Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mid-Life Crisis?

You can never step in the same river twice. The old saying struck me with force last weekend when, at the end of a week's cycling around the low countries, I went back to Amsterdam for the first time in ten years. When I was younger, inter-railing my way around Europe, it was, along with Prague, my favourite city. A relaxed party atmosphere, legal dope, decorative burned-out hippies. What was there not to love?

Returning in a fit of nostalgia in my early 30s, though, I found the appeal largely gone. The coffee shops appeared noisy, unpleasant dives and in any case, the idea of getting stoned no longer really enticed me. The crowds of young backpackers swarming about the city merely made me feel, if not exactly old, then no longer really young.

I wonder if Michael Schumacher, returning to Formula 1 after a three year break at the age of 41, is experiencing something similar. Quite what the seven-times world champion was expecting of his comeback I don't know, but I can't believe he's happy at being outpaced by team mate Nico Rosberg at all four of the opening races. Rosberg, after all, has long been regarded as a good, rather than a great, F1 driver and more to the point, in his sixteen years racing in F1 between 1991 and 2006, Schumacher was never regularly outpaced by a team mate. Yes, there were odd occasions when Rubens Barrichello got his Ferrari absolutely hooked up right and was a shade quicker, most memorably and controversially, at Austria in 2002, but these were few and far between. Eddie Irvine outqualified the German in their first race together at Ferrari in 1996 but he would never do so again. Jos Verstappen, Johnny Herbert and JJ Lehto all found their reputation as up and coming stars founder against the rocks when they were paired up with Schumacher at Benetton, and he helped to finish off the careers of Piquet and Patrese at the beginning of his own time in F1.

For Schumacher, explaining to a curious world why he is being beaten by his young team mate is a new experience, and I don't doubt, not an altogether comfortable one. Of course, he has a ready explanation to hand. The car doesn't suit him, the weight distribution is wrong and the Mercedes W01 has an inherent tendency towards understeer that leaves him struggling. But that doesn't sound quite right. Schumacher, at the height of his powers, established a reputation as a man who could drive around problems that left others floundering. He succeeded, after all, in winning races with the hopeless Ferrari F310A, a car which in the hands of Eddie Irvine, appeared to belong in the midfield. And in 1994, he even picked up a podium at Barcelona in a Benetton that was, for much of the race was stuck in 5th gear.

It is perhaps a shade more complicated than that, though. Yes, Schumacher appeared able to coax performances out of less than fully competitive cars of which his team mates could only dream, but for most of his career, both at Benetton and Ferrari, he was the undisputed number-one driver, with considerable influence over the development direction of the car, even, in the days of the Bridgestone/Michelin battle, having influence over the way in which the tyres were developed. By contrast, he has now walked cold into a car whose development he has had no influence over, on control tyres that reputedly don't suit his driving style. Add to that the penalty of three years out of the cockpit and is it any wonder that he has struggled? Think of how difficult testers like Alex Wurz and Luca Badoer found returning to race seats after years on the side-lines as test drivers. They hadn't forgotten how to drive racing cars, but there seemed little doubting that those last few tenths of a second had gone missing.

But still, I wonder if Schumacher's advancing years are catching up with him. Physical fitness does not appear to be a problem in his case. Unlike Nigel Mansell's ill-fated 1995 come-back with Mclaren, Schumacher does not appear to find the demands of driving an F1 car in his forties to be too much for him, still looks relatively fresh at the end of a long race. But mentally, is he quite what he was? Have the years dulled that otherworldly sense of balance, that ability to identify precisely where the limits of adhesion lie? Are his reflexes quite what they were?

I wonder, too, whether he has the motivation required to succeed at the highest level in any professional sport. I don't know what his reasons for coming back are. A desire, perhaps, to become the first 40-something F1 World Champion since Jack Brabham scooped his third title in 1966? A lingering sense of regret that he was pushed into retirement by Luca Di Montezemelo's signing of Kimi Raikkonen, before he was truly ready? An urge to test his mettle against a new generation of F1 stars, Hamilton, Kubica, Vettel et al, widely perceived as being quicker than the men whom Schumacher vanquished in the late 90s and early 00s? Or was he simply bored, at a loose end and unable to think of anything else to do with his life?

It matters because, if he is privately conflicted, or ambivalent about his continued involvement in F1, then I doubt that he'll be able to summon quite the kind of undivided, absolute dedication required to win titles, especially when trying to drive forward a team which isn't quite on the pace. In a Red Bull, it might be enough for a driver simply to turn up and bang in the quick laps, but to get a team focused on closing down the gap to those faster than them requires hard work. I was struck recently by Renault engineer Alain Permane's description of Robert Kubica's ferocious work ethic when talking to Autosport's Mark Hughes

"He will be at the track until well after midnight, even if he's racing the next day. He wants to go through and understand everything. He's always making suggestions, always wanting to know what's happening. He's very demanding, always on your case."

Doubtless, years ago at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher would have been exactly the same. But can a 41 year old family man, with a wife and two children be quite so single-mindedly dedicated to the job in hand, to the exclusion of all else? Especially when he has nothing to prove, when he's already shown 7 times over that he's a World Champion. And is he prepared to take the same risks in the car that he once would have done? Watching the action in the rain of China, it was striking that a man once famed for his incredible wet-weather car control was struggling, and with a car which his team mate led much of the race with, finishing on the podium. He's old enough to be Jaime Alguersuari's father and motor racing is ultimately a young man's game.

Perhaps Michael Schumacher came back because the F1 paddock is his natural home. From the age of 21 until he was 38, that is to say, for almost the whole of his adult life, it was the central focus of his life. But now maybe, he's discovering the truth of the saying that, once you've left, you can never go home. Nick Heidfeld is waiting in the wings...

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