Two of Michael Schumacher's former F1 sparring-partners have predicted that the most successful driver in the sport's history will likely cut loose and walk away again come season's end in 2011 – contending that 'the new generation of young drivers are just better than him' and that consequently, he 'will not regain his former glories'.
For the fourth time in swift succession in F1 2011 – and the 19th time from 23 races since he made his arguably ill-fated comeback at the beginning of last year – Schumacher found himself out-qualified by Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate Nico Rosberg in Istanbul last weekend. True enough, eighth position on the grid did mark progress of sorts given that it was the first time he had made Q3 this season – but the trouble was, his younger compatriot was more than a second ahead in third.
Early on in the Turkish Grand Prix itself, Schumacher then clumsily tripped over the Lotus Renault GP of Vitaly Petrov as the Russian overtook him – a collision for which the German rather uncharacteristically accepted he was largely at fault [see separate story – click here
] – and from thereon in, the seven-time F1 World Champion was fighting a rearguard action en route
to a lowly twelfth at the chequered flag, seven spots behind Rosberg. The ignominious comeback continues – but, wonders Johnny Herbert, for how much longer?
“I would not be surprised if my old team-mate Michael Schumacher retires for good at the end of the season,” wrote the former British Grand Prix-winner – who partnered 'Schumi' at Benetton in 1994 and 1995 – in Middle Eastern newspaper The National
. “He did not return to F1 just to make up the numbers – he came back to win races and add titles to his already impressive career statistics. It has not happened, and the simple fact is that he is no longer the best driver on the track. Schumacher has not lost any of his skill; the new generation of young drivers are just better than him.
“He blamed himself for his early collision with Vitaly Petrov that ruined his race on Sunday, and I have to agree with him. I don't understand why he turned in when he did after he had clearly lost the corner, and it was rather a schoolboy mistake that ended his chances of scoring points.
“I do not think he is any slower than he was when he was winning seven world titles; he is just struggling to cope with a situation he is not used to – he is no longer the best guy in the field and he does not have the best machinery at his disposal, as well as the fact that he has a team-mate in Rosberg who is consistently beating him. I thought he would have closed the gap on Rosberg, but it has not proved to be the case and we saw again in Istanbul that when it mattered most in qualifying, it was the younger German who did the better job.
“Rosberg qualified third and gave himself the chance to run at the front end. Schumacher, meanwhile, did not do a good lap, started eighth and left himself in the midfield with a chance of getting caught up in an incident early in the race, which is exactly what happened to him.
“Schumacher is competing against a new breed of grand prix drivers. Normally, in any particular era you have one or two new drivers coming through and marking themselves as being the next stars, but currently the standard is very high and you have more and more talented people coming through. Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are both terrific drivers, then you have Sebastian Vettel, Rosberg, Kamui Kobayashi, Paul di Resta and Jaime Alguerusari – all young drivers who are out to do well and are willing to fight on the track. There are no weak links out there.
“In the past, Schumacher was able to be very forceful in races and his sheer presence would almost force cars to pull aside or back out of situations, but this is no longer happening and you are seeing this with the number of incidents he has been involved in both this year and last season as well. As I said, I don't think he has lost any speed as he is still very fit at the age of 42, and he is not that far away from Rosberg, although the fact he is still being beaten regularly by his team-mate will be a concern.
“He cannot blame the age factor as to why he is being beaten and has not finished on the podium in any of the 23 races he has competed in since he came back. It is a case that the level required to win in F1 has gone up and he is not at that standard anymore. He did not return just to run in the middle order; his dream was to win again and make Mercedes race-winners, but it has not turned out that way and I would be surprised if he chose to continue.”
Another ex-F1 star who believes that the German legend has been left behind by the new generation who have raised the bar since he originally hung up his helmet back at the end of 2006 is David Coulthard, who indulged in many wheel-to-wheel duels out on-track with Schumacher during his own top flight career. Writing in his regular column for British newspaper The Daily Telegraph
, the Scot agrees that the 91-time grand prix-winner's best days are now almost certainly in the past.
“His drive in Turkey, where he finished a distant twelfth, was not one of his finest and not what we are used to associating with the Michael Schumacher name,” mused 'DC', after his erstwhile bitter rival conceded that 'the big joy is not there right now'. “It would have been far more surprising had he said afterwards that he was having a great time, so in one respect, I think we should commend his honesty.
“I know that Eddie Jordan, my co-pundit on the BBC
, compared Michael's situation to that of Muhammad Ali at the end of his boxing career – a once-proud warrior now out-of-fight and damaging his reputation. My view on this subject is clear – it is for Michael to decide when he wants to retire. His record of seven world titles and 91 race wins has earned him that right. We had our differences on and off the track, but I have always respected Michael as a driver.
“If he wants to see out his contract at Mercedes and stay until the end of next season, then he should. If he feels he can still be competitive, and he is still enjoying himself, then fair play to him. The trouble is, at the moment he is not enjoying himself and he does not look consistently competitive.
“I found his drive on Sunday awkward to watch at times. The collision with Petrov on the second lap, which left him fighting a rearguard action for the rest of the race, was by his own admission his fault. He spent the rest of the race in skirmishes with mid-ranking cars, often the attacked rather than the attacker. It is an unfamiliar position for him, which maybe explains why he looked like a fish-out-of-water. Nico Rosberg, by contrast, seems assured, in control. Like Sebastian Vettel, he has grown in confidence this year and matured. He looks like the Mercedes team leader now.
“While I will continue to defend his right to pick the timing of his own departure, and while there are moments, the odd session, when he looks as if he still has the old magic, the evidence in front of us suggests that Michael will not regain his former glories. He said at the start of the year that he had no excuses; he asked to be judged on his performances in his second season. After four races, it is not looking great.”
Schumacher's official spokeswoman Sabine Kehm, meanwhile, has countered such criticism, telling German publication Bild
: “They should know Michael better. The fact that he was disappointed after the race in Istanbul shows yet again that he is a fighter.”