Thursday, 16 February 2012

Michael Schumacher: Will he ever be the old Schumi?

In the seventh of my nine part opinion series focusing on the grid's top drivers, I look at Michael Schumacher, and ask if he'll ever be at his very best again.

Statistically the greatest driver or all time, since Michael Schumacher returned to Formula One with Mercedes in 2010, he has struggled, with just a few fourth places his best results, no podiums, and not really looking anywhere near taking his 92nd race win, a disappointing two seasons resulting in a ninth and eighth place finish in the two championships he has contested. Will we ever have the old Michael Schumacher back? Will we have the unbeatable, flawless seven time world champion back? There's plenty arguments for and against, so lets find out.

Schumacher has had lots of incidents
 Looking at his 2010 and 2011 seasons, its very easy to see that Schumacher hasn't been anywhere near the level which he was at when he won his two world championship titles at Benneton, and five at Ferrari. His driving just hasn't been in the same league as his previous career, and there's various reasons for that. But it doesn't matter so much about the reasons why, the fact is he hasn't being doing well at all in the last two seasons. His qualifying performances have being possibly the main let down, with Schumacher not even getting a top three on the grid in thirty eight attempts. Also, Nico Rosberg has well and truly thrashed him in qualifying over the last two seasons, particularly in 2011, where Schumacher beat Rosberg just twice over the course of the whole season, and one of those was even when Rosberg had a car failure in Q1 in Japan. Schumacher didn't make it into Q3 in the first two races of 2011, which was such a shock. I tipped Schumacher to win the 2011 championship after Mercedes spent the majority of 2010 working on the 2011 car, but I was well off the mark, and I realised that as soon as he failed to get into Q3 in the first two races, which is not like Michael Schumacher, and certainly not like the Michael Schumacher of old. Also, the Michael Schumacher of old wouldn't get involved in needless little collisions, like he has done in the last two years. In 2011, he was involved in tangles with Vitaly Petrov at Turkey, Valencia and Korea, and Schumacher was at fault for two of them. At the Turkish Grand Prix he was all over the place, and certainly a driver to avoid for everyone else in that Grand Prix. He had a coming together with Kamui Kobayashi in Britain, and Sergio Perez in Singapore. While these two might not have been his fault totally, they were silly little midfield tangles which the Michael Schumacher of old certainly wouldn't have got involved in. Then again though, the Michael Schumacher of old wouldn't have qualified far enough down to have got involved in these. So if Schumacher improves his qualifying performances, he won't be involved in this many tangles. Also, who can forget the stupid move he made on Rubens Barrichello in the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix, as he put both in serious danger, almost forcing Barrichello into the pit wall, which Barrichello described as "the most dangerous move ever."

Defending was one of Schumi's strong points in 2011
 Then again though, we have seen flashes of the old Schumi brilliance in his two years. His overtaking has been as good as ever, with three memorable moves. In the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, while the seemingly never ending safety car period was going on, Schumacher was exploring the limits of the track, and was rehearsing an overtake on Robert Kubica. As soon as the safety car went in, Schumacher nailed him. Then in Monaco 2011, he made a memorable move on Lewis Hamilton up the inside of the Grand Hotel hairpin, in a lovely move on the opening lap. Then at the next race in Canada, he made a brilliantly oppurtunistic move on Kamui Kobayashi and Felipe Massa at the same time, pulling it off in a brilliant manner. So his overtaking is still strong, and so is his defending. At China this year, he kept Fernando Alonso behind him for some time, before in Italy he kept the sport's greatest overtaker, Lewis Hamilton, behind him for 27 laps, with some defensive moves which provoked controversy. Furthermore, it's clear that Schumacher still has one of his most memorable talents from his early career: performance in the wet. In my opinion, his two best drives have come in Korea 2010 and Canada 2011, both seriously wet races. His drives in Canada, Belgium and India this year were excellent, with his marvellous Canadian drive, where he ran 2nd for a long period of the race in a car which clearly had no right to be anywhere near those positions, appearing on my list of the best drives of 2011. Then in Belgium after a car failure caused a spectacular crash in qualifying, he started 24th. However, he battled back, with a brilliant first lap and a generally excellent drive to 5th, meaning he gained 19 places over the course of the race. Despite his numerous incidents in the last two seasons, I was really impressed with Schumacher's performance in qualifying at Spa in 2010: It was wet and the inexperienced drivers, in the slower cars, were sliding and spinning all over the place, and Schumacher brilliantly navigated his way around them.

Interestingly, Schumacher has done best at the so called "classic" tracks such as Belgium, Italy, Japan, Britain, Monaco and Brazil. He seems to do very well on this sort of track, where overtaking is more possible than on the newer tracks. I really think that Schumacher still has it, and he's proven that with his strong drives and performances in the last two seasons. He's been nailing the starts, flying away off of the line. And as I've said in my pieces on Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, you don't just lose talent. Okay, he's not the same driver in some respects, and I doubt he'll ever win another championship, but he's lost absolutely none of his burning desire and passion for the sport, hence why he returned in 2010. He's still got what is needed, he's got nothing to prove to anyone, and in 2011, he got very close to beating Nico Rosberg. People need to remember that Michael Schumacher is 43, he's not as young as he once was. He's bound to not be up to the speed of Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton. He just needs a good car from Mercedes and sooner or later he'll be making his return to the podium.

Over the next few weeks I will be looking at the six world champions on the grid, as well as three other drivers in top teams, in articles like this, as we prepare for the start of the season.

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