Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Schumacher celebrates 20 years in F1
- Drivers still race on for 2012 seat
- Schumacher will be racing in 2012
Schumacher celebrates 20 years in F1
It was to be a grand return for Michael Schumacher when he at the end of 2009 announced he would be driving for the Mercedes GP team in 2010, but today, more than one and a half year later, the results are disappointing for both Schumacher and Mercedes. As it happens, the seven-times World Champion will be celebrating his 20th anniversary in Formula One at the next venue, the Belgium Grand Prix at the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps in ten days time.
The start of his Formula One career was certainly not as troublesome as his return in 2010, and when the at the time the 22-year old Schumacher stepped into the cockpit of the number 32 Jordan 191 to replace Belgium-French driver Bertrand Gachot, - who was convicted to two months of imprisonment after spraying a London cabbie with CS gas - no one could have suspected he would race on to win an incredible seven world titles and would pulverize almost all records in the sport.
His first race in Spa ended during the first lap with clutch problems, but also as a result of his seventh place during qualifying, Schumacher had caught the attention of the Benetton-Ford team led by Flavio Briatore, who gave him a contract for the last five races of the season. Eddie Jordan tried to fight Schumacher’s move to Benetton in an English court, but lost his case and Schumacher finished his first season with Benetton.
At Benetton he also met for the first time the most important man in his Formula One career: British designer Ross Brawn. Schumacher stayed at Benetton until the end of 1995, winning two world titles in 1994 and 1995, and thus became the youngest double-world champion ever. In 1996 Schumacher realized another dream when he signed for the Ferrari team, and took Brawn with him, a decision he would not regret as the Briton also proved to be an excellent race strategist. The first years with Ferrari were difficult, but soon the Italian ‘dream team’, Schumacher, Brawn, team principal Jean Todt and British designer Rory Byrne, were unbeatable.
The rest is history, after a 21-year long dry-spell, Schumacher and Ferrari won the title in 2000 after a long fight with his rival at the time, Finn Mika Hakkinen. The dream team went on to win another four championships, in 2003 Schumacher became the first and until today only driver to beat the record of five titles won by Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s.
Schumacher went on to beat more records, he won a record 91 Grands Prix, took 154 podium finishes, 68 pole positions, recorded the fastest race lap 76 times, and scored an unprecedented 1,473 World Championship points.
The now 42-year old German also holds the record of seven consecutive wins, scored 71 victories with one team (Ferrari), won the French Grand Prix eight times, won 22 different Grands Prix, scored 208 points finishes, started from the front row 115 times, scored 40 ‘doubles’ (pole and win) and recorded the ‘Perfect Score’ (pole, fastest lap and race win) 22 times. But there is one record he did not claim, the record of the most races started in Formula One, which with 314 starts is currently in the hands of his ex-Ferrari team colleague Rubens Barrichello.
But there were also many controversies during his career, the championship deciding collisions in 1994 and 1997, the ignoring of the black flag during the 1994 British Grand Prix, illegal software in the 1994 Benetton, the infamous Ferrari team order given during the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, the collision with Coulthard during a rain soaked race at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998, and the famous parking of his Ferrari in La Rascasse during qualifying for the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix, and most recently, his penalty for dangerous driving in 2010 when he almost squeezed Barrichello into the pit wall during the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Schumacher decided to retire at the end of 2006 and gave over his steering wheel to Kimi Raikkonen, and became a Ferrari advisor. After Ferrari driver Felipe Massa had been seriously injured during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in July 2009, rumors circulated about a possible return of the German to Ferrari, but as a result of a neck injury he had sustained during a motorcycle accident earlier that year, he was not able to substitute for Massa.
Schumacher couldn’t let go of the thought to race in Formula One once more, and again wrote history when he on December 23, 2009 announced he would be racing for the new German Mercedes GP team, where he was reunited with his long time friend Brawn. In 2010 Schumacher struggled with the for him ‘new’ Formula One cars and only scored 72 points, while his compatriot and team colleague Nico Rosberg scored 142 points. This season both Schumacher and Rosberg are struggling with the new Pirellis which made the already not very competitive Mercedes even less competitive, as a result Schumacher has been able to get closer to Rosberg, but has only scored 32 points, and Rosberg 48.
Schumacher will throw a huge party in Belgium to celebrate his two decades in Formula One and has invited the whole (!) paddock for drinks on Saturday evening. He will also be wearing a special black and gold cap with his autograph and gold laurels at the top.
Drivers race on for 2012 seat
The virtual key to the 2012 drivers market seems to be in the hands of Toro Rosso, Red Bull, Force India and Mercedes, Toro Rosso and Force India still haven’t decided about their 2012 line-up. There have been many rumors about the drivers of both teams, but in reality Force India team owner Vijay Mallya and Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost are still evaluating their current drivers, instead of shopping for new talent elsewhere. Which makes sense, as history has proven teams are better off grooming their current drivers rather then to replace them every season.
Toro Rosso test driver Daniel Ricciardo has been given a race seat at the HRT team to learn the ropes, which also means there is more pressure on regular drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, as it is obvious Ricciardo will not stay with HRT next season and it is expected Toro Rosso will give him the opportunity to race for the team in 2012, which could also mean one of the two current Toro Rosso drivers could end up at HRT.
Alguersuari was under fire after his bad start of the season, but has meanwhile upped his performance by scoring points in four of the last five Grands Prix. “At the beginning of this season Jaime was not coming to terms with the tyres,” Tost said about the Spaniard. “He was not able to make an easy switch from the Bridgestones of last year to the Pirellis. There is a significant difference between qualifying and race, with different demands on the driver, and Jaime was a bit slow on the uptake,” he explained.
And Tost added, “Then sometimes he thought he could force it and that never works. Now he’s overcome that deficit of understanding the tyres and he is firmer in getting his set-up done - and that translated directly into the good results we’ve seen lately.” Tost’s comments are certainly good news for the 21-year old driver, as he now seems to be the favorite to out-perform his team colleague Buemi, who after a good start of the season, only scored points in two of the last five races.
But the Swiss driver is still leading Alguersuari in the Drivers’ Championship, having collected 12 points so far which gives him right to 13th position, while Alguersuari is 14th with ten points. But there is still Ricciardo, the Australian driver has been tipped to replace one of the two Toro Rosso drivers, but Tost is not yet ready to pass his final judgment on either Alguersuari or Buemi, “They are moving forward - that was clearly visible in the last couple of races, with the last race seeing both of them in the points - so let’s wait and see how the second half of the season works out.”
What both Toro Rosso drivers are hoping for is of course a promotion to the big sister team of the Italian outfit, the Red Bull Racing team. But Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has hinted he would like Mark Webber to stay in 2012, so unless the Australian is ready for retirement, both Toro Rosso drivers can only hope to stay with the team in 2012. Asked how much time Toro Rosso drivers get to prove themselves Tost replied: ”Maximum three years, Or let’s put it this way: if you are not sure after three years whether he's going to make it, I would bluntly say forget him, period.”
Both drivers have been with Toro Rosso for three years, but Tost refused to comment on who will be racing where next year, “At the end of the year we will sit together with Red Bull to discuss who will sit in our cars in 2012.” Meanwhile both drivers are not worried about their future, and Alguersuari is relaxed about the 2012 season, “I can put my helmet on and do my best. I am serious and I want to progress, but I do not think about whether I will have a Red Bull or a Ferrari or a Toro Rosso or a HRT [next season], I worry about making the most of what I have now.”
Buemi about his future, “They are free to put me wherever they want in one of their teams. It is also possible to drive for another team, but the parent [Red Bull] will have the say. The guys have expressed their satisfaction with my performance so my morale is good.”
Force India is another player on the 2012 drivers’ market, as they employ one of the most talented rookies of the season, Scot Paul di Resta, who has recorded a few excellent performances this season - which hasn’t gone unnoticed by other teams. Di Resta won the German Touringcar Masters (DTM) last year and courtesy to Mercedes-Benz has been given the opportunity to realize his dream to race in Formula One.
Retired Formula One driver and now BBC commentator David Coulthard is adamant his compatriot is heading towards a bright future in the sport, and would be the ideal candidate to replace Schumacher at Mercedes if the latter would decide to retire. “Unquestionably for me that would be the perfect scenario. Not that I want to force Michael out of the sport but when he decides to retire, whether it is this year, next year or whenever, Paul has a good relationship with Mercedes,” Coulthard said.
But one should not forget reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg who joined the Indian team after being dumped by Williams. He is another one of those extraordinary talented drivers, and it has been rumored he agreed to join Force India as reserve driver on the condition he will get a full race seat in 2012. Hulkenberg doesn’t deny the rumors, but indicated there is no guarantee he will be driving for the team in 2012. “Of course you can never be 100 per cent sure, until you have been confirmed officially,” he said. But the 23-year old German remains optimistic, “But based on the feedback from the team which has been really good, I am very confident. They have said they are very happy with me.”
Force India's Chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer recently revealed, as is the case with Toro Rosso, all three current drivers are still in the running for a 2012 seat. Team owner Mallya wants to turn his team into a race winning team, and for him hiring the right drivers for 2012 is a tough decision, but the Indian refuses to speculate about the 2012 driver line-up, “It is way too early. I will announce my driver lineup around December 15th. Not before that. I want all my guys to focus on the job at hand and not start speculating about their future.”
Schumacher will be racing in 2012
While others believe Schumacher can be replaced by di Resta, Sutil or perhaps even Hulkenberg, the man in question has no doubts he will be racing for Mercedes in 2012. Since his return he has participated in 30 Grands Prix, but was never in a position to fight for a win, let alone to fight for the title. Many believe he simply needs a better car to successfully continue his Formula One career. It is certain ‘Schumi’ has signed a three-year contract, but it is entirely up to him if he continues in 2012.
Schumacher and his manager Sabine Kehm have now apparently had enough about the retirement rumors that have been circulating recently, and made it clear he will be racing for Mercedes in 2012. German and Italian media have quoted Schumacher saying ‘I do not know if my mindset is right for this team’, but Kehm has rubbished those remarks and said they are ‘all nonsense’. “He is full of passion for the project and regards it as an exciting challenge to build something big together with Mercedes,” she said. “That it is sometimes tough only encourages him more. For someone who will soon celebrate his 20th anniversary in Formula One knows that perseverance is what makes the difference,” she concluded.
Schumacher has also denied the rumors, “I'll certainly be racing next year, that is definite,” he told a German newspaper. And during a media event this week in Stuttgart he said, “I will be here and the good thing is I have a lot of support from all around, in particular from the company and the team. 'm still fit enough. I'm still mentally ready for it and I like a challenge.” And he even didn’t rule out to continue beyond 2012, “We will have to see how things develop and how much energy and fun is still there.”
And Schumacher has nothing to lose, if he quits at the end of 2011 he critics will say they were right and his return was a disaster, but if he stays in 2012, he will at least have a chance to prove his critics wrong, and could perhaps even add another victory to the already 91 victories he has scored since 1991 in Formula One.
Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”