Roll up and see the penultimate Formula 1 race of a seven-time World Champion's career. Right now, there's not a lot of hope that he can win it, but you can be sure he'll be trying. It's just that the game has moved on since his days of greatness.
Since his return to the sport in 2010, Michael Schumacher has not been the driver of old, the man who bruised or cruised his way to 91 grand prix wins; but his efforts to get back on the pedestal he made for himself have been unstinting and, at the age of 43 and with tens of millions of reasons to not care, that's an awesome effort. In half the races this year, he's started ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg, who is by no means a pushover, and Michael even qualified fastest at Monaco.
However, there are many races and qualifying sessions in which he's outperformed by drivers who are 91 wins shy of his victory total, and while that's often been due to the recalcitrance of the W03, sometimes it's been down to the driver. Which is why, very sensibly, he's quitting the sport for a second time.
Rosberg took one of the most dominant wins (and poles) of the year in China but, since then, it's been rare to see him mix it with the Red Bull/McLaren/Alonso battles. Again it's worth pointing the finger of blame less at the driver than the car. The jury's still out on whether Rosberg has the talent to transcend his car's abilities, but it must be said that he's done a better job of that over the last three years than his more illustrious teammate. A top-five finish at Circuit of The Americas would be reasonable; a podium finish would be startling.
Here's a team that's in the F1 news every race, sometimes for the right reasons – a podium finish or, most recently, a victory – and sometimes because one of the drivers has been involved in a high-profile accident. Whichever it is, Lotus is getting noticed again and after a near-anonymous 2011, in which Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov scored just two podium finishes between them, you'd have to say the Eric Boullier-led team has therefore given a good return to its investors.
Kimi Raikkonen's return stole the headlines initially and while the quarter-second edge of pace that made him so formidable at McLaren and Ferrari has apparently disappeared during his two seasons in rallying (either that or teammate Romain Grosjean is the next Rene Arnoux), the 2007 World Champion's race pace remains as intact as his tires at the end of a race. He also makes very few errors and has blown the rust off his wheel-to-wheel combat abilities while also remaining scrupulously fair. Just twice this year has Kimi finished outside the top eight and six times he was on the podium before winning the last race in Abu Dhabi. He's a relatively comfortable third in the championship, and thoroughly deserving of it.
Grosjean, who has outqualified Raikkonen eight times, has had a torrid season, as his ninth place in the points table reveals. Six times he's retired and one race he missed because he was banned for triggering the accident at La Source on the opening lap of the Belgian GP. Yes, there have been times when Grosjean has shown poor judgment while around other cars, but there are also days when it seems any other drivers' stupid maneuvers were going to happen in front of – or involve – the No. 10 Lotus. For there to have been any question mark over his place in F1 was simply ridiculous: the man has great talent, and he's likely to show it again this weekend in Texas.
Back in the March 2012 issue of RACER, one of our F1 writers, Mark Hughes, wrote this about the Force India driver lineup of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta: “The problem both sophomores may have in forcing themselves into [the] rarefied part of the driver market is the performance of the other. The career momentum of an aspiring ‘mega-talent' hinges on the perception that he destroys his teammates. It just might be that di Resta and Hulkenberg are too good for one to dominate the other….”
A particularly astute observation. The German edges the Scot slightly in both qualifying (10-8) and points (49-46) but each has a best result of fourth and it has been nip and tuck on any given weekend who will prevail. They have deeply contrasting styles, much like McLaren's drivers. Di Resta, Dario Franchitti's cousin, has a smooth, early, high-momentum corner entry, whereas Hulkenberg has a Hamilton-like preference for quick directional changes. It's actually a real pity, not least for the team, that this pair is getting split by Nico's switch to Sauber for 2013 (presumably on the fast-track to replace Massa at Ferrari in 2014), because this intra-team battle has been one of the best this year, and should again be close this weekend. A top-eight finish for either or both is probably as much as we should expect, though.
The Saubers have been startlingly good at times this year, belying the fact that they have a middle-ranking budget and two relatively inexperienced drivers. Both Sergio Perez, who will be moving to McLaren next year, and Kamui Kobayashi, whose F1 future at time of writing is looking uncertain, are clearly good, but have not yet had a chance to prove themselves alongside one of the established F1 aces. Presumably, should Perez prove the equal of – or better than – Button at McLaren, people are going to be kicking themselves over not grabbing Kobayashi….
But that's for the future. Perez – who COTA hopes will draw a number of fans to its race from across the border in his native Mexico – proved to be one of the kindest drivers on Pirelli's softer compounds last year, frequently saving a bunch of time by needing one fewer pit stop than his rivals. This year, with more drivers learning the techniques required to coax the best time/longevity equation from the Italian rubber, there has been less latitude for strategy variations, and Perez has consequently turned on the pace and style a little more, resulting in three podium finishes. Having said that, he's started making one or two crucial errors – coincidentally (or not) after being declared a McLaren driver for 2013.
Kobayashi actually has a slight edge over Perez in qualifying record. Special KK's third place at Suzuka – ahead of the McLarens – was well deserved and the podium scene afterward as he acknowledged the jubilant Japanese fans is one of the great memories of the F1 season. But the composure he displayed that day, under severe pressure from Button, is something he'll have to show more of in order to oil the cogs of contract negotiations for next year. We wouldn't expect to see another podium for a Sauber driver, but the pair of them should be ahead of the Force India cars, contending for a top-10 grid slot and a top-eight race finish.