Monday, June 20, 2011

Michael Schumacher finally finds his form

In all the excitement following Jenson Button's stunning fightback from last place to victory in the Canadian Grand Prix, one man has been overlooked.

Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher put in by far his most convincing performance since he came out of retirement at the beginning of last year, narrowly missing out on a podium position.

The German legend's race in Montreal was a far cry from some of his lacklustre showings in the last 15 months. Competitively fast and assured in his handling of rivals on the track, he looked like he belonged at the front of a grand prix. And it has been a long time since anyone could confidently say that.

Could this be the beginnings of some consistent form from Schumacher, even a sign that he may yet recover the former greatness that won him a record seven world titles and 91 victories in his first career in Formula 1?

His team principal Ross Brawn, the man who masterminded all of Schumacher's world championships, knows him better than most. He told BBC Sport in an exclusive interview that he had "always had the confidence" Schumacher would make a success of his comeback.

"I wouldn't say (it's) a breakthrough because that's too strong a word," Brawn said, "but there have always been some niggling reasons why Michael's not had the best opportunities to demonstrate what he can do.

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"He's had the odd 'mare of a race, which every racing driver does, but of course when he has one it tends to get focused on.

"But there have been lots of races where his times in the races have been pretty comparable with Nico (Rosberg, his team-mate) but they've not reflected in final results."

Brawn describes Schumacher's drive in Montreal as "some vintage Michael, particularly some of his racecraft and overtaking manoeuvres during the race". And that was indeed one of the most striking aspects of his performance.

At times during his comeback, Schumacher has looked at sea alongside his younger rivals - the most recent example being an embarrassing performance in Turkey.

But in Canada he was fair and robust - positioning his car perfectly in defence, feisty but precise and calculating in attack - and was heavily involved in the sort of strategic decisions with which he and Brawn used to make their rivals look flat-footed.

"If I had to comment," says Brawn, "I think that side of him is better than it used to be because I suppose maybe having to fight your way through or battling in the pack there is more opportunity to demonstrate those skills. But his manoeuvres at the starts of races or the occasions when he demonstrates his race-craft on the track have been quite entertaining this year."

The key call in Canada - in which Schumacher was instrumental - was being the first car to switch to intermediate tyres from full wets after the restart which followed the two-hour race stoppage. That enabled him to be second to championship leader Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull as the field prepared for the final re-start.

A podium would have been a fitting reward, but he lost out to Button and Red Bull's Mark Webber thanks partially to the DRS overtaking device arguably making passing a little too easy in Canada and his second place became a close fourth at the flag. So it is little wonder Schumacher was, as Brawn puts it, "very, very frustrated".

Brawn, though, does not see this as the watershed moment in Schumacher's comeback one might imagine it could be.

"He's a very experienced, confident guy anyway," Brawn says, "so I don't think it will make a dramatic difference to his confidence or his belief in his ability to do it.

"It's a useful boost but I don't think he's a guy who needed something to flip him from one side to another. I don't think he was in a bad position and needed a good result to put him in a good position. He's always been in a pretty good position.

"The main thing is we need to give him a better car. There was a period in the race when the car was probably as good as anyone's and he was the quickest car. If we give him the equipment, he's demonstrated he's as quick as anyone."

Ah, but there's the rub. Has he, really?

In Canada, Schumacher qualified within a hair's breadth of Rosberg and was quicker than him through most the race.

Rosberg, though, had his own problems - his wet tyres were over-pressured, causing him to lose grip, and later on his car sustained significant damage to its floor, costing him key aerodynamic downforce, after he was hit from behind by Adrian Sutil's Force India. So, as Brawn says, "it wasn't an easy race (in which) to compare (the drivers)".

The facts are that Schumacher has generally been out-paced by Rosberg in their 26 races as team-mates. The qualifying record this year stands at six-one in favour of Rosberg, although the two are equal on points so far, which is a big change from last year, when Schumacher was out-scored two to one.

And beyond that there is the question of how good Rosberg is. Has he matured into a world-class F1 driver who can be talked of in the same breath as the sport's current big three - Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Vettel? Or is he - as one paddock wag put it recently - "one of the not-quite-good-enough best drivers in the world"?

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Many questions arise out of this. Is Schumacher doing the job of a man who deserves his place in F1? In Canada, the answer was certainly yes. Does he justify being considered in the top 10? Is he as good as he was? If not, will he ever be?

"That's always the interesting debate," Brawn admits, "because Nico is a reference that's in a little bit of a vacuum because he has not come up against the strongest drivers on a regular basis in the past. But he has matured and improved a lot over the last couple of years, so he's a very strong reference.

"You can play that comparison game any way you like.

"Where is Michael compared to where he was? Is the fact that Nico outqualifies him more often than not a demonstration that Michael is a bit slower than he was or that Nico is an exceptionally quick driver?

"Who knows? I don't have any way of calculating that equation. It's a comparison in a vacuum.

"All I do know is if we get the car better we've got two drivers who can produce the results. It's down to us to improve the car and give them that opportunity."

Mercedes bosses have understandably been reluctant so far to engage in this debate so perhaps the fact Brawn is now willing to give it a go tells you all you need to know about the point Schumacher arrived at in Montreal.

When Schumacher returned to F1 in 2010, Mercedes said he had signed a three-year contract but he has struggled so much at times that there has been constant speculation about whether he will see it out.

If he carries on in the vein of Canada, those doubts will all go away. And Brawn says Mercedes - the team and the wider car company - are happy he is able to perform at the level they require him to be.

"There is no question about that," he says. "Every team wants an unfair advantage, where they can have an average car and the driver takes care of the rest.

"Our car might be even worse than we think and we've got the two fastest drivers in F1. Who knows? We won't know.

"All we know is we're not winning races at the moment and we don't need to change the drivers to fix that, all we need to do is have a faster car."


Nicola Larini Oscar Larrauri Gerard Larrousse Jud Larson Niki Lauda† Roger Laurent Giovanni Lavaggi

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