6 August 2010
COMMENT: Will the real Michael Schumacher please stand up...
Off-the-pace, out-of-the-hunt and increasingly a law unto himself out on the racetrack, the Michael Schumacher of 2010 is a pale shadow of his former self. And should he elect to stay put, he could just find 2011 even harder...
And so it has come to this. In a desperate effort to steal the headlines now that he can seemingly no longer do so on pure talent, Michael Schumacher has resorted to risking the lives of his competitors on the evidence of last weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix. Unpalatable as that might sound, to the German legend it is likely a damn site more acceptable than the thought that he squeezed Rubens Barrichello within millimetres of the Hungaroring pit wall merely to secure the final point for a lowly tenth place.
Much has been written and debated about Schumacher's intensely-hyped and even more intensely underwhelming return to top flight competition with Mercedes Grand Prix this season, three years on from his original 'retirement' from F1 at the end of a glittering first career and at the age of 41, making him by more than three years the oldest driver in the present field. Judging by his Budapest madness, with age does not necessarily come wisdom.
Between 1991 and 2006, the Kerpen native tallied no fewer than seven world championship trophies, 91 grand prix victories, 154 podium finishes, 1,369 points and earned himself a reputation for fairly destroying every team-mate that he ever had. Fast forward to 2010, and the most successful driver in the sport's long history no longer looks even so much as a shadow of his former self.
Listless in battle, all-too-often an easy touch – though Barrichello might tell you differently – and a poor ninth in the drivers' standings, he trails young team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg by 38 points to 94, and ten-two in qualifying. Since when was the great Michael Schumacher out-qualified ten times during a season by anybody in the same team as him?
Indeed, having called for time and promised that he would get better earlier on in the campaign, in truth he has only got worse – and that despite Mercedes redesigning its car to purposely suit his needs. The last time he began a race from a single-digit grid slot was in Istanbul more than two months ago. Granted, the MGP W01 has hardly been a competitive proposition of late, but still Rosberg has made the top ten on the grid four times in the last five races. 'Schumi'? Just once.
And that's merely to talk about one-lap speed. Over a race distance, Nico is invariably significantly quicker – at Silverstone his fastest lap was more than a second better than that of his elder countryman – and performances like that Down Under in Melbourne where Michael spent 40-odd laps trying to find a way past the Scuderia Toro Rosso of inexperienced Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari, or in Montreal where he clashed with Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa before finding himself overtaken by both Force Indias on the final lap, have done nothing for his erstwhile illustrious reputation.
Not just comparatively slow, Schumacher is also becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable, resorting to desperate measures to stay in the limelight and ostensibly clinging onto a glorious past that is fading by the race. Whilst the man himself continues to maintain that he will remain a fixture on the grand prix grid in 2011 – even fancifully suggesting that he can win again, and fulfil his stated pre-season ambition of challenging for an incredible eighth drivers' crown – there are many who believe he is now a spent force who has had his day in the sun, and that he should get out at season's end before any more unnecessary damage is done.
Whether he ultimately stays put or walks away, the last word this time goes to Jos Verstappen, one of the many team-mates Schumacher simply blew away when they were paired together at Benetton back in 1994 and 1995 – and one who was distinctly unimpressed by the move on Barrichello five days ago. Describing the action as attention-seeking, 'dangerous' and proof that the comeback king has 'gone too far' in his regular column in De Telegraaf newspaper, the Dutchman reckoned the international media's 'merciless' response to the incident was 'nothing less than justified' and that the weak and forced apology the following day was too little, too late.
Schumacher should have 'been a man and apologised immediately after the race...that would have appeared far more sporting', Verstappen contends, but instead he argues the whole unsavoury episode was merely another manifestation of his growing frustration that his return to the fray is turning out far from how he had anticipated. Whilst his ten-place grid penalty for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps at the end of this month for his Hungarian misdemeanour is likely to leave F1's resident record-breaker in similar proximity to his starting position of 1995 – when he won the race from down in 16th spot – back then he was a miracle-worker, whereas now he is merely 'a man of flesh and blood'.
And as Verstappen concludes, if he does stay, then 2011 will be 'the year of truth...and the pressure on his shoulders will only increase'.
Hungarian Grand Prix
Mercedes Grand Prix
Click on relevant pic to enlarge
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