Michael Schumacher was inspired to make his sensational F1 comeback with Mercedes Grand Prix by the title-challenging form last year of erstwhile Ferrari team-mate – and, until now, the oldest competitor in the field – Rubens Barrichello, contends ex-Ferrari star Jean Alesi, a man who believes that the undimmed speed and experience of the most successful driver in history will reap dividends in 2010.
Schumacher and Barrichello partnered one another at Maranello from 2000 until 2005, during which time the Brazilian played very much a subservient, supporting role in the German's acquisition of an extraordinary five straight drivers' crowns – tasting only the scraps of glory himself along the way, with nine grand prix victories to his name over the same period.
However, for the first time in his own 17-season career at the highest level – and completely against expectations, given that many had pensioned him off even before the campaign had begun – the Paulista then went on to challenge for the ultimate laurels himself last year at Brawn GP, and that, argues Schumacher's close friend Alesi, was quite probably as compelling an argument to return as any.
“Rubens Barrichello was still in contention for the championship until the penultimate race,” the Frenchman reflected of F1 2009, speaking to German publication Auto Motor und Sport
. “Michael always had Rubens under control at Ferrari, so he probably said to himself, 'If the back-up driver can be up front, so can I.”
Alesi – who raced for Ferrari himself in the top flight from 1991 until 1995, famously and emotionally claiming his sole grand prix triumph in his final campaign with the Prancing Horse at Montreal in Canada – went on to predict that 'Schumi' will very much still be able to cut it at the grand old age of 41 this year, even when the majority of his anticipated close rivals such as Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and highly-regarded young compatriot Sebastian Vettel will be nearer to half his age.
The Kerpen native has underlined that he is back for one reason and one reason only – to add yet more trophies to his record-breaking, extraordinary collection – and the man who replaced him at Benetton in 1996 when the pair effectively swapped seats in F1 suggests that is a threat that Schumacher's adversaries should not take lightly.
“The fact that he has left Ferrari [proves that his return] has to be very important to him already,” reasoned the 45-year-old, who has begun working with the Scuderia
again of late on its sportscar programme. “He still has the enjoyment [of F1] like a child, and he is so excited about the new season as if it were his first. If you stop being a racing driver in Formula 1, it is as if you have lost your best friend. I consoled myself with the DTM; if like Michael, I had received an offer from a top team, I would be back in Formula 1 too.
“Michael cannot be measured by normal standards. He has lost none of its speed, and he has much more experience than his opponents like Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. He knows how to race with no pit-stops from the period before 1994, whereas the young drivers are wondering what to expect of that. If a driver can manage his tyres better over a long distance, he will have an advantage – and in this discipline, Michael was always very strong.”