There seem to be two camps of opinion regarding Michael Schumacher’s comeback. On the one hand, you have the F1 media, and F1 personalities such as former driver Stirling Moss, and former team mates, Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine, who have suggested that Schumacher might be simply over the hill. Moss, in fact, has taken that assertion on step further, by implying that Schumacher was never that good to begin with.
On the other side of the fence, there are those who insist that Schumacher simply needs more time – time to adjust to the new technology, and time to adjust to the demands of racing full time after a three year lay off. This camp includes the likes of Bernie Ecclestone, two-time champ Mika Hakkinen, David Coultard and Adrian Sutil. All of the above have offered their own analyses regarding Schumacher’s struggle to find his old form.
Hakkinen has pointed out that a man of 41 (Schumacher’s current age) might find it difficult to recapture the same level of motivation that he felt 15 years ago. Word in the paddock is that Schumacher is more relaxed than he used to be, but perhaps this loss of intensity is something that doesn’t benefit his driving.
Rather than making speculations about Schumacher’s psyche, David Coultard and Adrian Sutil have raised technical issues. Sutil has insisted that the tires have changed drastically since Schumi’s last active year, in 2006, and that it would be a challenge for Schumacher to learn to use them correctly, no matter how good he is. And Coultard has pointed out that Schumacher’s W01 was designed to suit last year’s title-winner, Jenson Button, whose driving style is much different than Schumi’s.
While critics will point out that Schumacher’s team mate Nico Rosberg seems to have adapted to the W01 quite well, one might conclude that Rosberg, like Button, finds an understeering car more suitable to his natural style.
Whatever the reasons, Schumacher hasn’t quite measured up to public expectations surrounding his return to the pinnacle of motorsport. Those who have judged Schumacher most harshly have done so on the premise that Schumacher should have been in top form from day one. But Schumacher himself has cautioned against this, insisting that he’d be finding his limits again, as always, in a measured and methodical way.
Red Bull pilot Mark Webber concurs that Schumacher’s critics shouldn’t rush to judgment. Speaking recently to the BBC, Webber said, “I think after Monaco we’ll know how his form really is. Shanghai was a pretty tough track for him. He’ll feel a bit more at home at Barcelona and also at Monaco, which is a track where he always did exceptionally well. So we’ll see after that how he’s going.”
Of course, Monaco is known for being a great equalizer, a driver’s track where mere horsepower or aerodynamics aren’t enough to give a driver an edge over his rivals. Surely this would be a test of whether Schumi is back on his game, or if he’s slowed down marginally.
That said, Webber was still willing to make allowances for Schumacher’s difficulty in adapting himself to his Mercedes W01, which suffers from chronic understeer, a characteristic the German has never excelled with. “Monaco is a place you just plug Michael in and off he goes,” Webber said. “If he’s not going to be doing that this year, you can say he might be having problems coming to grips with the car. These cars change every two or three weeks let alone every four years, so he’s coming back to such a totally different environment. The cars are totally different, the tyres, the aerodynamics.”
Furthermore, Webber graciously gave Schumacher full marks for making the effort, regardless of the results. “As I always said, you have to take your hat off to him. It was a very brave call to come back and test himself again at the highest level. He’s an incredible competitor and he always has been.”
And Webber insists that Schumacher is a realist about his performance, and what should be expected of him. “He knew he was going to have to get used to it,” Webber said. “He’s not that naïve. He knows he’s not going to just jump back in and start blowing people away, he’s going to have to work at it. And that’s what he’s doing right now.”