Stirling Moss stifled a guffaw when asked about Michael Schumacher’s chances of celebrating another race win, let alone an eighth Formula One crown, this season. “(Can he) Win? No, of course not,” the Briton told Reuters last month, a note of incredulity entering the voice of the 81-year-old widely regarded as the greatest driver never to have won the world championship.
Not in top gear: Schumacher was eclipsed by Nico Rosberg last year. Bloomberg
“Going back (to F1) was a mistake. He’s done a tremendous amount for motor racing, most of all by getting Ferrari when they were doing nothing and bringing them back to the top,” added the man who took the first of his 16 Grand Prix wins with Mercedes 56 years ago. “But now it’s going to be difficult. He’s going to be lucky to get on the podium actually.”
Schumacher, now 42, made his comeback with Mercedes last season after three years in retirement, following 11 glorious years at Ferrari. As the most successful driver in the sport—with 91 wins, an armful of records and a legion of fans—he had little to prove to anyone other than himself, and that remains the case.
Some see this year as make or break for the champion, who came back to win and challenge for more titles, and starts the season in Australia this month still hoping to do exactly that. If he feels it is no longer possible, with 23-year-old German compatriot Sebastian Vettel looking for back-to-back crowns with Red Bull after becoming the youngest-ever champion, then some fear he could walk away sooner than planned.
Schumacher supporters will have been comforted to see him set the fastest lap of all in the final pre-season test in Barcelona and to hear his upbeat comments afterwards. “It has worked pretty well, so we are looking forward to going to Australia to be in a reasonably strong position,” he said.
Schumacher ended last year without standing on the podium and was largely eclipsed by his far younger teammate Nico Rosberg.
To put that into perspective, Vettel was four years old the last time Schumacher ended a year in Formula One without finishing in the top three.
Since 1992, his first full season, Schumacher has won at least one race every year. His final position of ninth overall was the lowest since he finished 12th in 1991 on the back of six races with Jordan and Benetton. He may be one of five champions on the starting grid this season but he is still the one whose name and fame extend way beyond the sport.
“I wouldn’t bet against him, that’s for sure,” says South African Jody Scheckter, the 1979 champion who was the last before Schumacher to win the title with Ferrari. “He’s doing it for himself and it’s a massive challenge. It’s probably a bigger challenge than when he first came in.”
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, who masterminded Schumacher’s greatest wins and all his titles as technical director at Benetton and Ferrari, certainly believes his friend still has what it takes.
Speaking from personal experience, the burly Briton knows there is nothing like adversity to whet the appetite for success. Brawn won both titles in 2009 with his own team, subsequently bought out by Mercedes, and also wants to get back to the top.
“It’s often the periods when you get more motivation because when you’ve been there, you don’t want to let it go. It’s the thing that drives you the hardest when you’ve got these challenges to face,” Brawn told the BBC this month. “Most of us get more motivated when we’re not achieving the things we want to achieve.
“Last year, we didn’t have a great year, so we’ve made some changes, we’ve made a plan for the winter. So far, we’re sticking to our plan and we’ll know whether that’s right when we get to Melbourne.”
The new Mercedes MGP W02 has had teething problems and Brawn recognized before the final test that the team needed to find another second to get to where they wanted to be. Schumacher’s lap time last week suggested big progress in that direction.
Brawn said Schumacher, who joined Ferrari in 1996 when they were far from a winning team, remained motivated and fully engaged with the team. “That steely determination we often see with Michael is there in spades and he’s also been part of the plan,” said the Briton.
“He’s understood what we’re putting together. We may get egg on our face—we may turn up in Melbourne and it hasn’t come together. But we’re optimistic and he’s part of it. He knows what we’re doing and why,” added Brawn.
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