If the Schu fits...
- Manny N. de los Reyes () - August 12, 2009 - 12:00am

By now, every Tom, Dick and Pedro has had their say about the impending return of 7-time Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher to the grid in Valencia for the European Grand Prix on August 23.

For those who have just logged off from their online farming activities, Schumi is super-subbing for Ferrari driver Felipe Massa who was gravely injured in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last month by an errant suspension part that fell off the Brawn GP racecar of Rubens Barrichello. Said part hit the left front corner of the Brazilian’s helmet, knocking him out instantly and leaving him with an injured eye, a concussion, and a fractured skull. Thankfully, he’s making a miraculously fast recovery and has flown back to his native Rio de Janeiro.

Normally, a team’s test drivers would be next logical substitutes. But with Ferrari test drivers Marc Gene and Luca Badoer having had no wheel-to-wheel F1 racing experience for more than twice the amount of time that Schumacher has been away, the team principals looked to their illustrious alumnus for help. And I doubt if it took much soul-searching before Michael Schumacher found the answer.

It’s not the first time that a retired champion has needed to scratch the itch that being away from competition brings. We saw that in Mike Tyson. We saw it in Michael Jordan. Heck even rock starts and bands come out of retirement just to see if they’ve still “got it.”

And it’s probably the strongest and most compelling reason why Schumacher is now plugging away on lightning-fast shifter karts to get his fitness regime back on line – despite what other people, including the great champion himself, are saying.

Of course, news of his comeback has sparked countless comments, not the least of which are those coming from the F1 fraternity itself. Jenson Button touched it off by making one of the earlier comments, stating to the effect that it’s a no-win situation for Schumi – that if he wins, people will say it’s expected; and that if he loses, people will say that he’s lost it.

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, believes the 40-year-old German, who is almost twice his age, will find it difficult to live up to the high expectations being raised by his dramatic return to Formula 1, given that he has missed more than half of the 2009 season. Hamilton has never raced against Schumacher, having joined the F1 grid in 2007, the year after the German retired. The young Brit has already voiced his excitement at having the opportunity to do so, describing it as “an honor and a privilege.”

F1 ringleader Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, believes the German, who will become the oldest driver to compete in a grand prix since Nigel Mansell in 1995, will give his younger rivals a driving lesson when the five red lights go off in Valencia.

Needless to say, Schumacher’s surprise return has generated tremendous excitement – and controversy – in the F1 world, with the Williams team rejecting Ferrari’s request for the testing ban to be waived to give Schumacher one day’s testing behind the wheel of the current F60. Ferrari responded by accusing Williams of being unsporting.

I found it unsporting too. If Roger Federer had retired for over two years and wanted to play in Wimbledon again as a wild card, I doubt if the organizers or the other players will turn him away if he wants to practice on grass for a day before the tournament started.

And what of other former world driving champions who made their comebacks? What have they got to say? Triple world champion and former McLaren and Ferrari driver Niki Lauda believes Schumacher grabbed the opportunity of an F1 comeback because he was intrigued to find out if he could still perform at the highest level and was missing the adrenaline rush.

Lauda, who walked away from Formula 1 in the middle of the 1979 season as a Ferrari driver and then made a successful return with McLaren in 1982, suspects Schumacher felt he retired too early despite publicly professing to be content with his new life.

“He was never able to detox himself of the racing bug, as we have seen with his on-track motorcycle activities,” Lauda told itv-f1.com.

“In my opinion he retired at the end of the 2006 season because he couldn’t see a real challenge – and probably he regretted his decision.

“Now he’s got the unique chance to step in for the injured Massa to help his former team, and to find out for himself how competitive he still is.

“This is something that would also interest me, because this hunger for competition – for the adrenaline rush – never dies. It’s in our DNA.”

Lauda added that Schumacher was returning with different motives and objectives from those that inspired his own F1 comeback in 1982. It was a full-time return, with the great Austrian subsequently winning his third world title in 1984.

“I actually won the second race back after my retirement, but Michael is not racing for any championship,” said the Austrian.

“I came back because I wanted to win, if my comeback was successful. For Michael it’s nothing more than an interesting experiment.”

And what of Ross Brawn, who famously teamed up with Schumacher during their glory years at Benetton and Ferrari? Brawn, whose driver and team are leading the championship points, admits he is excited about the prospect of Schumacher returning to Grand Prix racing after nearly three years in retirement – and is convinced the German is still quick enough to win any of the remaining races this year given a competitive car.

Brawn believes a driver of Schumacher’s level will have no great difficulty in adapting to the 2009 cars, despite the major changes introduced this season.

“Formula 1 has not changed that much from a driving point of view,” he explained.

“The most significant novelty that Michael will face is the slick tires. But this is not a disadvantage because these tires make the behavior of the car more predictable.

“It’s true he doesn’t know Valencia, but the simulator will have helped him.”

Brawn believes a sense of obligation to Ferrari – the official reason given by both driver and team – was one factor, but also believes Schumacher jumped at the chance to enjoy himself without the pressure of a full-time contract.

“Michael has simply responded to the passion and the feeling of loyalty that he has for Ferrari,” Brawn said.

“It’s a passion which I continue to feel myself.”

And the side comments go on and on…

In the meantime, let’s wait with bated breath for August 23 and while away the time by appreciating the great German’s incredible achievements (stats courtesy of itv-f1.com):

• Most world titles: 7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)

• Most consecutive titles: 5 (2000-04)

• Most grand prix wins: 91

• Most wins in a single season: 13 (2004)

• Most consecutive wins in a single season: 7 (2004)

• Most wins at the same race: 8 (French GP)

• Most wins with one team: 72 (Ferrari)

• Most wins from pole: 40

• Most pole positions: 68

• Most front-row starts: 115

• Most podium finishes: 154

• Most second place finishes: 43

• Most points finishes: 190

• Most points scored: 1,369

• Most points in a single season: 148 (from a maximum of 180, in 2004)

• Most fastest laps: 76

• Most fastest laps in a season: 10 (from a maximum of 18, in 2004)

• Most races led: 141

• Most laps led: 5,108

• Furthest distance led in a season: 2,085 miles (2004)

• Fastest race-winning average speed: 153.843mph (2003 Italian GP)

• Most consecutive podiums: 19 (USA 2001 to Japan 2002)

• Most consecutive points finishes: 24 (Hungary 2001 to Malaysia 2003)

• Most consecutive seasons with a win: 15 (1992-2006)

• Most consecutive wins from pole: 6

• Most “clean sweeps” (pole, win, fastest lap): 22

• Largest points gap between champion and runner-up: 67 (2002)

• Earliest title winner: 2002 (in July, with 6 of the 17 races remaining)

• Longest continuous spell with one team: 11 seasons (Ferrari, 1996-2006)

• Most races with same team: 162 (Ferrari)

• Most time between first and last race wins: 14 years, 1 month and 1 day

• Never outqualified by his team-mate in 1992, 1993 or 1994

• Only driver to have finished every race on the podium: 2002

Others

• Won all his “landmark” GPs, winning on his 50th, 100th, 150th and 200th GP starts

• Only races he failed to win were South African, Mexican and Turkish GPs

• His record of 91 GP wins is only one shy of the combined total of the next two most winning drivers, Alain Prost (51) and Ayrton Senna (41)

• Scored points in a remarkable 76.6% of all his GP starts

• Led 56.9% of all GPs he started

• He was controversial, too. Michael was banned or disqualified from more races than anyone else (banned from two races and disqualified from another in 1994; excluded from 1997 world championship results for collision with Jacques Villeneuve).

Bring on Valencia!

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