Tonight Bild newspaper in Germany is reporting that Michael Schumacher has cleared the final hurdle in his quest to return to Formula 1 after three seasons of retirement and has signed a one year deal with Mercedes. Bild is a favourite place for both Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber and for Mercedes to leak stories.
Although the Mercedes GP team is run by Ross Brawn, the pairing of Schumacher and Nico Rosberg in their Silver Arrows will make it Team Deutschland, as Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche alluded to the other day.
Schumacher’s doctor gave the all clear for him to race after examining his neck, which he injured in a bike accident earlier this year. According to Bild he will be paid just £6 million next season, the kind of money he was on back in the mid 1990s at Benetton.
“As one door closes, another opens up” Ross Brawn said recently after Jenson Button’s move to the McLaren team. Brawn’s plan B, if it is officially confirmed, is a stunning move for the team and for Formula 1. Schumacher quit F1 at the very top in 2006, after winning seven world championships and 91 Grands Prix. He was tired, troubled with back pain which he kept quiet, and had been unable to give Ferrari management a commitment to race on, so they hired Kimi Raikkonen to replace him. To carry on would have put his friend and team mate Felipe Massa out of a job and so he gave that as one of the main reasons for stopping.
But in retirement he has seemed bored and listless; the thrill of a life lived on the edge could not be replaced with a few amateur motorbike races and despite the improbable odds of coming back at the age of 41 as he will be in January, he is taking a leaf out of Lance Armstrong’s book and coming back to take on the new generation.
The difference between his challenge and Armstrong’s is that the Tour de France is just as physically hard as ever, whereas F1 is easier on drivers than it used to be as there is no in season testing, so it’s three pre-season tests in Spain then 19 Grands Prix weekends and that’s it.
In the early 2000s, Ferrari had an annual testing budget, largely from Bridgestone, of $25 million and that meant Schumacher used to do a phenomenal testing mileage. He did less in the final years, but still was out regularly, which he will not have to do now.
He will have his greatest ally alongside him in Ross Brawn, the engineer who helped him to all of his world titles. But he faces stiffer opposition than he ever did in his first career; Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa are both known quantities to him and Alonso is now in his prime. But he has no experience of racing against Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel in F1 cars.
As one ex F1 driver put it to me last week, “I don’t care if he is Michael Schumacher, when he’s wheel to wheel against Hamilton into a corner his brain is going to say, ‘I’m 41, he’s 24, I’m going to be the one who lifts off here. ‘ It’s human nature and you cannot fight against it.”
Racers have fire in their belly and when that fire goes out they stop. Schumacher, like Nigel Mansell, did not stop because the fire had gone out, but because the circumstances said he should.
Schumacher’s motto was always that you get out of the sport what you put in and he put in everything. He also never gave anything away to the opposition, not even a sniff of a chance.
And that is the most interesting aspect for me of this extraordinary comeback. It’s not about whether he is still as fast as ever, he has always had pace to burn. It’s about whether that unquenchable thirst for competition, that ruthlessness, which saw him give no quarter against his own brother the day after their mother died, will still be there.
For Formula 1 this is another superb piece of news and it will make 2010 an absolute must-watch season.