• GP Week

Has Michael lost his mojo?

Adam Hay-Nicholls April 27, 2010
Michael Schumacher takes centre stage even though early results have been disappointing © Sutton Images

Coming back after a 40-month-long sabbatical, it was always going to take Michael Schumacher a few races to get up to speed. Michael was adamant everything was going according to plan despite lapping long way off Nico Rosberg's pace during the first three weekends. Michael was chirpy and relaxed. It was a bit disconcerting. Then China happened, and Michael's smile became a grimace. It was, he said, a weekend to forget.

So what went wrong and why?

In China, Michael was struggling for traction on the exit of slow speed corners. This was due to a combination of low front downforce, how the W01 mismanages its tyres, and bad balance. Mercedes GP boss Ross Brawn has confirmed that the team under-reacted to the new-for-2010 narrower tyres and, as a result, the car naturally understeers: "New regulations have made the front tyres narrower, which means you need to generate more downforce at the front than before. Michael needs to be able to lean heavily on the front of the car to make his driving style work."

The weight distribution is also wrong. The team has brought weight as far forward in the car as they can, in order to work the front tyres harder, but this means the rear slides around a lot, eating the rear rubber and preventing the necessary traction. Nico Rosberg found this too. Tyre degradation forced him off the circuit at one point, yielding the lead to Jenson Button. But the 24 year-old was still able to drag it to P3 - his second podium in succession. Michael limped across the line in tenth.

"It's not the difficult corners, but the technically simple ones [where Michael is struggling]. Until now he has been getting closer and closer to Nico, so what happened in China is totally against the trend," said Brawn. Mercedes' vice president of motorsport, Norbert Haug, suspected a chassis flaw on the number three car. Surely Schumi couldn't be that slow. "Give us a chance to look at that [theory] and we can come up with a good explanation," he said.

The car is far from perfect in Nico's eyes, but it suits his style better than Michael's. That happens between team-mates sometimes. It happened between Button and Rubens Barrichello at Brawn when the Brazilian couldn't get on top of the brakes. But, based on his track record, we expected Michael to drive around problems like this. "He can drive around any imbalance," said Ross Brawn in James Allen's 2007 book Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness. "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."

Well, the W01 looks competitive in Rosberg's hands, not so in Schumi's. Are those the wrinkles of doubt across the engineer's forehead? Schumacher had raced on grooved tyres for nine years before coming back to slicks this season. All the other drivers were forced to adapt to that rule change at the start of 2009, but they did so together. Nico has an extra year's worth of tyre knowledge over Schumi, who raced very different slicks from 1991-1997.

Also the specific set of circumstances of the conditions in Shanghai exacerbated Schumacher's problem. He chose the soft tyre early in the race after he'd corrected the mistake of switching to intermediates. Most drivers who made that same choice at that point found that their car understeered and the left front grained badly, which was particularly bad for those with a dry set-up.

It played very badly for Schumacher. Mercedes will be bringing a host of updates to Barcelona including a longer wheelbase chassis. This should cancel out the balance problem. It will be tailored to Michael's driving style. Rosberg might have seen that coming, but it hasn't dented his confidence: "I have quite a strong position now in the team which is really nice, so that's why I have quite high hopes for what's to come," said Nico in China's post race press conference, having denied he's now the team's number one driver.

People are going to say he's passed it now, which he probably has. I
Sir Stirling Moss
"From the beginning everybody saw Michael was No. 1 and me No. 2. It's even. We both get the same possibilities, but of course I'm very, very happy with the way it's going for me." Rosberg says he's comfortable being Michael's team-mate now, despite having reservations at the beginning. That's just another way of saying Michael is no longer a threat: "People have the wrong opinion of Michael. I thought that it wouldn't be a good thing to have him as team-mate but instead, I'm pleasantly surprised about it".

In deference to the seven-times world champion, though, he told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "I'm happy to be ahead of him, but I don't know how long it will last". That may be answered by how Rosberg finds the long-wheelbase car next weekend.

Perhaps Nico has gained more from Schumacher's return that anybody. "He stimulates everybody, including Nico. To work together with him and to profit from his experience can only be positive," says Norbert Haug. Bernie Ecclestone has attempted to answer the question of why Rosberg is so much faster than Schumacher.

"Nico is very talented and Michael was on holiday for three years. Ask me the same question after another two races. At the moment I would say, don't underestimate Michael. 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. Michael would have never returned had he not been convinced that he can do the job. He is not a tourist in the paddock - he's here to win. And he will win again."

Michael has a three-year contract with Mercedes but there are already question marks as to whether he'll see that out. Haug reckons the team will be on top next year thanks to the headcount restrictions they're already adhering to and which will come online at McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing over the winter. Mercedes' rivals will have to shed up to half their workforce and that will be painful, emotionally and competitively.

It could be that Michael is already looking to 2011, when McLaren is missing Mercedes' money and all the big teams are downsizing. Buying into Brawn, which had already gone through that process, was fundamental to Mercedes' strategy. "At the moment we don't have the best performing car on the grid," concedes Haug. "We have known that fact since the first day of testing, but we are in good shape forthe future. Other teams are still working with double the headcount that we do. This should not sound like an excuse but rather an explanation. We will definitely be fighting for victories soon."

Such was the hype surrounding Schumacher's return, expectations were impossibly high and now the knives are out. It seems those of us on the sidelines prize Schumacher's legacy more greatly that the man himself. "All he's going to do is damage what his achievements have been," Sir Stirling Moss told GP Week over the phone last week. "People are going to say he's passed it now, which he probably has. I can't understand why he's come back."

Schumacher shares a pre-season joke with Jenson Button © Getty Images
Boredom maybe. Missing the rush. And because no other driver would be invited back after three whole years, in his forties, by a top team except Michael Schumacher. He looks as fit as ever, but have his advancing years dulled his reactions and relaxed his hunger to beat everyone else?

"Maybe he has lost his feeling for driving during the three years of his retirement," says Jos Verstappen who partnered Michael at Benetton in 1994. "What we are now seeing is that Schumacher is an ordinary man of flesh and blood and that even he cannot conduct magic."

"I believe in his abilities," said another ex team-mate, Martin Brundle. "I think he needs more time. If I was seeing the same results in September then I would be worried. The fact that there is no testing is difficult for him," added Brundle, who insists he has seen "the old Schumacher magic once or twice" this year in practice sessions.

Martin is right. Let's see how he does with the new car, on a circuit he's lapped thousands of times before - Shanghai was never his favourite track, but he's won on the Circuit de Catalunya no less than six times.

But it's also true that what goes up must come down, and despite taking a rest which he said would energise him to further victories, perhaps Michael's star has been falling since Fernando Alonso first beat him in 2005. "At one point you've got it, then you lose it. Then it's gone forever. All walks of life," pronounces Sick Boy in Trainspotting. "Georgie Best, for example, had it - lost it.

"Or David Bowie or Lou Reed. Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…"

It's tempting to draw a comparison between Michael Schumacher and Sir Paul McCartney. Macca is the world's greatest living songwriter, just as Michael is the greatest living driver. It doesn't mean he's actually still the greatest, but he's got the greatest back catalogue without question. The trouble is, McCartney hasn't written a really good song that got everyone excited since Live and Let Die, and that was in 1973.

When Michael left Ferrari he left The Beatles. Mercedes is Wings. Let's see if next week's Spanish Grand Prix is a Live and Let Die, or just another Mull of Kintyre.

Renton: "So we get old, we cannae hack it any more and that's it?"

Sick Boy: "Yeah."

Renton: "That's your theory?"

Sick Boy: "Yeah. Beautifully f***ing illustrated."