He's Ferrari's, and Formula One's, most successful driver ever. What better man to stand in for the injured Brazilian Felipe Massa than Germany's seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher?
Schumacher won 91 races in his career, most of them in Ferrari's colors
Michael Schumacher on Wednesday announced that he will be returning to Formula One motor racing, filling in for badly injured Brazilian Felipe Massa at his old team Ferrari.
Schumacher's statement on his internet homepage confirmed a growing chorus of rumors in the German press, not least in mass-circulation tabloid Bild.
The 40-year-old seven-time F1 world champion won five of his championships with the Ferrari team, and departed at the end of the 2006 season. He's a former teammate, and close personal friend, of Felipe Massa, who was gravely injured in a freak accident last Saturday in Budapest, during the qualifying session for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Schumacher said on his website that "thank God, the news about Felipe [Massa] is increasingly positive" - in reference to the improvement in the Brazilian driver's condition in hospital in Budapest.
Schumacher said that while talking with top Ferrari officials Stefano Domenicali and Luca di Montezemulo, "together we decided that I will prepare myself to take the place of Felipe."
The Ferrari website confirms the story further.
"Ferrari intends to entrust Michael Schumacher with Felipe Massa's car for as long as the Brazilian driver is not able to race," a statement said.
Schumacher will now undergo a series of medical examinations and training exercises, designed to determine whether the 40-year-old is still fit to take part in F1 racing.
"Never coming back"
Ever since his retirement, Michael Schumacher had always insisted that he would never return to Formula One. The multiple champ and family man asserted that, having achieved more than any other F1 racer, he had nothing left to gain.
Schumacher will be stepping into Felipe Massa's car, after the Brazilian's accident in Hungary
However, his personal manager and long time friend, Sabine Kehm, says that the injury to Felipe Massa changed this situation.
"In this specific situation," Kehm told German public radio, "after this unfortunate, serious injury to Felipe Massa, Ferrari’s options are suddenly very limited. That’s why Michael has spontaneously decided that he would be prepared to step into the breach."
Schumacher has remained on Ferrari’s payroll as a technical advisor ever since his retirement at the end of the 2006 season.
Schumacher’s online post announcing his decision was entitled “Michael happy to help”, and Kehm says that Schumacher’s nature as a “team player” was what moved him to take on the drive.
However, for a seven-time world champion with 91 wins under his belt and a monopoly on F1 records of almost every description, any decision to compete is about more than just charity, as the end of Schumacher’s announcement testifies:
“But as the competitor that I am, I am also very much looking forward to facing this challenge.”
While Schumacher’s pedigree as a racer is indisputable, it will still be a mammoth task stepping back into an F1 cockpit after almost three years away from the sport.
Schumacher's old Ferraris are by no means the same as the current model
He has never driven the current version of Ferrari's F60 car, and – because of the newly introduced mid-season testing ban, a part of F1’s cost-cutting and pollution reducing initiatives – he will not be able to do so until the race weekend at Valencia in August.
He has also never driven around the street circuit in Valencia, which was made ready for racing and introduced to the F1 calendar in 2008. For much of his career he drove with “grooved” tires, but now Formula One has returned to using “slicks” – tires with a completely smooth surface. Also, Schumacher has never used a car – like the F60 – equipped with KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). This regenerative “green” technology, new to F1 this year, stores wasted energy generated by the engine under braking and converts it via batteries into a power boost for the car at the push of a button.
“To be honest, there were a lot of reasons for Michael not to do this,” his manager Sabine Kehm admits. “But his feeling of loyalty to the team moved him to take on the challenge. It’s kind of typical for him. He’s a racer in heart and soul, he was born to compete. At first, I was a little shocked [to hear about his decision to return], but on reflection, I’m not surprised.”
It would be extremely optimistic to expect Schumacher to overcome all these hurdles and be successful on his probable return to Formula One racing on August 23 in Valencia. The likelihood is that he will try to perform respectably in what would be his 251st Grand Prix, and use his great experience and mechanical intuition to help the Ferrari team develop their car for the future.
However, if any F1 driver – past or present – has the potential or the ability to perform above people's expectations, then it’s Schumi.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Neil King