The Schumacher Speculation
Now that Felipe Massa is thankfully on the road to recovery after his qualifying accident at Hungary, the speculation has begun as to who will replace him for the races he will miss. Common sense favours one of the testers, either long time servent Luca Badoer or, more likely, the 2008 Le Mans winner and former Minardi and Williams driver Marc Gene. Gene has done this substitution thing before, having subbed for Ralf in 2003 and 2004, but didn’t really prove much other than he wasn’t that good. He hasn’t raced in F1 since, although at one stage he was speculated to be heading for a Toro Rosso drive in one of the more unusual rumours of the recent past.
But the press like the sensational stories. One of these is the possibility of Fernando Alonso joining the team early after Renault’s suspension for the Eurpean GP after “Wheel-Falling-Offgate”. Personally, I think this is unlikely, because I don’t believe Renault will be suspended for Valencia, and as Piquet Jr’s about to get the boot, they won’t want to be forced into bringing in 2 new drivers, especially 2 rookies. The slightly more logical of the sensational stories is the return of Michael Schumacher, the 7 time world champion, proven cheater, bringer of monotony and all round bad guy. Which would be fantastic.
If Michael returned to F1 this year, he would break the record for the longest gap between first and final starts with an interval of over 18 years – indeed, if he returns in Valencia, race day will be exactly 18 years after his first F1 practice session. The current record of 16 years, 8 months and 8 days is held by Graham Hill (Monaco 1958 -> Brazil 1975), followed by Patrese, Barrichello, Jack Brabham and Michael’s current record. For anyone to be in F1 for that long is just an incredible achievement. He would also be the first driver this decade to be racing at the age of 40, the same age as Nigel Mansell when he stood in at Williams in 1994 (and won a race!).
We all want to know how he stacks up to the current breed of youngsters, in particular Hamilton and Vettel who both debuted after Michael retired. It would be a fascinating comparison, albeit not very meaningful. But I’m sure he would be on the pace too. I doubt it would end up like Hakkinen’s half-hearted test at the end of 2006, but more like Michael’s tests a year later. If Alguersuari can beat his team mate having only ever driven an F1 car a handful of times, Michael could match and beat Raikkonen. He can only really improve his reputation – if he doesn’t match Kimi, he’ll be considered to be past his best and it largely won’t matter, but if he matches or beats him, it’ll only add to the Schumi legend. Although a different sport, Lance Armstrong’s remarkable 3rd place finish on the Tour de France at the age of 38 after several years out proves it can be done at the highest level.
It would probably be the biggest story in F1 for a long, long time. He would be the biggest name to return to the sport after time out since Mansell, or before that Lauda. In fact, he’s bigger than them – he’s still the most famous racing driver in the world and probably will remain so for many years to come. In this difficult time, it would be a dream for Bernie – the coverage would be extraordinary, it would get people through the gate to see Michael “for the last time” and to see him up against the newboys. If he wins, it would be incredible. If he wins at Monza…
Michael’s a legendary driver, something that the grid of today lacks. Yes, we have Hamilton, Raikkonen and co, but they’re all young, comparatively inexperienced with few stand-out stories to tell. The only driver we have on the grid you could call “legendary” right now is Alonso. Since Michael has retired, we have lacked someone like him who has been around for a while and winning. Not to say the current grid is untalented, of course, but it’s just lacking something – the 2 title contenders, as good as they are, don’t have the profile.
I’d love to see him back. All the more remarkable considering I hated him when he was around last and couldn’t wait to see the back of him. I didn’t think I’d miss him, but I have. He was the pantomime figure – someone you could love to hate. You could cheer when he crashed or retired, whinge when he dominated, and be angry about when he cheated. He set your emotions going as a racing driver, and I don’t think we’ve seen anyone like him since. Only Alonso comes close.
But I very much doubt it’ll happen. Already Willi Weber has said he won’t come back, or at least for Valencia. As in many of these situations, Ferrari will annoy the press and the fans by going for the safe, boring option like Gene or some other unremarkable tester/out of work driver, like Bourdais or Liuzzi or Piquet. They did this in 1999 – they went for the safe, boring choice of unemployed Mika Salo. I just hope Bernie has a word in Domenicali’s ear…