Bernie Ecclestone and Mercedes boss Norbert Haug have both stepped in to support the struggling Michael Schumacher in the last couple of days.
Schumacher’s failure to rekindle the old magic is becoming increasingly awkward, particularly after a subdued performance in Shanghai.
“Nico is very talented and Michael was on holiday for three years,” Ecclestone says on the official F1.com site. “Ask me the same question after another two races but, at the moment I would say, don’t underestimate Michael.
“Michael would have never returned had he not been convinced that he can do the job. Give him time to adapt to the new car and the new tyres. At the moment, he’s something of a newbie who has to get accustomed to the trade again. But he’s not a tourist in the paddock – he’s here to win. And he will win again.”
Schumacher has struggled to get on the pace of his team mate Nico Rosberg this season and Shanghai was the first time in his career that he was beaten by a team mate in both qualifying and the race for a fourth consecutive race.
Generally speaking, his lack of competitiveness so far is down to him struggling to adapt his driving style to these new generation Brdgestone tyres. They are quite different to the grooved tyres he drove with, up to three years ago. If you recall last season, the first on slick tyres after many years on grooves, everybody was learning a lot about the tyres in the first half of the season. But they were doing so together.
Schumacher had to take a calculated gamble on this, knowing also that he would not be able to do the hundreds of hours of testing he enjoyed in the old days at Ferrari. Testing is now banned until February 2011.
Also the specific set of circumstances of the conditions in Shanghai exacerbated Schumacher’s problem.
He opted for the soft tyre early in the race, once he’d corrected the mistake of switching to intermediates. Most people who made that same choice at that point found that their car understeered and the left front tyre grained quite badly, which was particularly bad for drivers with a particular set up or balance which didn’t suit those conditions. It played very badly with Schumacher.
It is also worth remembering that Shanghai was never a particularly strong circuit for him when he was in his first career.
The German media has been getting on his back a bit this week. They had built things up to such an extent. Even though they have fantastic story of the flowering of Sebastian Vettel’s talent to tell, they have been rather one-eyed since Schumacher announced his comeback and so for it to be a disappointment wasn’t really in the script.
According to Haug, far from being dejected about how it’s going, Schumacher is realising what he was missing during those three years on the sidelines, “We all know that Michael would be his first and foremost critic if he realised that this job is not for him anymore,” said Mercedes boss Norbers Haug. “But that’s not the case. Within the team, Michael is extremely constructive. I think, at the moment, he’s realising how much he has missed all that. If you are a rock ’n’ roll star, you want to be on stage and not contemplating life from your sofa. His enthusiasm is firing up the whole team.”
The Mercedes is not the fastest car out there, it looks like the fourth fastest at the moment, more or less as it has been since the first race. But Rosberg has been getting results from it, including podiums in the last two races. Whether that would have happened if we’d had four dry qualifyings and four dry races is a moot point, because in racing you deal with what’s put in front of you.
Haug also makes the point that the Mercedes team, formerly Brawn, is already working with the lower staff numbers called for in the resource restriction agreement, while its opposition still has to go through that painful transition before the end of 2011. In some cases, this will mean shedding over half the workforce and that will not be done without a certain loss of competitiveness. Mercedes by buying the compact Brawn operation, got the pain over with at the outset. I talked at length with Haug last October about this and it was a fundamental to Mercedes’ strategy.
It is for this reason, that I have been saying for some time that Schumacher is probably thinking more about 2011, when McLaren will be missing Mercedes’ money and all the big teams will be going through a downsizing exercise, than he is about 2010.
He is getting back up to speed again and taking the time to recharge his database.
That said there is a rather worrying comparison with the old Schumacher. For my biography of him in 2007, Ross Brawn talked about his ability to drive around any problem or imbalance in a car,
“One of the problems with Michael is that he has such great raw talent that he can drive around an imbalance. So you have to be careful with that because you can make a change and he will compensate for it very quickly. He might be doing similar lap times but it doesn’t throw the changes into focus so you can go the wrong way (on set up). There is never the disparity with Michael between a car which is perfect and one which is not so good, as you would get with other drivers.
“This is also a weakness because it makes the difference between a good car and an average car less discernible in testing and you can easily misread how competitive a car really is.”
Even his staunchest allies would agree that, at the moment, it is hard to reconcile those words with what we are seeing from the 41 year old version of Michael Schumacher.