On the eve of the new F1 season Michael Schumacher has said that he is still one of the sport’s top draws and expects to compete for podiums this season in the new Mercedes.
Speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport the seven times world champion said, “I was out (of F1) for three years, I’m now 43 and I don’t know if I can compare myself to when I was 30. But I know I’m still one of the best in the world, that I’m motivated, that I enjoy myself and that most people are happy to have me still in F1.”
Bernie Ecclestone has endorsed that last point, speaking today in an interview on F1.com, the official F1 website, the 81 year old was asked whether he thought Schumacher would have a breakthrough this year, “If the car is fast enough, yes. I do hope that’s the case,” he said. “For him and all the Schumacher fans. He is still a big name and we all profit more from a successful Michael Schumacher than from a beaten one. Ask in the USA – he is still the biggest name there.”
Schumacher has played his part in patiently building Mercedes into a title winning outfit. As part of the Ferrari team with Ross Brawn which set the benchmark in the 2000s, the German knows what it takes to win in F1 and to beat the current benchmark, Red Bull. Schumacher and Brawn know how hard it is to keep a team at the very top and they know the signs that it’s beginning to slip. That will be Mercedes’ moment to strike and the timing looks positive for the Brackley team.
“We’ve set the basis for a future at the highest level,” Schumacher said. “But I doubt we will reach it this year.”
As to whether he sees himself in the cockpit as part of that future, Schumacher said, “Right now I’m focussed on the project, I don’t see the need to start discussions on the future.”
There is little doubt that the main candidate for Schumacher’s seat would be Lewis Hamilton, soon to be a free agent, should the 2008 champion wanted to look around for alternatives to McLaren, who have Jenson Button under contract for three more years.
Mercedes is definitely building nicely for a championship assault, with Ross Brawn and a highly experienced management team around him. A driver of Hamilton’s calibre would be the final piece of the jigsaw. Vettel is committed to Red Bull for a few more years and Alonso is locked in at Ferrari on a five year deal.
Likewise Hamilton wants to win more championships and needs a team that will put him at least on level pegging with Vettel, preferably give him a faster car, better pit-stops and all the other little details. McLaren looks like it has a quick car this year; he may feel he’s better off sticking with what he knows.
Whether – and how aggressively – Mercedes go after Hamilton this year, will show us how highly they rate Nico Rosberg. Ross Brawn and other management figures speak highly of him and he certainly has had a good advantage over Schumacher in qualifying. But last season Schumacher performed better in a number of races and it leads one to wonder whether Rosberg has that little bit extra. Equally, Mercedes and McLaren will be looking at how Hamilton attacks the F1 season. Last year, by his own admission he had his eye off the ball,
“Last year quite a lot of times I went out and enjoyed myself thinking that these things don’t affect you but in actual fact they do, they have a knock-on effect. It takes you two days to recover, you miss two days of training and your mind is somewhere else when you get to the race, ” he said.
That’s not what a top team wants for its £12 million + a year investment. Hamilton says he’s fully focussed on F1 again now. So is Schumacher.