Thursday, August 18, 2011

Schumacher back on form in Spain

"Judge me after four races" was how Michael Schumacher courted the world on his Formula 1 comeback.

The verdict after his latest 10th-place finish in China left him 40 points shy of team-mate Nico Rosberg was inevitably and hugely critical.

Even the seven-time champion admitted immense disappointment at his inability to make progress in the type of changeable, wet conditions where he had once reigned supreme.

Little wonder, then, that one of the jokes doing the rounds in Shanghai was that the Mercedes upgrade for this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix should be Nick Heidfeld - the promotion of the reserve driver to a race seat.

That was never going to happen. But something else has - and it is turning heads in the Barcelona pit lane as much as the striking new look of Mercedes upgraded car, with its airbox split either side of a fin running down over the engine cover.

For the first time since his return, Schumacher has been quicker than Rosberg in both Friday practice sessions. And more significantly, he has talked of having confidence to drive the car how he used to.

"The car goes where I want it, and I don't have to wait too long to go to this point," he said after his most productive Friday of the season, which he finished more than half a second quicker than his team-mate.

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Part of the improvement is down to Rosberg's struggle for the right set-up for this highly sensitive aerodynamic track, whereas Schumacher nailed his balance more quickly on similar fuel loads. But not all.

The team have been hugely impressed by the 41-year-old's performance through the high-speed corners. "I've never seen anything like it," was how one team member put it. "Today was a genuine performance."

I'm also told that Schumacher is reaping the reward of a new chassis which he used in the pre-season test here.

One engineer estimated that the previous one, which he damaged over the kerbs in Bahrain and Melbourne, had been costing him around 0.3 seconds per lap ever since, despite the team making running repairs.

Some have seized on this upturn in performance as further proof that Schumacher is forcing the team to dance to his tune, which is out of step with Rosberg's preferences.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it, harking back to the accusations of favouritism during his champion days at Ferrari?

But sources at Mercedes are adamant that this is not the case.

I'm told that Rosberg was in full agreement with the decision to alter the weight distribution within a longer wheelbase, which is what is behind the car's change in behaviour.

One source at the team's factory in Brackley said that this design change had been put into action pretty much after the first morning of the car's very first test in Valencia in February, when the team had their worst fears over the W01's weight distribution confirmed.

"Michael's not had the front grip he was used to. The balance has never been right, and he's never had to go down this development path before," the source told me.

"He's still learning about the narrower front tyres [that were introduced for 2010]. Hopefully he can now drive the car as he always intended, and there are more upgrades to come before Silverstone."

The team believe they've drawn level with McLaren and Ferrari, with Red Bull still in front, particularly in qualifying.

It's not a complete renaissance, however. I'm told that Schumacher is still struggling to get the best out of his tyres in the wet.

But if the weekend remains dry, and the forecast seems to vary depending on which team you talk to, Mercedes believe Schumacher could be quick enough for a place on the second row of the grid.

Before practice, I'd been warned by one source that, while Schumacher wouldn't admit it, he was determined to finish ahead of Rosberg on a Friday.

Job done. Now for the real business of the weekend.

Barcelona's most successful performer may have been out-qualified by his younger, less celebrated team-mate at all four races in 2010, but there are signs that, far from losing it, Schumacher is finding his way as only he can.


Gianni Morbidelli Roberto Moreno Dave Morgan Silvio Moser Bill Moss Stirling Moss Gino Munaron

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