The Curious Case of Michael Schumacher

April 27, 2010

An announcement that the Mercedes chassis Michael Schumacher used for the first four races of 2010 will be replaced with an alternative for the Spanish Grand Prix, has added to the conjecture searching for explanations as to why a) Michael has not been competitive even in his ideal ‘Regenmeister’ conditions and b) why he has been consistently outqualified and outraced by a team mate who many regarded as capable, but not having the killer instinct of a real champion.

Could it be that his car has some underlying fault that has so far been undetected by the constant analysis and monitoring that characterizes modern F1? – F1 cars are very complex systems and it could be that some kind of subtle flaw in the chassis has undermined his performance. But in the rain? In conditions when driving skill should surpass the slightest flaws in any car? Remember Ayrton Senna at the European Grand Prix in Donnington Park in 1993? McLaren had lost their super-competitive Honda engines (this was an era when engine power made all the difference) and were having to make do with underpowered Ford Cosworth power units, Senna overtook four cars in the first lap to move to first place, and of course we are not talking about any old F1 cars, two of them were the outstanding Williams Renault cars driven by Alain Prost and Damon Hill, but interestingly one of the others was a Benetton Ford, driven by one Michael Schumacher.

The second hypothesis is that Schumacher was only so dominant because he had a Ferrari team that was built around him and ensured that he always had the final word over his team mate – remember Rubens Barrichello being forced to accede to his team leader at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002? We also need to remember that tyre regulations during Michael’s peak allowed Bridgestone to work with Ferrari to create a tyre that optimized Michael’s driving style to the nth degree, leaving Michelin and their many front runners with a compromise between many chassis and drivers. So perhaps Michael really was just one part of the team, clearly a fundamental part, but his success and the team’s success were one and the same.

Of course there is a third hypothesis, and that is the one articulated by Ferrari Chairman Luca di Montezemolo, that this Michael Schumacher is a different man from the one that drove for Ferrari, he is now simply content not to be retired, he no longer has the hunger to win, but simply enjoys taking part. Unfortunately F1 is not the place for someone who just wants to take part, even (or perhaps especially) if your name is Michael Schumacher. At the start of the year I was unable to determine whether Michael was a winner or a loser (I had Mercedes GP down as a winner for hiring him), is it possible that his season could be so poor that he could undermine his entire reputation? It is clear that the hype surrounding his return, particularly in Germany, created huge expectations which appear to have been unfounded, it is perhaps this gap between what we expected and what we now see, that is the biggest problem for Michael. He may now be back in his old job, but if he cannot move beyond the current sense of disappointment that his comeback has recently generated, then he may decide that retirement is the better option after all, and this time he will have made the choice himself, on his terms.

So in Spain on 9 May the ‘European’ part of the season begins, we will get many upgrades and see who is really progressing in the development of their cars. We will also get a better idea regarding the curious case of Michael Schumacher – is it the car, the team or Michael?

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