Ever since his retirement, Formula One’s most successful driver has been itching to return. Back for 2010, driving Ross Brawn’s world champion Mercedes, only one question remains: can a 41-year-old man kick ass in modern F1?
Michael Schumacher drove his 249th and last Formula One race on October 22, 2006 at Interlagos and he was driving for an eighth world championship slipping lap by lap from his grip. Looking at his furious, otherworldly drive, you would have figured him a scrappy blitz-fast kid out to prove himself in the Brazilian heat. Not so: freefalling into the braking zones was perhaps the most accomplished single-seater driver who has ever lived, a 37-year-old champion of seven times, a man who won 37% of Formula One races held between 1991 and 2006.
He would not win on his last day out. An early puncture and a resulting lap of excruciating stillness saw the entire field pass him and he spent all race fighting his way up. When the flag dropped, he was fourth, cheated of a last win only by the randomness of carbon fiber shards and time.
It was a remarkable drive from a remarkable man whose retirement had by then already been announced, but it did make you wonder: what would Michael Schumacher do next? Would consulting for Ferrari and campaigning for driver safety really tie up his creative energies? Just witness his trademark podium leaps, unchanged in intensity over fourteen years of wins:
His eventual return has been rumored ever since he bowed out that day. After neck pains prevented him from substituting for an injured Felipe Massa in August, he is now finally back in high style. Over barely a year, Ross Brawn—the technical genius behind all seven of his world titles—has engineered the double transformation of a lackluster Honda F1 effort into a world champion as Brawn GP then into Mercedes–Benz’s factory team, the first since 1955. From this Anglo-German Death Star of Silver Arrows will Schumacher descend at the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix on March 14, driving his 250th Formula One race for a cool $10 million per season.
To say that his three years in retirement were uneventful in Formula One would be somewhat of an understatement. Three years have produced three new world champions. Very young and very fast drivers filled racing seats and racked up dozens of races’ worth of experience. Jenson Button has proven that he is of winning stuff after all. In Lewis Hamilton and fellow German Sebastian Vettel, the sport has new natural talent comparable to a young Michael Schumacher. The cars have also changed in ways large and small: vastly different rules govern aerodynamics and 2009 has seen the return to slick tires.
Three and a half years after his last race, then, the sport's sole quadragenarian will return to a field of changed teams, new rules and young drivers.
One would probably find it impossible to create a fair ranking of racing drivers over the history of motor racing, but if one were to focus on single-seaters and on drivers who have proven to be both supernaturally fast and equipped with the luck and the street smarts to find themselves in the best cars, one could perhaps arrive at this shortlist: Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna. Champions who could make inferior machinery sing, who could maneuver themselves into the best cars, who could drive so fast that you could reasonably infer alien forces shifting their gears.
Of particular interest is Fangio, Mercedes’s last world champion. Not only was he by far the superior driver of his era, he was also very far from being a spring chicken: when he drove his old Maserati against young Britons at the 1957 German Grand Prix to claim his last win and his last world title, he was 46 years old.
But that was then. The grand prix car has undergone vast evolution over the past fifty years: made of carbon fiber, running on fat slicks, cornering as if painted on the road due to highly advanced aerodynamics, the modern Formula One car is a Raptor to Fangio’s Mustangs, and not in the automotive sense.
The evolution of the Grand Prix car has also prompted an evolution in the men who drive them. Enduring 3–4 hour races on bad roads with no harnesses required stamina, but a different sort of stamina than dictated by the earthbound fighter jets which inhabit modern racetracks. Like a sprinter or a short-distance swimmer, the 90 minutes of videogame-fast action that is a contemporary grand prix seems to favor men who are incredibly fit, highly athletic, and also very young.
This is not so across all of motor racing. Le Mans-style competitions of endurance still reward drivers of great experience, who tend to be in their middle ages. So while a thought experiment would allow for a very successful late-career Fangio at next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, you would probably not want to put him in a high-downforce F1 car to compete against teenagers.
Where does all this leave Schumacher? The fastest men in next year’s field—Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel—were kindergarteners when he was already winning races in Formula One. Grand prix cars evolve with the haste of bacteria, so whatever he drove for Ferrari in 2006 is likely to have little in common with Brawn’s 2010 concoction for his new German masters.
Ultimately, of course, none of this matters. Michael Schumacher is such an extreme deviation from every other driver that his performance cannot be predicted from neither history nor by common wisdom. Niki Lauda and Alain Prost may have come back from retirement to win world championships and Juan Manuel Fangio may have won his greatest race at an even more advanced age, but they are not Michael Schumacher and they will not be driving the 2010 Mercedes.
You may not like Michael Schumacher. His monomaniacal competitiveness has at times skated not right up to but beyond what’s fair, and coupled with the cynical, humorless machine that Ferrari was under Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, he has never managed to become a lovable driver.
Yet what a great spectacle we all will surely be treated to. A once-in-a-generation talent who has seen it all up against an ensemble of young guns, driving the successor of a championship car, driving for a team which has never lost a world championship—neither as Mercedes in 1954 and 1955, nor as Brawn GP in 2009. Just please, Messrs. Schumacher and Brawn, don’t pull a Barrichello on Nico Rosberg.
And don’t park the damn Benz on the track.
Photo Credit: PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Clive Rose/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images, JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU/AFP/Getty Images, CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP/Getty Images, PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images, Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images, STF/AFP/Getty Images, SAMIRA BOUHIN/AFP/Getty Images