The curious case of Michael Schumacher

Posted on 19 October, 2010

Last month, we suggested that Michael Schumacher should follow Nigel Mansell’s lead, and stick to the advertisements rather than risking his neck on the racetrack, with Mansell becoming the figure head of Money Super Market’s car insurance campaign. Schumacher’s recent performances have done nothing to alter this view and have done yet more damage to his legacy. In particular, the performance in Singapore was possibly one of the worse drivers of Schumacher’s miserable 2010 season. So what has changed for the man that won five consecutive championships with Ferrari in the past decade?

Age and fitness
Age and fitness has been one of the most commonly suggested reasons for Schumacher’s poor performances. Schumacher himself has admitted that a 41 year old version of him would be left trailing by a 21 year old version. Then there is the neck injury, which prevented Schumacher replacing Massa for the second half of 2009. Is this still causing a problem?
There is no definitive way of proving either of these factors as being root of Schumacher’s problems. However, what can be said is that Schumacher doesn’t seem to have been struggling with his neck this season and does four years really make that much of a difference? In 2006, Schumacher was on average almost half a second a lap quicker than team mate Massa, a man who has only shaded the sports leading light Alonso by a couple of tenths this season. However, in 2010 Schumacher is on average three tenths down on Rosberg in qualifying and almost a second down in race trim. Added to this, Schumacher’s racing instincts seem to have taken a knock, with the German seeming more likely to hit someone than overtake them when in close combat. As you get older you reactions do slow down, so this is certainly a possible cause. However, Nigel Mansell didn’t reach his peak and win his F1 and Indycar titles until he was forty and he was far less fit than Schumacher.

The Car
Michael Schumacher drove some of the finest Ferrari’s ever made in the early part of the new millennium. Indeed, the Ferrari F2002 which won 15 out of 17 races during the 2002 seasons was perhaps the most dominant F1 car ever made in terms of its superiority of speed and reliability over its competitors. On top of these Schumacher brought in his own design team to Ferrari, as Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne followed him from Benetton. With undisputed number one status in the team, the car design was centred around getting the maximum from Schumacher. This involved having a car with a very sticky front end, which would be inclined to over steer than under steer. This allowed Schumacher to take a huge amount of speed into corners and still manage to make turn in.
This isn’t the case with the 2010 Mercedes W01, which was designed around Jenson Button who enjoys a car with under steer given his more gentle approach. However, most will argue that Nico Rosberg is still managing to get good results from the car and they would be right. It still has to be argued that no matter how much the car doesn’t suit him, it can’t explain the difference in performance between the two.

The tyres
At the turn of the millennium, Bridgestone decided to centre their efforts around Ferrari in their fight against Michelin. While Michelin were designing tyres compatible with the Mclaren, Williams and Renault, Bridgestone focused soley and making sure that their tyres were completely in sync with the Ferrari chassis. Schumacher was tasked with leading Bridgestone’s development programme, and hence, like the car, the tyres were designed specifically to his needs.
For 2010, the tyre war is at an end, and Bridgestone now supply all twelve teams with rubber which is designed to limit grip in order to reduce dangerous cornering speeds. This has been achieved by reducing initial turn in by making the front tyres less wide and hence Schumacher’s desire for a sticky front end is no longer accommodated.

Can he still do it?
It would appear that a combination of all of these factors have conspired to make ruin the comeback of the most successful man in the history of the sport. However, in 2011 Mercedes will produce a new car under the direction of Ross Brawn which will be designed with Schumacher in mind. On top of this Pirelli will replace Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier. Will the characteristics of the new Mercedes chassis and Pirelli tyres reduce the inherent problem of under steer Schumacher has faced this year? He will certainly be hoping so.
If it does, this will rule out all possibilities other than age. With Mansell being a forty year old champion, what’s stopping Schumacher? Will 2011 see the real return of the man who many believe to be the greatest driver ever to grace the wheel of an F1 car? Roll on 2011.