The most successful driver Formula One has ever seen came back from a three-year retirement to drive the successor of last year’s world championship car—and had his worst-ever season amid, arguably, F1's most exciting season. What went wrong?
One Team Under Brawn
The slightly surreal success of Brawn GP in the 2009 Formula One World Championship would prove to be an ephemeral constellation of a hyper-intelligent team principal, a car perfectly molded to a very new set of regulations, the best
customer engine on offer, and two rejuvenated drivers, one at the absolute top of his game.
Following Jenson Button’s drive to both drivers’ and constructors’ world championships at the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, Brawn GP was scattered to the four winds. Button joined 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, Rubens Barrichello was hired by Williams, Ross Brawn and the team were purchased by Mercedes–Benz, and none other than Michael Schumacher was lured back from retirement to fill Button’s championship seat.
Mercedes’s return to Formula One after a slight gap of 56 years carried a foreboding sense of history about to repeat itself. Schumacher and Brawn had been the center of the Ferrari cocktail which had dominated Formula One to utter boredom until 2005. Years when Schumacher would stand on the podium of every race in an entire season. When he would secure the championship in mid-summer, unintentionally reintroducing the long-retired concept of the non-championship Grand Prix. When he would do all this with backing from both the sport’s regulators and his team that bordered on the nauseating.
What happened instead was something else. This year produced perhaps the greatest Formula One season in history, but Michael Schumacher and his Mercedes were nowhere near the tight braid of drivers competing for the championship until the ultimate four-way showdown in Abu Dhabi which saw Sebastian Vettel become the sport’s youngest-ever world champion.
Schumacher instead suffered through by far the worst full season of his career. His lowest ranking had been 5th—and that was in 1999, when he’d had to sit out 6 out of 16 races because of an accident at Silverstone that broke his leg. In 2010, he finished 9th. He was beaten by both Red Bulls, both McLarens, both Ferraris, he was outclassed by Robert Kubica in a Renault. Worst of all, his young teammate Nico Rosberg, who’s never won a race, beat him 15 out of 19 times.
What Michael Can Do When The Car Isn’t Right
To say that Formula One is a technical sport is quite the understatement. The only thing more technical is space travel. Just as you don’t see garage mechanics
running Mars missions, you don’t see drivers win world championships in fourth-best cars. While a mediocre or unlucky driver may lose races driving the fastest car, while an intelligent and crafty driver may triumph driving the second fastest, even the best driver cannot win the world championship in a car that’s the fourth of fifth fastest, which is what the Mercedes MGP W01 was in 2010.
But then Schumacher has driven cars that weren’t right before. Like his first one at Ferrari, the F310. Built for the 1996 season at the tail end of Ferrari’s long years in the doldrums, before Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, and Jean Todt descended on Maranello, it was good for one podium and ten retirements out of 16 races in the hands of Eddie Irvine. Schumacher drove the same car to eight podiums—three of them wins—single-handedly placing Ferrari a distant but credible second to Williams.
But the most damaging assessment of Schumacher’s troubles having nothing to do with the car is a story told in the July episode of Motorsport Magazine’s podcast:
On Friday afternoon at Hockenheim in the press conference, Norbert Haug [Mercedes-Benz’s motorsport director] was asked a question about essentially when is Michael [Schumacher] going to deliver or is he going to deliver and Norbert has done this countless times, there was another impassioned defense of Michael: “Oh, it’s not his fault, it’s the car,” all that.
Ross [Brawn], ten years ago…nine years ago, when I interviewed Ross, I said to him, “what is it about Michael that’s just different from the rest” and he said it’s what Michael can do when the car isn’t right.
Individual Signs of Distress
Schumacher has always been one of those drivers—like Bernd Rosemeyer, Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna or Jenson Button—who show their best in the rain. This year has had its share of waterlogged races, but Schumacher never rose to the occasion. At races like Shanghai, it was almost painful to watch as various people caught up with him and passed him in the rain with apparent ease. His best wet race was
Korea, where he finished 4th, but even there it took an accident that took out his teammate and an engine failure for race leader Sebastian Vettel to secure that position, incidentally his best in the season.
Then there’s the fact that 2010 was the first season when Schumacher was beaten by his teammate. And not by an insignificant margin:
Leonardo di Caprio Nico Rosberg outranked him in 15 of 19 races, collecting twice the points haul.
In a very different but equally distressing way, his bad manners on track have not mellowed with age. Just recall his buccaneer move on former teammate Barrichello in Hungary, where he almost slammed the Williams driver into a concrete wall.
A Very Good Driver In a Very Strong Driver Era
The hurdles ahead for an eighth title or even a race win are not likely to lighten. Nobody has ever come back to win the championship after three years of absence. The closest anyone has ever come was Niki Lauda in 1982, when he returned after two years away from Formula One. Unlike Schumacher, Lauda won his third race, in a very difficult season. Two years later, he beat his teammate Alain Prost to the world title, his third and last.
Lauda proves that one can come back and triumph in a strong field—but Schumacher has never actually won in a field with the current depth of talent. In his first career, he never had to race against Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, or Mark Webber and Jenson Button in non-useless cars. Then there’s Fernando Alonso, who beat him to the title in his last two seasons. To make things ever harder for him, the all-out fastest drivers—Alonso, Hamilton, and Vettel—are all very young, in their twenties, just like Robert Kubica, who has proven this year what he can do when the car isn’t right.
As summed by a great comment on the podcast I’ve quoted from above:
Schumacher was a VERY GOOD (not “GREAT”) driver in a VERY WEAK driver era (mid 1994–2002) at a time when Ferrari enjoyed an unusually significant edge on a number of fronts, incuding a veto on technical developments with the FIA (as confirmed by Max Mosley).
Further, Schumacher himself had a veto on any other potentially fast driver joining Ferrari.
Well…Shuey/Shumi now finds himself in a VERY STRONG driver era without any of those unusual advantages (on unlimited testing, fast teammate, no clear Number 1 status, no tailor-made Bridgestones for Ferrari/himself, no Rory Byrne to design a car specifically to cater to his unusual driving style)…
…and what you see is what you get, i.e. a VERY GOOD driver having to compete on equal footing with other VERY GOOD drivers—as well as (possibly) one GREAT driver (Hamilton)….
The Red Helmet of Bad Luck
It would be unwise to write off Schumacher at this stage. His seat at Mercedes is secure for next year and who knows what Brawn and company will cook up for him over the winter. Being the ludicrously competitive man he is, he’ll probably want to go out with a bang even if that takes another year or two. And while he may be 41, he’s about as fit as humanly possible at that age.
But he’ll have to decide whether his failure this year was him or the car. At the moment, he is blaming the car, saying that its technical troubles were more serious all season than publicly discussed. Which may be true, but it also happens to be in
his and Mercedes’s best interest to say that.
All great champions have suffered through failed years. Schumacher’s three years away and the changes in technology in those three years may explain a lot. But if he has another similar season or two, driving not a clunker but a well-financed Mercedes campaigned by a Ross Brawn team, especially if he’s beaten by his teammate yet again, he’ll become that saddest sight in sports: the once-great champion who couldn’t let go when the time was right, fading away. Even if Schumacher isn’t exactly a likable figure, it would be a shame to see him washed up and slow, supported by nothing but the inertia of his fame. Let’s hope he’ll have the wisdom to retire when the time is right—and if that time is now, he should retire in grace before the 2011 season kicks off in March.
One thing is certain: even if he stays, the red helmet has to go. It has proven to be infested with massive amounts of Manfred von Brauchitsch bad juju.
Photo Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Mike Cooper /Allsport, Mike Powell/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images