James Lawton: Lack of life in F1 fast lane incurs wrath of Schumacher
"Overtaking was impossible if nobody made a mistake. This track regime is unfortunate"
Monday 15 March 2010
Michael Schumacher may not be able to outrace the world, at least not for the moment, but he can still scowl for it.
The great man, predictably, was out of sorts after finishing sixth but, if he had been unable to trust the tyres of his new Mercedes, and maybe some of his still thawing finer instincts, he could go blindfold through all the gears of disdain.
He once finished a fraction of a second out of first place while operating entirely on one of those gears, fifth as it happened at the Spanish Grand Prix, but after the running of the Bahrain version that was supposed to signal Formula One's thrilling, cleaned-up new dawn, it seemed like a feat from another age and an alien planet.
It was. Back in Schumacher's prime, which is to say four or five years ago, there were of course plenty of complaints that the engineers and the aerodynamists had conquered just about totally a world once dominated by the brilliance of the wheelmen, but none of them, surely, could have anticipated the formalities that yesterday passed for competitive sport in the desert.
Yes, it was true, there was one drama which changed everything, but it was one that didn't have anything at all to do with the relative merits of Sebastian Vettel, whom many see as the new Schumacher, or the winner, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso or McLaren's double bill of British champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. It came when Vettel's engine, which he had been husbanding with what seemed like a supernatural skill, started to sound as though the exhaust system had been produced not by Renault but the Massey Ferguson tractor company.
Then it was a simply a case of gute nacht, Sebastian, buenos dias, Fernando.
When Alonso eased past Vettel the remaining intrigue might have been obliterated by a speck of sand. There had, after all been one overtaking manoeuvre of significance, and that was a gift, in an otherwise typically aggressive performance from third-placed Lewis Hamilton, to Nico Rosberg, one which was near miraculously reversed in the fleeting time now allowed the art of quick change artistry in the pit lane. With the abandonment of the old fuel stop device, the essential drama is being put through a fine sieve indeed.
Most of the Formula One establishment said, naturally, this was in fact a promising new start for the business so riddled by the scandals of Spygate and Crashgate and we really had to deal with the positives.
Top of the list were the renaissance of Ferrari and the brilliant driving of Alonso, an authentic hero of the track despite his somewhat equivocal behaviour through those couple of issues which threatened to tear Formula One apart at every seam.
Now, we are told, there is the massive fascination of whether Red Bull can hit back at the men from Maranello and McLaren can, despite yesterday's discouragement, provide anything like competitive machinery for Hamilton and Jenson Button, who looked anything but a reigning champion before, during, and after his first defence of the title.
Button had declared impishly a few days earlier that the return of Schumacher had made him feel young again. But by the end of the race he would surely have brought a new level of gloom to a full-blown Welsh funeral.
"I will have to do better," he admitted glumly.
In his manner of speaking, Schumacher said pretty much the same thing but first, and he hardly bothered to hide the fact, he must come to terms with a new world of Formula One that was not exactly to his taste.
Sixth place, he said, was "as good as it could have been. Overtaking was impossible if somebody didn't make a mistake. It is unfortunate when you have this regime of the track. There are new rules of the tyre I struggled with. I suppose after three years you have to feel your way back."
No doubt he will make something of the old fist of it, starting, maybe, with the advice of his old boss Eddie Jordan that he should make more of the kind of imposing first lap which used to be one of his most damaging weapons. After yesterday's first lap he had gained one place. It was an improvement on his qualifying but by his standards it was still the imprint of a fly.
Jordan said that on balance it was a "good return". Now he has only to learn the car that his old Ferrari ally Ross Brawn is obliged to quicken sharply.
Apart from the exultant Alonso, who drove impeccably and now could not say enough for the brilliance of everyone at Ferrari, and not least the nerve that went into abandoning last season as a lost cause and building for the new challenge, the post-race pit lane was mostly filled with regret.
Even second-placed Felipe Massa lamented the fact that his Ferrari performed less than perfectly but then, unlike Schumacher, for the Brazilian a scowl does not come so naturally. He conceded that he lost an important place to his team-mate on the first lap, a disaster compounded by temperature problems and the need to conserve fuel. But he was was quick to remind us that, after his freakishly horrendous accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, a place on the podium was not so much a good result as something close to a miracle. "I didn't have a good start and there were some difficulties, but all the time I could only thank God for racing again – and all those people who sent me messages saying that they knew I would come back."
Quite to what this amiable, admirable man has returned will no doubt take some time to unravel. Certainly it is hard to imagine the action in Australia in two weeks' time will bring anything close to a clear definition. Maybe, though, the best bet is that the Schumacher scowl may have softened, at least by a point or two.
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