a second, this would mesh well with Mercedes’ purported desire to employ Sebastian Vettel as soon as they can pry him loose from Red Bull.

So it turns out that Schumacher might owe his comeback to a series of misinformed decisions.  As an added irony, it was another random event, i.e. Felipe Massa’s accident at Hungary this year, and Luca di Montezemolo’s subsequent request that Schumacher stand in for the Brazilian, that led to Schumacher’s Maranello test; and it was the testing experience that made Schumacher feel “alive again,” and reignited his desire to race.

Image by Chris J. Moffet, licensed through Creative Commons.

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