LONDON, March 5 — The return of Michael Schumacher, after three years away and at the age of 41, was always going to take top billing in a blockbuster of a Formula One season.
The big question, with the championship kicking off in Bahrain next week, is whether the German can roll back the years and deliver what is expected of him in a new era and against one of the most competitive fields in ages.
The box office needs the most successful driver of all time to be back with a bang, fighting wheel-to-wheel to increase his record tally of 91 race wins and challenging for an unprecedented eighth title.
Failure with his new Mercedes team could otherwise damage the glittering, and at times controversial, legacy that Schumacher had established over the 16 years before he retired from Ferrari in 2006.
“A lot of people will be interested to see how he copes,” reigning world champion Jenson Button told Reuters this week.
“It’s not just Michael at 41 that people are talking about, it’s Michael coming into a team that’s new to him,” added the Briton, whose place at the former Brawn team was taken by Schumacher after he decided to move to McLaren.
“He was with Ferrari for many years, where I’m sure he could pretty much have anything he wanted, whereas now Formula One is different.”
There will be many challenges ahead for ‘Schumi’, not least racing against three other world champions including one — McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton — who was not even in Formula One last time Schumacher was around.
The most fundamental task, however, will be making sure that he beats a young team mate who has yet to win a grand prix.
If he cannot assert himself over fellow German Nico Rosberg, then the script of returning hero will have to be rewritten at the very least.
Beating a team mate is always a driver’s best measure of how competitive he is and Schumacher has yet to come off second best against anyone set alongside him.
Rosberg, 24, is the first German to partner the former Ferrari ace and has shown he is no slouch in his four seasons with Williams. He has also been assured of equal treatment by Mercedes.
If he beats Schumacher, his stock will only rise. But it is a big if.
Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, Schumacher’s long-suffering team mate at Ferrari, grinned when asked after the first day of pre-season testing last month what advice he could give to Rosberg.
“Get out of there,” he joked. “Knowing what I know, and seeing how fast Michael went today, it is going to be a tough job.”
Schumacher has shown in testing that he still has the pace and fitness. Never one to espouse the line that the competing is as important as the winning, he is certainly not coming back just for fun.
“People, including me, are expecting big things from Michael and I think there is no reason why he shouldn’t win the championship if the car is good enough,” Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said recently.
If Mercedes can give him the tools then Schumacher may not have too many qualms about abandoning the quiet life at home in Switzerland with his wife and young children to rejoin the travelling circus.
Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn, a close ally from the days when the Briton was Ferrari technical director, certainly has no concerns about Schumacher’s mental or physical preparation.
“He’s got a tremendous work ethic and he wouldn’t do this unless he was convinced that he can do the job. And I’m convinced he can do the job,” he said back in January.
“There is nothing in a racing car that wears out parts of your body, it’s just down to your stamina and strength,” he added. “So I fully expect Michael to be able to cope with any demands we make of him.”
Schumacher feels he has nothing to prove about his age, although the battle between the “old man” and young warriors such as Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will be one of the storylines of the season.
Vettel, overall runner-up with Red Bull last year, made his debut only in 2007 when he acquired the nickname of “Baby Schumi”.
Schumacher, as excited as a novice when testing the car for the first time last month, can hardly wait for battle to commence.
“I just have to prove to myself that I am still able, but the main reason why I am doing this is because I feel again thrilled by it,” he said at a team presentation in January.
“I feel big excitement to just drive and compete at the highest level of motorsport.” — Reuters
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