Formula One heads to Germany this weekend with the nation's
new star Sebastian Vettel firmly in the ascendancy and Michael Schumacher gently
fading - but can the former champion make things happen on home soil?
The red sea of flags and caps that once filled the stands
of the German circuits during Schumacher's dominant Ferrari days is long gone,
but the seven-time world champion's hopes of flooding them with Mercedes silver
on his comeback have failed and the Red Bull blue of Sebastian Vettel will be
increasingly visible this weekend.
Like Schumacher back in the day, Vettel is now the one
facing the pre-race questions about the pressure on home soil, and like his
predecessor he is comfortably brushing them off with aplomb.
"Many times people talk about pressure and things
that can slow you down but it is more positive than anything else," Vettel
said ominously at the circuit on Thursday.
"People everywhere support you and try to push you
forward to maybe find this extra tenth or two, so it's great to have this
opportunity to race in front of my home country."
If Vettel does gain the extra couple of tenths of crowd
power then he should be unstoppable again this weekend.
In marked contrast, Schumacher is facing some less
comfortable pressure and needs every tenth he can get from the crowd as he
continues to use the glum explanation that the team's car "just didn't
work out" this season as a way of fending off questions over his struggle
That, however, is only part of the problem.
The German fans may have happy memories of Schumacher at
his best but everyone wants to back a winner. Given Red Bull's dominance, the
sway towards Vettel is a given but, him aside, Schumacher had certainly not
bargained on being so firmly beaten once again by his German team-mate Nico
Rosberg this year.
Rosberg has taken their qualifying battle seven to two in
the nine Grands Prix so far this year and although it's more even in races at
4-3 to Rosberg, Schumacher is flagging on 28 points to Rosberg's 40.
After a disappointing comeback season in 2010, this
season has perhaps been even more soul-destroying because all the excuses for
failure last year were explained away with reasons why things would improve for
Schumacher this time around, and that just has not happened.
Schumacher's loyal fans will still turn out to cheer him
on, even if some may also wear the hat of Vettel on the quiet, but now they
might actually have reason to believe in the old guard again.
Schumacher has recently shown flashes of form that
suggest he is finally coming to terms with the new format of Formula One, and
perhaps tellingly he has spoken positively the first time since his return
about a clarity on those most vital areas of car balance and tyre wear.
At Silverstone, where Mercedes's new exhaust system
improved their pace, Schumacher failed to benefit when his side of the garage
fluffed their timing in qualifying and left him down in 13th, from where he
made a mistake and collided with Kamui Kobayashi early on in the race.
But it was Schumacher's form after that incident which
demonstrated his new belief, with the German setting consistently competitive
lap times through the rest of the race, ending with a narrowly quicker fastest
race lap than Rosberg and claiming fourth would have been possible had he not
had his earlier troubles.
The danger of optimism is that Mercedes' season seems to
be going up and down like a yo-yo, but if the upward trend continues could we
see one last home hurrah for Schumacher?
The seven-time world champion has won nine times on
German soil - five at the Nurburgring, in the European Grand Prix, and four at
Hockenheim, in the German Grand Prix.
His chances of ever hitting double figures are now
probably next to nil (unless rain upsets the order), but this weekend is not
about overall victory; it's about the increasingly enticing national intra-team
battle at Mercedes.
Schumacher was never used to having to fight for his
place within a team back in the old day, but that's the new reality. This
weekend, he appears to have a renewed confidence and his legend will be
emphasised when he races for the first time through a corner that bares his
name - so if that doesn't spur him on to firmly put his marker down, then maybe
it really is time to hang up that helmet...