August 2009. A sunny Budapest afternoon. Time is up in Q2, drivers are trying to improve on their final laps to secure a place in the top 10. Felipe Massa is looking good to make it and is cruising back to the pits. He doesn't make it. He's in the barriers. The Brazilian's life threatening accident left a temporary vacancy at Ferrari and would trigger a German's emotions. Michael Schumacher had retired at the end of 2006 and had always insisted he would not return but he had stayed close to the sport and in Ferrari's hour of need as well as covering for his good friend, he decided to return and take Massa's seat. A neck injury meant this was quickly aborted. The seven times world champion had allowed emotion to overtake rational thinking. The fire was burning but where could he go? Ferrari was his stable and in Fernando Alonso they had a new horse, the one which had seen Schumacher off in his final year.
Mercedes have taken a massive interest in Formula 1. From backing McLaren to then supplying other teams with engines, its been a big investment by the company. They wanted to take that extra step though and have full ownership of their own team. McLaren was not feasible, the team itself had grown too much and established its own brand and image. Talks began with Brawn. It made sense, Ross Brawn had bought the team over from Honda and having a solid company like Mercedes buying the team would give it security. For Mercedes, it meant having a team that was a championship winning one and had the facilities in place to compete with the best.
What this meant was that a 20 year old promise could be fulfilled. Schumacher had raced for Mercedes in sportscars before his Formula 1 and indeed it was Mercedes who helped financially in getting the German his debut in the Jordan at Spa. The hope between the parties was that 1 day, Schumacher would drive a Mercedes in the pinnacle of motorsport. Of course history shows that Schumacher would become the Italian hero as he took 5 consecutive world titles for Ferrari and most of his success would come with them. All of a sudden, the talk began. Eddie Jordan, the man who received that payment to give Schumacher his opportunity, was claiming that talks were underway. Jenson Button drifted away from the team and joined McLaren. There was an opening and it was filled by the man, the legend, the hero, the enemy, the driver who had dominated the sport and broke all the records. Schumacher was back.
Much was expected from Schumacher. Personally i felt he could get podiums and even a race win but wouldn't be able to challenge for the title. Looking back, those predictions well over optimistic though they were based on Mercedes having a front running car, something which the 2011 model never was. Most have labelled the German's season as a poor one and that coming back was a mistake. However i want to look back at this season with some perspective. In a way, this story has been a fascinating case study in the same way Lance Armstrong returning to cycling was. Here was a man who had been out of the sport for over 3 years. Yes, he had done the odd test and taken part in things like the race of champions but to actually throw himself back into the full time job of a F1 driver was a massive challenge. So many changes had taken place during his 'retirement' and so to actually be able to come back and run at a competitive pace would be a feat in itself.
Mid March in Sakhir, Bahrain and the comeback begins. Schumacher rolls in 6th in an uneventful race. He's struggling with the understeer in his car, the Mercedes front end is not biting and the narrower Bridgestones are not helping. He is able to hold to hold off Jenson Button behind due to the twisty nature of the circuit. Amidst all the hype, you could say its a low key return but in the what was probably the 3rd or 4th best car, it is a very respectable result 41 months after his last grand prix. A damaged car in Australia would have to carried through the Asian races in Malaysia and China and left him prey to several cars in Shanghai. Meanwhile his young compatriot Nico Rosberg was shining, taking a podium in Sepang and leading for a while in China before coming in 3rd.
The return to Europe would yield more happiness for Schumacher with a couple of 4th place finishes in Spain and Turkey. These were punctured by the controversial penalty in Monte Carlo but this was more down to mis information from the pitwall. What is important here is that he maximised his car in getting those 4th places, he was taking on world champions like Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso and beating them on track. How many drivers could take so long out of the sport and actually come back at 41 years old and be able to get in the mix like this? Niki Lauda came back with great success and Nigel Mansell to a lesser extent but i think most would struggle to rediscover the pace needed in such a competitive environment.
What was disappointing about Schumacher's driving this year was the way he battled wheel to wheel with several drivers. To me, he was sometimes naughty and dangerous with some of his on track tactics. In Montreal he squeezed Robert Kubica onto the grass and then crudely moved across into Felipe Massa's braking zone, leaving his former team mate with a broken front wing. There's nothing wrong with racing hard but he was pushing the limits too much. Things came to a head in Budapest when Rubens Barrichello was chasing down the Mercedes on fresh rubber and as he came down the inside, from himself squeezed towards the pitwall and then onto the grass. The reaction in the paddock was one of outrage and Schumacher found himself penalised. I actually felt there was another poor piece of driving from the German this season which went relatively unnoted. In Singapore, having been passed and squeezed wide by Nick Heidfeld the German seem to have the red mist descend on him and as they headed down Raffles Boulevard he launched his car down the inside, coming nowhere near getting slowed down for the corner. The Sauber was shoved into the barriers and Schumacher limped back to the pits with a damaged front wing. A reckless move borne out of anger and frustration it seem.
Japan and Korea were positive races for Schumacher. Points scored and overtakes on the likes of Barrichello and Kubica seem to silence the talk of him walking away from F1 at the end of the season. The season would finish with a scare though as a lap 1 spin in Abu Dhabi seen him facing the wrong way on the track and a huge hit from Vitantonio Liuzzi thankfully missed the German's head by inches. A reminder that the sport is dangerous and can never be totally safe.
So overall i can understand why this season is classed as a disappointment for Michael Schumacher. When somebody has won 91 races, 7 titles and been a dominant force in the sport for so many years, seeing him somewhere other than the front is an unusual sight. However remember the circumstances, to return after missing 3 seasons and be able to compete at a reasonable level may not be all his fans hoped for but it is still a very impressive display and shows how good the man is. Where he did suffer at times was going into battle on track with some drivers. Can he do more in 2011? Well, Mercedes themselves need to improve. Operations need to be restored to the standards of early on in 2009 and Ross Brawn has promised that restructuring will happen. KERS should be a strong suit for the team. Schumacher is up against a strong grid, has a team mate on the up in Nico Rosberg and needs better machinery but you never know, the great German may yet pull off a 92nd Grand Prix win in the future.
Images courtesy of www.mercedes-gp.com