It is fast turning into the longest-running saga of the F1 2010 World Championship campaign – just what will Michael Schumacher do when the season reaches its end? Will he walk away – for the second time in his career – with the acceptance that his return to competition was a mistake, or will he dig deep, work harder than he has ever had to before over the winter and come out fighting for one last roll of the dice in 2011?
It was difficult to know quite what to expect of a man who had not raced in anger in the top flight in more than three years when he rejoined the grand prix grid in Bahrain back in March, but assuredly it is not what has materialised over the intervening six months. Routinely outpaced by Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg – who whilst well-regarded, is not generally perceived within the paddock as a future world champion in-the-making – more worrying still, 'Schumi' has appeared increasingly erratic of late, as his controversial run-ins with both
Saubers in Singapore on Sunday went to demonstrate.
For starters, what on earth is the great Michael Schumacher doing racing in close proximity with cars that back at the beginning of the season could not even boast any sponsorship decals, and in the case of Nick Heidfeld, the Kerpen native found himself behind a driver who had not started so much as a single grand prix in the preceding ten months. The manner in which he crassly shoved his countryman into the Marina Bay street circuit's barriers similarly led to questions about just how much longer he can realistically carry on for.
The nadir of Schumacher's campaign to-date, beyond doubt, was the moment that he ruthlessly edged former team-mate Rubens Barrichello to within millimetres of the pit wall at the Hungaroring as the pair duelled over tenth place and the final point, drawing global vilification and ultimately being forced into a public apology, albeit not a particularly convincing one. But then, Michael never was all that good at saying sorry. Just ask Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve.
Time was, seeing Schumacher down in tenth position in a grand prix was a sign that something had gone drastically wrong – now, sadly, it is all-too-often par for the course. In six of the 15 outings to-date, the seven-time F1 World Champion has failed to make the top ten on the starting grid – in fact, only once since Istanbul in late May has he progressed on through to the Q3 knock-out phase of qualifying – and Rosberg has held the upper hand over a single lap 13 times to two. The younger German also has three podium finishes to his name this year, the elder one none.
Indeed, age has undoubtedly played a key part in Schumacher's inability to rediscover the form of his halcyon days, with the man himself recently admitting that for all of his brilliance, even he cannot counter the laws of physics and openly questioning 'how can a 41-year-old be as good as a top-level 23 or 24-year-old?' [see separate story – click here
Furthermore, with reports of brewing tensions at Mercedes between the Stuttgart manufacturer's motorsport vice-president Norbert Haug and the Brackley-based outfit's team principal Ross Brawn regarding Schumacher's off-colour performances, BBC F1
pundit Eddie Jordan – the man who gave the 91-time grand prix-winner his big break at the highest level at Spa-Francorchamps just under two decades ago – contends that the team would be wisest now to 'sack' its star driver for being 'clearly not good enough' and 'not doing himself, or the legacy that he has, justice', and as such putting his glittering reputation very much at risk [see separate story – click here
But here's the rub. Ironic as it might sound given the downward spiral that he would seem to currently be on, Schumacher might in actual fact have more to lose by hanging up his helmet again come season's end than he has if he stays put and elects to give it another whirl in 2011. He himself is adamant that he is going nowhere, and if we play devil's advocate for a moment, surely the damage has now been done, and if he walks away he will do so without grace, and having left as the lasting memory of his record-breaking grand prix career the spectre of a misguided comeback that swiftly degenerated into disaster.
Should he stick with the original three-year programme, by contrast, he has a chance – to some extent, anyway – to make amends and rebuild his tainted image by turning things around next season. One of Schumacher's most common complaints this year is that he has been unable to gel with either the inherent characteristics of the Mercedes MGP W01 or the 2010-spec Bridgestone tyres – both issues that could potentially be rectified over the winter months – and if he does try again, surely things cannot be any worse second time around.
Granted, his stated objective of doing battle for what would be an incredible eighth drivers' crown is likely now little more than a pipe dream, and whilst the odd podium finish or even race victory here or there might be poor reward for a man who successfully re-wrote the sport's history books between 1991 and 2006, it would certainly be an infinitely more satisfactory manner in which to sign off a stupendous career than what he has accomplished this season. Something to think about, at least.