Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Nothing But A Number?

Will Michael Schumacher really be stepping back behind the wheel of an F1 car at the European Grand Prix in Valencia in three weeks time? Is it perhaps all nothing more than a very elaborate PR stunt intended to keep the sport in the press during the month-long summer break?

When I first heard that Michael Schumacher had emerged as the most likely candidate to fillin for Felipe Massa at Valencia, I assumed that Ferrari were simply trying to drum up some publicity during what has hardly been a stellar year for the Maranello squad. However, no matter how enthusiastic Massa might be about getting back behind the wheel it is unlikely that a driver who has suffered significant skull injuries would be given the green light to race even if he felt ready. And somehow, I can't imagine Ferrari being overly enthusiastic about the idea of running either of its regular test drivers, Luca Badoer and Marc Gene, even if the latter might be a popular choice in Valencia.

Will Michael, though, be put off by the refusal of Red Bull and Williams to allow him to test the 2009 F60 ahead of his first race? He shouldn't need it - if teenaged Jaime Alguersuari can cope having never driven an F1 car prior to Hungary, then the 7 times world champion shouldn't be too seriously hampered by his unfamiliarity with 2009-spec KERS-equipped F1 cars. After all, he has more experience of racing cars on slick tyres than just about anyone else in the field. That said, given his uncertainty about whether his neck has fully recovered from his accident while testing for the German Superbike Championship back in February, he might be nervous about going back into F1 'cold', as it were. And how big a factor in his thinking is concern about his reputation?

With so many imponderables, I'm not entirely sure I'll believe Schumacher come-back is really happening until he appears in the Ferrari on Friday morning at Valencia. That said, it does all look rather more definite than it did when it was first talked of on the Monday after the Hungarian Grand Prix. If Schumacher does come back, he will be the first man in his 40s to race in F1 since Nigel Mansell raced in Spain for Mclaren in 1995.

The memory of Nigel Mansell's brief, embarrassing return to full-time F1 might be one thing that is gnawing at Schumacher's mind right now. Three years after winning the world title - he was already 39 years old when he did so - Mansell returned from US Indycar series to drive for Mclaren alongside young gun Mika Hakkinen in the first year of their partnership with Mercedes. On the surface of it, the auguries appeared good. Mansell had won the Indycar Championship in 1993, and had taken pole and victory for Williams in a guest-drive for the team at the last race of the 1994 season in Australia.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it wasn't too hard to see that the Mclaren-Mansell partnership might be destined for trouble. For one thing, Mansell might have been able to win in Australia for Williams, but this happened only after his team mate, Damon Hill, had had a race-ending collision with Michael Schumacher. What's more, the team reported that Mansell sounded rather more tired and out of breath in the car than they remembered him being in his heyday, just a few years earlier.

Mclaren and Mansell always seemed an unlikely partnership, in any case. Ron Dennis had never hid his distaste for the Brummie in the past, and had even gone so far as to say he would never hire him. More to the point, the team was in something of a trough in terms of its form that year. They hadn't won a race since Senna left the team at the end of 1993, and were left trying to make things work with their fourth different engine supplier in as many years. In short, it was going to be a "building year" and Mansell, clearly in the twilight of his F1 career, was not much interested in helping to develop a car which might win races in a year or two's time.

Schumacher's in a different position. For one thing, he's a couple of years younger, and has always seemed to take his physical fitness more seriously than the Brit ever did. More than that, though, Mansell's motivation was always subject to peaks and troughs, throughout his whole career. If the car wasn't really on it, as for example in his latter days at Ferrari in 1990, or with Newman Haas in Indycar in 1994, he tended to lose interest. That's not an accusation which could ever be levelled at Schumacher. Come to that, while the Ferrari has yet to win a race this year, it has looked like a much more serious package in the last couple of races than was the case earlier in the year. How ironic it would be if it was Schumacher that took the F60's first victory.

Taking a broader historical view, though, there's perhaps nothing so remarkable about Schumacher racing in F1 at 40. He's still some 13 years younger than F1's oldest winner, Luigi Fagioli, who won the French Grand Prix of 1951 at the age of 53 (he is, I think, the only driver born in the 19th Century to win an F1 Grand Prix). Now to be fair, he shared the car with Juan Manuel Fangio, but the Argentinian maestro was no spring chicken himself, by modern standards. He was older than Schumacher is now when he won the first of his five world titles. And the oldest F1 driver of all time? Well Louis Chiron was only a couple of years shy of 60 when he attempted to qualify for the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix, although, to be fair, the oldest man to actually start a Grand Prix was 55 year old Philippe Etancelin, in 1952.

Different times. For one thing, the younger drivers who might have been coming through in the early 1950s would have lost years of their careers to the Second World War. There is always a trade-off, I suspect, between youth and experience. Drivers began racing at a later age in those days, with karting still 10 years away and the idea of letting fourteen or fifteen year olds loose in racing cars had yet to catch on. Put simply, it took a driver many more years to build up enough experience to reach the peak of his abilities. Jaime Alguersuari, by contrast, would have had the benefits of hours in what are increasingly sophisticated simulators. I doubt they are yet quite like the real thing, but the gap is doubtless narrowing.

The other side of the coin is that the cars were physically easier to drive and less demanding of absolute fitness. When Martin Brundle tested a 1950s Mercedes F1 car at Spa a few years back, he was struck by two things: How mentally demanding it was to drive, and how physically easy it was. The cornering speed of cars was much lower, the g-forces correspondingly lesser, and as a consequence, drivers didn't need to be at the peak of physical fitness, as even a cursory glance at the portly Jose Froilan Gonzalez amply illustrates.

It is this, perhaps, which explains why a good many F1 drivers go on racing successfully for many years in other racing categories where the physical demands are not as great. Sportscar racing may require considerable endurance (although with driver-sharing, this isn't necessarily the case) but the absolute fitness required to race an LMP car is not as great. Mario Andretti came tantalisingly close to winning Le Mans at the age of 55, after all. NASCAR drivers quite frequently go on racing into their 40s and Mark Martin has won four times this yer at the age of 50.

Is Schumacher too old, at 40, to race competitively in F1? We'll not know for sureunless and until he competes at Valencia. Me? I think that, provided his neck doesn't cause him trouble, he'll be right up there with Raikkonen, and leave us all wondering whether he might, by now, be a nine-times World Champion had he not hung up his helmet at the end of 2006. Any which way, it will be interesting finding out.

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