Since Jenson Button confirmed his 2010 switch to McLaren there have been numerous media reports suggesting that Michael Schumacher will take the vacant seat at Mercedes Grand Prix. Although the return of the most successful driver in Formula One history is very unlikely, there is at least a trace of substance to the speculation. Schumacher has very strong links to several key figures in the team and it was Mercedes that paid for his entry into F1 after supporting his junior career.
Having said that, the chances of Michael joining Mercedes next year are very slim.
It’s doubtful that Schumacher is willing to completely abandon his retired lifestyle to make a full time Formula One comeback. It would also be a huge risk to risk his legacy and his value as a brand.
In addition to Michael’s own motivation, Mercedes might not be that interested in him. Not only is Schumacher extreme costly to hire, any success would be attributed to Michael and not the car. Also, if the relationship went sour for any reason it would be a monumental public relations disaster for everyone concerned.
There is a distinct possibility the Schumacher rumours have been encouraged by Mercedes simply to create a positive buzz around the team in the wake of Button’s departure. Jenson’s defection to McLaren was a heavy blow for the newly branded outfit, so a bit of talk about Schumacher coming on board has made up for it somewhat. There could be nothing more to it than that.
When talking about the team’s second driver, Mercedes Motorsport boss Norbert Haug said “maybe we can create some surprises”. Michael Schumacher would definitely be a surprise, but Haug is likely trying to delay the expected mediocrity of a Nick Heidfeld announcement.
However, Schumacher proved earlier this year during his failed comeback with Ferrari that you can never say never in F1.
Although farfetched, there are a number of reasons why Michael could feasibly make a Grand Prix return with Mercedes.
One of those reasons is that Schumacher has a very close relationship with team manager Ross Brawn that dates back almost 20 years. Michael has won 91 Grands Prix and Brawn was his strategist for 88 of those. The two work together very well and there were even rumours earlier this year that Michael would help Ross buy the team from Honda.
Ross Brawn’s presence isn’t the only justification for Michael’s potential return. There is every reason to suggest he would be very competitive.
Schumacher is still blindingly quick and does not appear to have lost much of his speed. He won Felipe Massa’s charity karting event this weekend, finishing second in the final race despite being penalised by the reverse grid format. He recently finished runner up in the Race of Champions (beating Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button) and he finished seventh in the SKUSA Supernationals kart race in Las Vegas (beating Nelson Piquet and Sebastian Buemi).
Schumacher is possibly still the fastest driver in the world, which also makes him highly marketable for any car maker in the sport.
If Michael joined Mercedes the German marque would steal the Schumacher legacy from Ferrari. The Schumacher name is very valuable, even five years after his last championship, and Mercedes would love the chance to market that to great effect. The Mercedes Schumacher CLK road car would be highly desirable and the company would have all of the German support they could ever dream of.
Schumacher certainly wouldn’t be stopped from joining Mercedes by any prior commitment to Ferrari. Although Michael is contracted as an advisor to the Scuderia, Luca Di Montezemolo has said “If he wanted to leave we would not stop him”. Apparently, Schumacher’s Ferrari contract for 2010 has not actually been signed yet so there is no legal barrier standing in his way.
Above everything else, it would be very fitting if Schumacher finished racing with Mercedes because he started his international career with the manufacturer two decades ago.
Schumacher joined the Sauber Mercedes team to race in the 1990 World Sportscar Championship. It was Mercedes’ third year in the series and they had been very successful. The team dominated the 1989 season and was not about to stop winning.
The endurance format meant that every car had to be shared by two drivers. Mercedes had a strategy of running Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi in the lead car, with Jochen Mass in the other. Mass’ teammate would be a Mercedes junior driver that varied from race to race. The idea was that Mercedes could test a number of youngsters in their high speed machinery whilst they learnt alongside the very experienced Mass. Mercedes would then have their pick of young German talent once it was time for the company to enter Formula One.
The part time arrangement at Mercedes suited Schumacher perfectly because it enabled him to compete in the German Formula Three championship as well. He finished third in that series behind Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in 1989, so wanted to keep going until he won the title for himself.
Schumacher was joined in the Mercedes junior team by Wendlinger and Frentzen, and together they all shared the second Mercedes C9 with Mass.
Karl Wendlinger competed in the first two rounds of the season and finished second in both races behind the winning car of Schlesser and Baldi. Schumacher got his first chance at the third race but didn’t get to start because his car was disqualified due to a practice infringement.
Schumacher missed round four but returned at the next race in Dijon where he finished a close second to the team’s lead car. He also finished second at the Nurburgring before making one more appearance at the last race of the year in Mexico. Schumacher and Mass again finished behind Schlesser and Baldi, but were later given the victory as the winning Mercedes was disqualified with a fuel irregularity.
Between those drives, Schumacher won the German Formula Three championship. This gave him the opportunity to return fulltime with Mercedes in 1991 and he shared a car with Wendlinger.
There were a few big regulation changes in 1991 and Mercedes was hopelessly caught out. Jaguar and Porsche built revolutionary cars with fascinating new designs, but Mercedes had not been so radical and their conservative approach was not competitive.
The C291 they built was heavy, underpowered, and unreliable. As a result the team only built one car for Schumacher and Wendlinger, and gave a detuned version of the older 1990 model to Schlesser and Mass to race in a lower class. Not surprisingly, Schumacher and Wendlinger did not get a lot out of their difficult machinery.
They retired with engine problems in the first two races, but scored an unlikely second place in the third round at Silverstone due to the mechanical gremlins of others.
After that fortunate podium the C291 did not finish another event until the final race of the year at Autopolis in Japan. On that occasion Schumacher and Wendlinger were able to squeeze a remarkable victory out of the car and it was the only win that Mercedes scored all season.
Schumacher’s relationship with Mercedes covered more than just the World Sportscar Championship.
Mercedes did not compete in the 1990 Le Mans 24 Hour race because they were focussed on the World Championship instead. However, their title dreams were non-existent in 1991 so they took part in the endurance classic with the older C11. Schumacher was given one of the cars with Karl Wendlinger and Fritz Kreutzpointner, and the trio finished fifth despite a costly spin from Wendlinger. During the race Schumacher set a new lap record, breaking the previous mark by an impressive five seconds. His talent was clear to see and he would have gone close to the win if it wasn’t for Wendlinger’s mistake.
Often forgotten is that Michael also raced in two DTM rounds for Mercedes in 1991. Both weekends consisted of two races, and from the four starts Schumacher managed a 14th place, a 25th place, and two DNFs.
1991 was Schumacher’s final year with Mercedes because the manufacturer sponsored his entry into Formula One. Mercedes was not competing in F1 at the time, but there was a vacancy at Jordan for the Belgian Grand Prix so they paid the Irish team to give Michael a chance.
Schumacher became an overnight superstar, and the rest is history.
Interestingly, Mercedes also helped Schumacher sign with Benetton after just one Grand Prix and set him up for the rest of his career.
There was some indication that Mercedes helped Schumacher get into Formula One so they could be reunited when the car maker started their own team. However, Mercedes never did launch a full factory assault on Grand Prix racing and simply supplied engines to Sauber and McLaren instead.
Now that Mercedes have finally entered the sport with their own squad they might be about to call on Schumacher’s services, albeit 16 years later than expected. Schumacher’s management confirmed that Michael met with Mercedes bosses during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and whilst they could have talked about anything at all, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t ask him if he would consider driving in F1 next year.
2009 has been full of surprises and there might be time for one more shock before the year is over.