Michael Schumacher will compete next year in Formula 1, but how well it goes depends on the quality of the car that Mercedes gives him.
The seven times world champion has had a torrid time this season, scoring 76 points less than his young team mate Nico Rosberg and generally being outpaced by him everywhere. The old Schumacher, who’s presence always dominated the paddock and the race track during race weekends, is a far more anonymous competitor these days. It is often easy to forget that he’s in the field.
The reason why he has struggled is because what he has around him now isn’t what he enjoyed for many years with Ferrari, where there was unlimited testing and he could fine tune both chassis and tyres to his needs. Ferrari had a development contract with Bridgestone and so Schumacher was able to get the tyres exactly how he wanted them.
He took a calculated gamble to come back this season with no testing and it seems that he underestimated the effect it would have on his performance. Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has defended him in the face of a rather odd one main campaign by former team owner Eddie Jordan, using his BBC platform, to say that Schumacher should be sacked and in any case will not race next year. The team is mystified as to why he should be taking such a stand on this issue.
Speaking to the F1.com website, Brawn said, “If you take the telemetry data in fast corners or his reaction time when the car breaks away, I don’t see any difference [to before his retirement]. There he’s still the old Michael,” said Brawn.
“But in the slow corners he cannot make full use of the tyres as Nico can. Nico has put the bar very high in this respect. But I guess that’s okay for Michael as he clearly sees where he has to improve. I predict that in 2011 we will again see the true Michael – when we’ve delivered him a better car.”
And that is the key to it. The 2010 Mercedes suffers from the fact that it was developed by a Brawn team that had limited resources and much of them were being directed at winning last year’s championship.
The key question is whether Mercedes will be able to deliver a good enough car next season. The team’s track record as Honda wasn’t fantastic, the 2005 and 2006 cars being the only good ones and the Brawn’s success last year owed a lot to starting the season with a controversial and well developed double diffuser, which rivals then had to copy.
The other key component for Schumacher will be the new Pirelli tyres. Here he will be helped by the fact that it’s a level playing field for everyone. But if they don’t fit in with his driving style, as the current Bridgestones do not, he could be struggling again. This is a secondary point to the chassis, which is the most important. But it’s significant nevertheless.
Brawn shed some more light on why Schumacher struggles on these tyres in the F1.com interview, “Michael’s driving style depends on a strong front tyre that can withstand his hard braking and the steering manoeuvres that he prefers,” Brawn explained. “Nico has simply understood better how to handle these front tyres.
“I have to say that this year’s front tyre is very uncommon. That stems from the fact that the FIA wanted to promote KERS and had asked Bridgestone to develop tyres that would fit a certain weight distribution and thus create a specific tyre characteristic.”
All of this is also forcing a re-evaluation of Rosberg’s talents. At Williams alongside Webber and Nakajima he did not look anything particularly special, but this season he has really come of age and put in many strong performances across qualifying and race. Schumacher’s powers have waned in the years since he retired, but Rosberg is on it.
Brawn admits in the interview that if it were any other driver, he would not be retained. Schumacher needs a good car next year to salvage some dignity from his comeback. A few wins would be ideal, but even some podiums would enable to say that that the comeback was worthwhile on balance and that he enjoyed it. It is for this reason that it makes no sense for him to stop at the end of 2010.
The risk is that he gets another bad car next year and the poor results continue. Then he – and Mercedes – would be forced into some tough decisions during the season.