One Step Forward

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Michael Schumacher won the Canadian Grand Prix seven times. Counting his other top three finishes, he celebrated on the podium 12 times in 15 starts around Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. He also started on the pole six times.

This year he started 13th and finished 11th in Canada. True, his car suffered from particular tire problems during the weekend, but on the other hand he still had not managed to get on the podium in any of the first eight races of his comeback season.

In Montreal this year he fought fierce battles in the midfield with the likes of Sebastian Buemi in the Toro Rosso and Tonio Liuzzi in the Force India.

This is the Mighty Michael who used to battle it out with the likes of top guns such as Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso and Ayrton Senna for race wins and championships. And now he’s fighting with lesser knowns? For 10th place?

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This is Schumacher who, driving for Benetton and Ferrari, went wheel-to-wheel with top teams like Williams, Renault and McLaren, not Toro Rosso, which was Minardi back then, or Force India, which used to be Jordan.

Given that Brawn/Mercedes won both championships last year, Schumacher obviously expected better results this season even taking into account that the other teams caught up to Brawn in the latter half of 2009. But he now admits the focus is on building up the team and car for 2011.

“You think in terms of championships, that is what my aim is,” he said, “but then at one point you understand, okay, your package is where it is, and then from then on you have to do a certain program and process, and that is what we are going through.”

He’s not giving up on 2010 however.

“The season is still long,” he said. “I don’t think, on my side, I am really in a position to talk much about the championship. For me it is more building up and organizing things for what happens from next year on. But you never know. It is a still a long year with many points available.”

Retiring Too Soon

Schumacher retired from F1 too early. His career lasted from 1991 through 2006 during which he smashed virtually every F1 record. He joined Ferrari in 1996 and ruled supreme for the next 10 years. Eventually, however, the team would have to find a successor.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo wanted Kimi Raikkonen to be the new king, while team principal Jean Todt wanted the Schumacher reign to continue for at least one more season in 2007. Luca won that battle, and Kimi was the new top man as Michael was edged into a corner by team politics and encouraged to quit.

While Schumacher wanted to race for at least one more year, the truth was he was weary of the constant grind. And he also didn’t want to mess things up for his teammate and good friend Felipe Massa who would be out of a job at Ferrari if Schumacher stayed on.

The Comeback

When Massa suffered a nasty head injury after an errant spring from another car struck him in the face during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, di Montezemolo asked Schumacher to come out of retirement and race the car until Massa returned. Schumacher, who was bored and racing superbikes, jumped at the chance. But, in the end, a neck injury he sustained in a motorcycle crash kept him from making a comeback.

But the seed was planted. Ross Brawn, who had been the technical director who helped steer Schumacher to all seven of his World Championships, asked Schumacher to join the Mercedes [nee Brawn] team for this season, and they signed a three-year deal.

Rusty Schu

As comebacks go, Schumacher’s has been far from stellar. In the first eight races his teammate Nico Rosberg racked up twice as many points.

Schumacher said he felt a bit rusty when it came to pulling off a blazing qualifying lap after he posted the seventh fastest time for the season opener in Bahrain.

“There are several reasons to it, but one is pretty certainly that I have to get back into it,” he said at the time. “I just need to get the rhythm, although slowly and progressively it has improved, but it’s challenging and that’s a good thing. It’s just having the rhythm and having this fine-tuning and getting the car to your liking.”

“I mentioned in my first test I feel like I just started in F1,” Schumacher added. “In Valencia during the first lap [at that first test this year] I was a bit shocked, but then I was straight back into it and felt very comfortable and it was exactly as it was in 1991 in a way [in my first F1 race.] And as well as in ‘91, in my first qualifying I finished seventh, so here we are!”

At the next race, in Australia, Schumacher, 41, spent much of the race battling with Jamie Alguersuari far back in the pack. Alguersuari, who had just turned 20 five days earlier, was clearly not awed by the seven-time champion.

This and subsequent midfield battles with midfield runners show a key difference between the two Schumacher eras. In Era One drivers would almost meekly move aside when Schumacher loomed up behind. And if they didn’t he dealt with them quickly and ruthlessly. It was just like with Ayton Senna – when midfield drivers saw his yellow helmet in their mirrors they knew it wouldn’t be there for very long. In Era Two, the drivers don’t care who Schumacher is or was.

Not a Magician

While Schumacher and Senna could extract stunning results from a mediocre car, the basic truth remains in F1 that a driver is only as good as his car. The Mercedes W01 suffered from severe understeer which is partially caused by the designers getting the weight distribution equation wrong on the car. Schumacher detests understeer.

“Everyone has his own point of view of the way I’m performing,” Schumacher said in April, “but the only opinion I care about is mine and I’m quite relaxed about the way things are going for me.

“Certainly things go better and better each time I am out on the track. I am getting back into it. There are limits to what you can do, and I drove exactly within those limits. I am not a magician. We knew that we might not be as competitive at the beginning of the season, but life is not predictable and you can’t have wishful thinking. I am very confident that we will get there. It might take us a bit longer than we hoped for.”

In Malaysia, round three, team boss Ross Brawn told PRN: “Michael is settling in. It has taken him a couple of races to learn how to use the tires, and how these cars work.”

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Finally, in Spain, the fifth race of the season, Mercedes had its vastly improved car ready. For the first time, Schumacher out-qualified and out-raced teammate Rosberg. Pundits were quick to suggest that this was because the upgrades to the Mercedes W01 were specifically aimed at suiting Schumacher’s driving style while being detrimental to Rosberg’s.

Not so, insisted Brawn.

“The developments on the car were in no way focused towards one driver or the other,” he said. “There were fairly consistent comments we were getting from both drivers. In some cases these types of developments take many months to do. Michael progressed well for the first three races and then took a step backwards in China.”

Mercedes increased the wheelbase by five centimeters by sweeping the front suspension forwards. This allowed the team to rearrange the ballast for better weight distribution. The revised car also has better brakes and increased downforce.

“It is a step forward, but we still have a car that is a bit too fragile in [keeping] its balance,” Brawn said.

The car also features a unique air intake for the engine, with nostrils on either side of the roll hoop replacing the traditional air scoop over the driver’s head. A large fin runs back to the rear wing.

“It is mainly to improve the airflow to the rear wing,” Brawn explained, “because mainly the air box and roll hoop structure are tied very closely together, and once you design an air box then you are committed to it because it is part of the [homologated] structure. With our system we can have different air boxes during the year at different tracks. The whole area is worth doing, but it is not massive compared to the gains you get from the floor, diffuser and wings.”

The Mercedes drivers said the car still has too much understeer, something they both dislike, but Schumacher coped with it better than Rosberg.

“The modifications allow me to set up the car a bit more specific to what I like,” Schumacher said, “and opens the window for possibilities but they don’t completely change the car.”

He may not be a magician but he is a perfectionist. And as such Schumacher couldn’t single out one race in the first eight of his comeback that was his best.

“There’s hasn’t yet been a best race,” he said at the Canadian Grand Prix. “Sometimes you have these very special races and moments where things really fit together perfectly and we are not there yet.

“I know I am coming there. It’s part of the reason that I’m doing this, to get to that point. But you need certain ingredients and we are still searching for those.”

Looking Ahead

By the time he got to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix Schumacher realized that 2010 is going to have to be a building year for 2011.

“We have made steady progress with the car,” he said. “We are in a buildup process with the team that goes extremely well. I am happy and pleased with how we work together, and how we progress. We don’t yet have the package to be absolutely up front right now. After winter testing it was not expected to be [that we would be in front.] But with what I see where we’re going, I am feeling very good.”

Schumacher went through the same building process at Benetton and Ferrari, helping take teams from the doldrums to championships. Does it still give him a huge amount of satisfaction to take a team, work with it and build it up?

“That’s part of the reason that I am here,” he told PRN. “The driving is one thing, but working closely and having a good understanding and good atmosphere with the team, that is what is very satisfying.”

What is the main difference in his life now to how it was when he left the sport?

“I’m probably enjoying it a lot more because I just take the important things seriously,” he replied. “I’m very happy with how the whole package of my life is going, for my family, for the excitement. I’ve no reason to complain at all. I feel very relaxed. I don’t need stress!”

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Is he faster than ever because he is more relaxed?

“I don’t think I’m faster,” Schumacher said. “I just think that I’m enjoying it more.”

The Canadian Grand Prix was Schumacher’s 256th F1 start, which tied him for second place in the record books with Riccardo Patrese. Only Rubens Barrichello, who will hit the 300 mark this year, has competed in more F1 races.

Schumacher has a three-year contract. In 2012, he too will have started 300 F1 races. But will he still be racing? Much as he says he is enjoying things, how long will he tolerate battling newcomers for 10th place and being outpaced by his teammate?

In June, the betting shops in Great Britain were offering odds of 7/1 that Schumacher would quit before the end of the season; 11/4 he would retire at the end of 2010; and 9/2 he would leave during the 2011 season.

Three years out of the cockpit of a F1 car is a long time. Schumacher is not up to pace yet, and neither is his Mercedes. It will be very interesting to see how things pan out in 2011 when driver, car and team should all be up to speed. Will we then see the return of the stellar Schumacher? Or will he still be mired in the middle of the pack?

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