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Why is Schumacher Slow? Tire Deg, or Too Much Spare Tire?

There’s an old adage in Formula 1 that you’re only as good as your most recent results.  Judgments are made quickly in this sport, and a driver can go from hero to zero (or vice versa) in the course of a single weekend.  Various predictions have been made as to how long it might take Michael Schumacher to find his old form, but the critics are already getting restless.

Triple world champ Niki Lauda suggested that Schumacher would regain his old performance level by the Malaysian Grand Prix.  It’s easy to follow Lauda’s reasoning: Malaysia was the third race of the season, and Niki Lauda won the third race in his own comeback season, ergo Schumacher should get his groove back after three races.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  Schumi didn’t win the race, and if we use his team mate as a benchmark, which is standard procedure, he underperformed.  Nico Rosberg continued the trend of outpacing the seven-time champ.  Of course, Lauda’s assessment was entirely arbitrary.  The circumstances of today are entirely different from 30 years ago.  Schumacher isn’t driving the quickest car at the moment, and the depth of talent in the current field is greater than it’s been in perhaps 20 years.

Various critics have offered other explanations for Schumacher’s lack of pace, most of them fairly obvious, although not necessarily true.  Some (like former team mate Eddie Irvine) have said that at this point in his career Schumacher shouldn’t be expected to find 100% of his old pace.  He’ll be quick, just not as quick as he was in his prime.  Others (such as Sir Sterling Moss), have suggested that Schumacher was never that quick to begin with; rather, he was flattered by a series of slower team mates.

And Mercedes motorsport head Norbert Haug has gone so far as to suggest that Schmacher’s W01 chassis might be inherently flawed.  To test the theory, Mercedes will provide Schumacher with a brand new W01 in time for the next race in Barcelona.

Perhaps the most bizarre theory regarding Schumacher’s performance has come from the German press.  They’ve suggested that he’s too heavy.  While he’s shorter than his team mate Rosberg, he’s also seven kilos (about 15 pounds) heavier, which means that when the team brings the car up to minimum weight they have 15 pounds less ballast to play with than they do on Rosberg’s car.  This could change the handling characteristics on Schumacher’s W01.

While this seems far fetched, Formula 1 cars are notoriously weight-sensitive, Schumacher’s helmet constructor, Schuberth, are taking the matter seriously, and now have plans to use lighter sponsor decals on Schumacher’s head gear. One can only wonder what the previous decals had been made of.  Lead?

Force India pilot, and fellow German, Adrian Sutil, has rubbished this idea, however. “Seven kilograms makes only about a tenth difference,” Sutil recently told Auto Bild Motorsport.  Sutil has offered what is perhaps the most intelligent explanation for Schumacher’s current performance level.  “It may sound funny, but Michael has to learn how to drive an F1 car again. Above all, the tyres are extremely sensitive. This is totally underestimated. In order to use them fully, he just needs more experience.”

I suspect that the biggest impact on Schumacher resulting from his three-year layoff has little to do with his innate talent, or his reflexes, or his fitness.  The biggest change he’s facing isn’t within himself, it’s in the technology he’s using.  Formula 1 never stands still, and the cars of 2010 significantly different from what they were in 2006.  Normally, drivers adapt to changes in F1 cars incrementatlly, as the cars evolve.  Schumacher is being forced to adapt to four years worth of changes in a single leap.

One element that has caused Schumacher difficulty, as Sutil suggested, is tire degradation.  Schumacher himself noted this after Shanghai.  He said that for much of the race he was tentative about pacing himself, as he wasn’t sure of how quickly the tires would degrade.  As it turned out, largely because of conditions, the tires went off very quickly. He’d also been having grip issues in dry conditions, especially in the exits of slower corners, because of tire wear.

As reported on ESPNF1, Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn echoed Schumacher’s remarks, saying, “We have some issues that we need to understand as the deterioration of his tyres and therefore his pace is a problem that we need to resolve before the next race.  It’s not the difficult corners, but the technically simple ones [where he is struggling].”

However, Brawn regarded Schumacher’s performance in China as an anomaly.  “Until now he has been getting closer and closer to Nico,” Brawn said, “so what happened in China is totally against the trend.”

In the final analysis, I think Schumacher simply needs to be given more time, so that he can build up a greater backlog of experience with the new car.  This might sound counter-intuitive, since one of Schumacher’s great strengths has always been his adaptability.  But a three year interuption at this level of the sport is a major gap.  Schumacher has the natural gifts to meet the challenge, so long as he doesn’t lose his determination.  In his first career, Schumacher was top dog for so many years that his mental toughness was never tested in quite this way.  If he can maintain his resolve, he should return to the podium soon.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

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