Will Gray

Gray Matter: Is Schumacher ready for the scrapheap?

Will Gray

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Michael
Schumacher was placed on the F1 scrapheap by some observers last weekend after
he admitted missing the "big joy" he had in previous years -- but is
the reactionary talk of retirement a little premature?

When
Schumacher and Mercedes teamed up last year it was seen as a big risk for a man
who had little left to prove in the sport -- but he did not see it that way.

Schumacher
had remained a fixture in the paddock, standing on pit wall for Ferrari, and
his reason for returning to the cockpit was simple: he still had F1 running
through his veins and he missed the thrill of being out on track.

Tempted
back by Ferrari when Felipe Massa was injured in Hungary in 2009, his
enthusiasm for a return grew stronger when the buzz around his planned comeback
proved not only that the appetite for his presence in F1 was still huge but
also that he was still regarded as the man most of the grid wanted to beat.

He
felt he was still in good shape, and after a few runs behind the wheel of old
machinery he believed he could still race competitively. The original comeback might
have failed due to a neck injury, yet the taster was enough to tempt him back
when Mercedes came calling.

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File photo of Mercedes Formula One driver Schumacher gesturing before the qualifying session of the Australian F1 Grand Prix at the Albert Park circui
But
things have not quite gone to plan.

One
of the biggest challenges Schumacher has faced is in the way he is positioned
within the Mercedes team. Unlike his dominant championship-winning eras, when
he bossed the teams he raced for with a firm number two at his side and the
team responding to his every request, Mercedes chose not to follow this trend.

Instead,
they challenged Nico Rosberg to race for a career -- and when the former
Williams man performed he was soon seen as key to their future plans. That left
Schumacher, already one of the oldest racers of the modern era, having to take
second best.

He
has always insisted that statistics mean little to him, but the one that shows
him 0-4 up against Rosberg in qualifying this year has to hurt.

Having
failed to make the top-ten shoot-out in the opening three races, he appeared to
be getting closer to Rosberg in Turkey, finishing just over three tenths off in
Q2 as he made it into the final qualifying session for the first time this
year. But instead of capitalising on that, he finished more than a second slower
on his first run then was not able to do a second run because he had to save
his tyres.

In
the race itself, a collision with Vitaly Petrov ruined his chances of a strong
result but once his front wing was repaired he did a fair job at running on the
pace of his rivals, with his performance made to look less impressive by the
out-of-position racing the complex tyre strategies are creating this season. In
actual fact, he may have looked like he was losing position after position, but
in real terms he was pretty much matching Jenson Button on the same strategy.
Yet his fastest lap was still some way off the one set by Rosberg.

One
of Schumacher's former 'number twos' Johnny Herbert claimed last weekend that
Schumacher's remarks came from the fact the new generation drivers are "simply
better than him" and that "the level required to win has gone up"
and he cannot reach it.

But
it's not that the quality of drivers has necessarily risen, that reigning
champion Sebastian Vettel is better than Schumacher was at his prime; it is
more that the game has changed and Schumacher has too.

Fitness
has never been a problem for Schumacher, but with technology more and more
involved in this area, personal trainers, dieticians and focused training
programmes are getting more out of the drivers and it is a proven fact that
younger bodies can be pushed that little bit further.

In
terms of tyres, Schumacher no longer has the excuse of having to learn the
slick tyres as all drivers are having to get to grips with the quick wear rates
of the new Pirellis. His driving style should make him easy on his tyres, yet
for some reason they are not behaving for him and he is still searching for the
reasons why.

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File photo of Mercedes' Schumacher driving during the qualifying session of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at Shanghai International circuit
He
has always been able to get the best out of a good car but although Mercedes is
improving with every race, the fact the team is not solely focused on
Schumacher's car means there are more compromises between set up and design
development and less chance for him to steer through the changes he wants to
suit him.

Push-button
racing has also changed things. While he has had to get used to an increasing
number of buttons on the steering wheel during his career, none dramatically
altered the racing itself until KERS and DRS came along. These two changes have
created a new level of PlayStation-style racing to which Schumacher, it seems,
is a generation removed.

The
'push to pass' gadgets also require even more commitment out on track, as there
is more speed differential between cars and more potential for things to go
wrong. It requires trust in the machinery, and it has been suggested that in
the Mercedes telemetry Schumacher lacks confidence when coming off the DRS.

However,
despite these challenges, Schumacher has proven he still has the commitment of
a racer time and again this season, despite looking like he will never get back
to his best.

And
looking back on his post-race comments in Turkey, he probably regrets
highlighting what was, in truth, just a typical racer's reaction to a poor
finishing position.

Indeed,
before that race weekend he had praised the new regulations, saying enthusiastically:
"There is fantastic fighting. I was in the middle of that (in China), I
had lots of action and I have to say I enjoyed it big time."

If
he really did return simply to enjoy the thrill of racing again, then those do
not sound like the words of a man who's ready to retire...

 

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