Felipe Massa is now home in Sao Paulo after being released from hospital in Hungary. The Brazilian is in good spirits and is confident of making a speedy recovery.
Whilst Felipe has indicated that he would like to return to Formula One again soon, he is unlikely to do so this season. He has two fractures in his skull and also has an intestinal inflammation due to the impact of the seatbelts against his unconscious body. Even if Massa is physically able to race at the end of this year, Ferrari may wish to rest him until January to ensure that he is back to full fitness.
The team certainly has no concerns about temporarily filling his vacant position.
Marc Gene was originally the favourite driver to substitute for Massa. He shares Ferrari’s testing duties with Luca Badoer and of the two men, he has the most recent F1 experience. Badoer and Gene are both familiar with the team, the 2009 car, and a race seat for either would have been a special reward for their efforts over the past few years.
Ferrari had plenty of other replacement options as well. Sebastien Bourdais and Nelson Piquet would have been available and race ready, as would Anthony Davidson. The team could also have opted for a more experienced pilot like Alexander Wurz or David Coulthard to help their engineers, or they could simply have gone for a headline grabbing stunt with someone like Sebastien Loeb or Bruno Senna.
There was even a possibility (albeit a remote one) that Fernando Alonso would join the team following Renault’s European GP suspension.
However, Ferrari set their sights especially high and secured the services of the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time. Luca Di Montezemolo wasted no time luring Michael Schumacher back into Formula One and confirmed his deal with the German just three days after the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The seven times World Champion has already begun his preparations for the next race in Valencia. Last week he drove a 2007 Ferrari F1 car fitted with GP2 tyres and he also tried out the Fiat simulator for the first time. In addition to that he started a strenuous gym regime as well. Only the current F1 testing ban is preventing Michael from spending long days at Fiorano.
Schumacher still works for Ferrari as a technical advisor (and is paid more than most current drivers for doing so) but few people expected him to return to Grand Prix racing.
He might be one of the greatest drivers of all time but competing in Formula One this year will be the biggest challenge of Schumacher’s entire career.
Physically, Michael will find his F1 return incredibly difficult.
Whilst the former champ is still amazingly fit there is no other sporting activity like driving an F1 car. After his most recent F1 test Michael said “today I feel muscles I was not even aware anymore they exist”. He started noticing the strain on his body (in particular his hands) towards the end of his career so will find returning to the cockpit three years later very demanding. Schumacher was once the fittest driver on the grid but is now 40 years old and out of practice. He isn’t an old man but he isn’t what he used to be either.
Michael’s comeback will also present him with a big technical challenge.
Schumacher will be jumping into the 2009 car with absolutely no experience of it. He has done plenty of driving and motorcycle racing in retirement but has not been in current F1 machinery. He will not get a chance to sit in the F60 until first practice in Valencia and that will place him significantly behind the eight ball. It will be a particularly hard car to learn because Michael will be using KERS and adjustable front wings for the very first time.
Schuey is one hell of a great driver but part of the reason that he did so well during his time in F1 is that he got the most out of everything around him. He would do huge amounts of testing between races and would make the effort to understand all of the systems in his machinery. This was evident on the track when Michael would make regular adjustments to all of the settings throughout a lap to get the most out of the car at every corner. In the past he always used the technology at his disposal to best effect but he simply won’t be able to do that in the unfamiliar F60.
In addition to that, the F60 isn’t exactly a great car anyway and hasn’t been as competitive as any of the other Ferrari’s Schumacher drove. Even the 2005 car that brought about the end of the Scuderia’s dominance scored nine podiums. This year the team have managed just three.
However, the biggest challenge of them all for Michael will be the man on the other side of the garage.
Make no mistake about it – Kimi Raikkonen is the fastest driver in Formula One. He might not have the consistency, the application or the mental attitude to make the most of his god given talent, but Raikkonen has the raw speed to beat anyone in the world.
Schumacher was aware of that when Ferrari signed Kimi for the 2007 season, and it was part of the reason that he chose to retire. Ferrari could see that Michael wouldn’t be around forever so started shifting their focus towards the future, and towards Raikkonen. The team had always been centred entirely on Schumacher and the decision to change that strategy had an impact on the German’s decision to stop.
With that in mind, the battle between Raikkonen and Schumacher will be fascinating. Both will have personal reasons for wanting to beat the other, but the odds are stacked in Raikkonen’s favour. Kimi is familiar with the F60, the current team structure, and has Michael’s old crew working for him.
More importantly the Fin has been driving very well lately. Last year Raikkonen was out of sorts and had a seriously mediocre season, but the poor 2009 car has hidden some of his better performances this year.
Raikkonen was quick enough to land a podium in Melbourne and might even have won had he not spun near the end. He was also an outside chance of victory in Malaysia and would definitely have finished near the front if Ferrari hadn’t put wet tyres on his car whilst the sun was still shining.
He was the only driver capable of challenging the Brawns at Monaco and was quicker than Massa in Turkey, a circuit that Felipe has made his own.
He would also have been a lot closer to Lewis in Hungary if he hadn’t been caught behind Webber in the early stages.
Raikkonen is driving well but should be phenomenally quick with the extra motivation of having Schumacher in the team. Kimi’s career is in jeopardy and he has a point to prove. When he performs at his best he can beat the best, and now he will probably have that winning mindset in place for the remainder of the season.
Michael is not going to find it easy.
Having said that, there is still a slim chance that Schumacher could make a big impact on his F1 return.
The Ferrari has greatly improved over the last few races and is starting to develop into a competitive car. With Michael coming back the team will surely do everything they can to keep improving the machine instead of working entirely on their 2010 challenger. The F60 might just be in a position to win races before the season is over.
Also, the car’s main problem is apparently a lack of downforce, something that will have little impact at Monza, which is also a track that should suit KERS. There is a genuine chance that Ferrari could be competitive on their home soil.
If Schumacher can somehow drag Ferrari back into the winners circle it will be deeply symbolic of his efforts to transform the Scuderia’s fortunes throughout the late nineties.
It’s also worth noting that Michael has lost none of his speed. In a recent charity kart race he beat a field of current F1 drivers and did as much in a few similar races late last year. When Schumacher jumped behind the wheel of a 2007 Ferrari at Mugello last week he consistently beat Felipe Massa’s best efforts in the F60. Whilst the older car should be quicker with more aerodynamic freedom the times still showed that Michael was able to get plenty out of it.
Schumacher is not a has-been coming out of retirement. He is one of the very best drivers in the world returning to Formula One.
It isn’t going to be an easy run for the most successful man in F1 history but that is part of the appeal of his comeback. Schumacher was always the most exciting to watch when up against a massive challenge and that is the situation that he finds himself in again now.
Throughout his career Michael made the impossible seem possible and if he can do that just once more he might snag one of the most incredible F1 victories of all time.
It isn’t very likely, but you can never underestimate Michael Schumacher.