The usual order in 2010: Rosberg leads Schumacher. (LAT photo)
This year's version of Michael Schumacher looked like any other driver, just there to make some noise, to give the spectators something to watch while the leaders were at the other side of the circuit. Any similarity to the seven-time champion colossus that bowed out in 2006 was superficial.
It was like watching Elvis in his Vegas period or A.J. Foyt in his final seasons – a certain style still evident, plenty of commitment, but with the raw ability somehow dulled. With Elvis and Foyt it was the years and the indulgences that had done the damage. With Michael, it wasn't so clear cut, motor racing being such a machinery-dependent game.
OK, his car, the Mercedes MGP W01, wasn't great. It was half a second off the pace, too conservative a design to run even with the Ferrari and McLaren let alone the Red Bull. But Nico Rosberg did much more with it than Schumacher, qualified it an average of 0.3sec faster and scored points far more regularly. Was it the years? Michael thinks not, believes it's to do with this generation of tires not allowing him to drive the way he needs to and his opportunity to adapt limited by the in-season testing ban.
Perhaps. Mercedes' technical boss Ross Brawn took Schumacher to all seven of those titles with Benetton and Ferrari, so can make a direct comparison.
“The first few races were according to expectations, really,” he says, “in that he was a little bit off Nico but the gap was narrowing. Then, at Barcelona for the fourth race, he was actually quicker. At that point I thought, ‘OK, we're there now'. But then it all seemed to fall back again and that was quite a surprise. You can see the areas where Michael is not as quick as Nico and it's predominantly in slow- and medium- speed stuff. At Monza, for instance, Nico was able to ride the curbs with more confidence than Michael was and so it's a slightly peculiar deficit. It's not in the high-speed stuff, where bravery and reactions and car control are the factors, because in those areas they are very well matched; it's in the technique of low- to medium-speed.
“Michael's still absolutely committed, is still on the phone all the time with new ideas to try, is absolutely as into it as he ever was. I'm hopeful that with different tires and different cars and a winter of reflecting about it and testing, we'll have two strong drivers next year.”
Stand trackside and watch him under braking from high speed into a slow corner and he looks super-brave and committed. He brakes as late as he ever did. But what happens between there and the apex looks nothing like the way it used to. It looks a mess, like a driver with plenty of raw car control but using it only to react to what the car's doing, not anticipating. The way he used to have of putting the car on the absolute razor-edge margin of adhesion and then just sitting there, making barely any input, perfectly balanced, like he'd somehow miraculously jumped straight onto the high-wire, just isn't there anymore. Watching a 90-minute practice session from the first chicane at Monza – the biggest deceleration of the year, from 215mph down to an apex speed of around 50mph – he managed that once and couldn't repeat it. It's as if that tiny little slit of a window he used to be able to find and expand has narrowed until he can only occasionally stumble upon it but even then cannot grasp.
But then it used to be that he could demand to have a front tire that would allow him to lean heavily upon it. It's possible that the current low-grip control tire simply doesn't allow his technique to work. It used to be that Bridgestone's entire F1 program was effectively structured around the whims of his driving style. If he didn't like the tire, he could have a new one made by the next test. Now, not only is there not a “next test,” but the tires are unchanging and standardized – everyone gets the same as him.
Early indications from the Pirelli tests are that its 2011 control tire is grippier than the Bridgestone – but in the balance between front and rear actually more understeery. That could be very bad news for Michael.
Is 41 too old? There's no reason why it should be. Nigel Mansell was World Champion at 39, and followed it with a sensational Indy car title the next year. But what about 41 after a three-year layoff and during a time when the characteristics of the cars and tires have fundamentally changed? That might be altogether different.
Brilliant as Brawn, Mediocre as Mercedes
Why the World Champions slipped down the grid in 2010
Ross Brawn blames himself for the mediocre performance of the Mercedes MGP W01, which was the clear fourth quickest car, consistently 0.5sec per lap off the frontrunners on most circuits.
At the time of the car's conception, Brawn was trying to win the 2009 championship with Jenson Button (LEFT), secure the team's future via negotiations with Mercedes and deal with the effects of a savage 40 percent cut in staff numbers at the start of '09. So it's not too surprising that the 2010 car wasn't cutting edge.
Essentially the W01 had a downforce shortfall, borne of a gearbox too short to optimize the inlet for the double diffuser. This impacts not only downforce at the rear, but also the front, too, in that the airflow is not scavenged back hard enough to work the front wings harder. With the gearbox being such a long-lead item, once the shortcoming was identified, it was felt that time and financial investment would be better spent on the 2011 car.
Says Brawn: “We were too conservative, which limited what we could do aerodynamically. When you lose 40 percent of your staff, it takes a while to settle, and you don't feel confident about taking on anything too ambitious. You don't feel you have the engineering backup to support new ideas, whereas the year before we did some fairly ambitious things.
“The engineering group is reorganized for 2011 and I now feel we have a vision of what we want to do. There's a much better structure there. What I see from our group is much more aggressive solutions which are well engineered so there's no compromise in what we want to achieve. I think we've been pretty bold on what sort of car we want to create and we've got a good enough engineering structure now to support those ideas.”