Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Schumacher's struggles come into focus

By guaranteeing that he will be driving in Formula 1 in 2011, Michael Schumacher has at least silenced the growing speculation that his comeback would be a one-year wonder.

But the doubters and the critics remain to be convinced that he will ever recapture the brilliance that set him apart from his rivals and took him to a record haul of seven world titles.

Even a number of current drivers appear to be unimpressed by what they have seen of him over the first half of the season.

Lewis Hamilton, for example, yesterday described the Mercedes pairing of Schumacher and Nico Rosberg as "two solid drivers".

When asked whether he thought Schumacher had made it difficult for him to overtake in the rain in this year's Chinese Grand Prix, he just smiled broadly, paused then said: "If you think that, that's your opinion."

Jenson Button admitted that he "didn't expect him to be struggling at this stage".

Speaking privately, another championship contender who raced against him before he retired in 2006 firmly believes that the German will never be the supreme force he formerly was.

Not surprisingly, it being the German Grand Prix, this weekend has a very strong Schumacher focus.

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It's the first time since his return to F1 that he is racing in front of grandstands which became a Rhineland forest of flags and banners in his honour during his championship years.

But what's given the attention such momentum is the level of Schumacher's performance in 2010. He's beaten his team-mate just twice in 10 races, and been out-qualified eight times. Hardly champion form.

And Schumacher knows that. Some 109 points off Hamilton's championship lead, he's understandably ruled himself out of championship contention this year.

Yet he remains adamant that his unwavering aim to win an eighth world title next season is entirely plausible.

On one level, that attitude is entirely expected. This is, after all, Michael Schumacher we're talking about - one of the greatest drivers the world has ever seen, a man who never knew when he was beaten, and who was able to rise above uncompetitive machinery or treacherous conditions, or a combination of both, and still come out on top.

But on another level is Schumacher kidding himself, and only adding to the expectation which he has frequently described as being "unrealistic"?

Can he ever hit the high notes like he did before he retired - or is he just going to have to accept an unaccustomed place within the pack, albeit F1's most competitive pack in almost two decades?

It's hard to think of a classic Schumacher move this season, isn't it?

That pass on Fernando Alonso at the final corner in Monaco owed more to opportunism than outrageous talent, and, of course, was later penalised.

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He's admitted that he's not at the level he wants, still unable to get the maximum out of the new narrower front tyres.

The 2010 cars don't suit his more aggressive style of driving, where he prefers to turn in to a corner with massive front grip. Currently he's not finding the downforce he needs. He's losing out particularly in the slower corners, which require precision and technique under these new conditions.

"He's having to get used to feeling a tyre, controlling a tyre and finding the best way to get lap times from a tyre," Ross Brawn, his Mercedes team principal, has told BBC Sport in an interview to be broadcast on BBC One this weekend.

"He's finding it pretty challenging and we're not getting the results we expect."

Another team source has told me that Schumacher can't overload the tyres like he used to. It means he ends up fighting the car and over-driving to make up time which he can see he's losing to his team-mate.

That causes errors like the one which wrecked his final qualifying lap at Silverstone, where until the third part of the session he'd been the quicker Mercedes driver.

He was around three tenths of a second off Rosberg in the first race, and despite improvements at Spain, when a longer wheelbase car was introduced, and at Turkey, the gap has not closed.

Similarly, by trying to ride the kerbs like he used to, Schumacher has damaged the chassis. He's now on his third of the season.

Lack of testing has clearly handicapped him. "It's been a big challenge for him," according to Brawn, who supervised so many of the endless miles Schumacher put in around Ferrari's Fiorano test track, working his way through problems.

"I know when a lot of Michelin teams went on the Bridgestones (tyres in 2007), it took them six months to get competitive again - and some drivers suffered more than others in that phase," said Brawn.

More time in the car would be one part of the solution but the regulations don't presently allow for that.

Nor can Schumacher easily make up for the three seasons he was out of the cockpit.

Rubens Barrichello, only three years younger and a former team-mate, says he's driving better than ever but he's been involved in all the crucial phases of an F1 car's evolution in that time and as a result, he's been able to adapt to the frequent changes.

Schumacher, by contrast, stopped, and switched off that part of his life, and you can't just flick it back on.

But there is another view - expressed to me this week by two rival engineers, one of whom worked alongside Schumacher at Ferrari - that will raise howls of protest among the huge Schumacher fan club.

Their theory is that the seven-time champion's reactions have suffered in his time away from the sport. They believe he's finding it tougher to keep the balance of the car because he's not able to react quickly enough.

Both sources have completed sports science studies which showed how a sportsman's reflexes deteriorated from his late thirties onwards.

Schumacher's enthusiasm, commitment, knowledge and determination remain as sharp as ever but the whole racing package is not at its previous peak.

Damon Hill told us before Silverstone that nobody should write off Michael Schumacher, given his past achievements.

But under current conditions, it's hard to see him leading the way in the manner that he, and we, became accustomed to.

Now, it may be that Mercedes will produce a more competitive car for 2011 and Pirelli, which takes over from Bridgestone, will produce tyres that he can understand better.

If that's the case, then what a prospect - Schumacher in the mix alongside Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Webber and company.

On the other hand, it could be that F1 has seen the best of him - just like Lance Armstrong on his final Tour de France; seven times a winner but not once on his comeback.


Ernesto Prinoth David Prophet Alain Prost Tom Pryce David Purley Clive Puzey Dieter Quester

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