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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Michael Schumacher comeback, BBC interview, on 2009.12.23


Michael Schumacher, Seven World Titles, Back In Formula 1

Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in motor racing history, announced Wednesday that he will return to race in Formula One next year after three seasons in retirement.

The German, who turns 41 next month, who won seven world drivers’ titles in a career spanning 16 years and 249 races, has signed to drive for the new Mercedes Grand Prix team in a three-year deal.

“I was tired of F1 by the end of 2006,” Schumacher said Wednesday. “But in three years of absence I got back all the energy that I am feeling right now. I played around with motorbikes and I feel ready for some serious stuff now.”

Schumacher had been consulting for the Ferrari team, where he raced from 1996 to 2006. Last summer, when the team needed a replacement for its injured driver, Felipe Massa, Schumacher considered returning, but a neck injury from a motorcycle racing accident had not yet healed.

“The failed comeback attempt last summer gave me reason to reconsider my situation,” Schumacher said.

He said that he believed he and the Mercedes team would have a chance to win the title in 2010. He said he is returning because he was given an offer he never expected and that it came from two important sources, Ross Brawn, the director of the team, and Mercedes.

Brawn was the technical director and strategist at the Benetton team and guided Schumacher on to win his first two titles, in 1994 and 1995. Both Brawn and Schumacher then moved to Ferrari, winning a further five titles together from 2000 to 2004.

Schumacher drove for Mercedes in sports cars before entering Formula One. The manufacturer had paid for his move to Formula One at the Jordan team in 1991.

Mercedes went on to become a minority-owner of the McLaren team. But last month the company announced that it was leaving McLaren and buying a controlling interest in the Brawn team, which won both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles this year.

Schumacher will race alongside another German, Nico Rosberg, who is 15 years younger.

Schumacher will be the oldest driver since Nigel Mansell raced in Formula One in 1995, also at age 41.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael challenged for another world championship,” Mansell said last weekend. Mansell won his last race, the Australian Grand Prix, at 41 in 1994.

Schumacher period of domination, before he retired in 2006 was like none before. No other driver comes close to his 91 victories, Alain Prost is second with 51 and Ayrton Senna the third, with 41.

Schumacher equaled Juan Fangio’s 45-year-old record of five titles in 2002 and went on to win two more titles in the following two years. Prost is third with four titles.

In a recent poll of 217 drivers by Autosport Magazine Senna, who earned three world titles before he died in a crash at Imola in 1994, was voted greatest driver. Schumacher came in second. Fangio was third.

Fangio, who was 46 when he won his last title, won titles with four different manufacturers.

Schumacher is now joining the team that won the title last year, but his move to Ferrari in 1996 was far bolder. Ferrari, had become synonymous with failure, and then helped turn it into a dominant winning machine.

“Schumacher reshaped the mold for the 21st-century racing driver,” the Autosport editors wrote, “combining incredible fitness with technical brilliance and good old-fashioned speed.”

But Schumacher also has a dark side. In 1997, with a single point advantage over his rival for the title, Jacques Villeneuve at Williams, the German tried to knock the Canadian off the track at Jerez, Spain, to take a short cut to the crown.

The move backfired. Schumacher’s car fell out of the race, while Villeneuve limped on to the finish and scored the points he needed to take the title. Schumacher was stripped of all his points for that season. He had won his first title, in 1994, after a collision that knocked out his nearest rival, Damon Hill, also in the last race.

In his last year in the series, under pressure from the rising star, Fernando Alonso at Renault, Schumacher tried another trick in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. Desperate to score pole position, he parked his car in the last corner to prevent anyone from completing their last lap. He was punished, sent to the back of the grid.

Yet his natural driving talent was matched by his strength as a team player and his understanding of how to improve the cars he drove. When things were not going well within his team or with his car, he never blamed others. He always worked to find solutions to the problems.

Schumacher is a trained mechanic and his engineers said that his input helped to improve the cars.

“To have a car in your hands, a team working with you with which you maximize your performance, and driving finally this car at the track, and just knowing and feeling that this is the maximum that you can achieve, that has been such a thrill for all those years,” he said in an interview last year. “I always was hungry for this.”

Bernard Dudot, the head of the Renault engine program in the 1980s and 1990s, and who had also worked with Prost and Senna, said Schumacher was superior to both in this area.

“We did things on the engine at that time that we would never have done — or never have developed — had it not been him,” said Dudot in an interview in 2006.

This is certainly going to help next year in a Formula One where car testing between races has been banned to cut costs. Schumacher’s input during race weekends will therefore be extremely valuable to the team to develop the car.

His public personality was not one to attract fans the way the charismatic Senna did. On television, the German can look arrogant, angry and cold.

Yet in person he is a warm, almost modest individual, aware of his failings.

“He’s the best judge of what he can do and I trust him implicitly, and he told me he can do it so I’m very confident,” Brawn said of his return. “He’s always been his own best critic.”

Published: December 23, 2009
In NYTimes

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