James Lawton: Schumacher's return is not a gamble but a reflex action

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The Independent Online

For Formula One there was only one certainty, one cornerstone of the franchise which stood quite untouchable.

Its name was Michael Schumacher and the moment you heard his name linked with his old team Ferrari you knew it was right. Who else would the great but embattled team turn to in the wake of Felipe Massa's career-threatening injury in Hungary?

Turning to Schumacher, even at his age of 40, is a not so much a gamble as a reflex – and one of quite impeccable soundness.

Ferrari could be counted on for such a response more than any other team because their debt to the implacable German is maybe the greatest, even in the age of diffusers and advanced aerodynamics, ever owed to an individual driver.

Of course, even the verdict that he was, "statistically speaking, the greatest driver motor sport has ever known," did not quite separate him from such masters of Juan Fangio, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna. What did the trick, utterly, was the sense that he was more than a talented man at the wheel. He was also the drive and the spirit of the team, not only the inspiration of the engineers and the pit-lane mechanics but their most demanding taskmaster.

He didn't just drive a car, he felt it, smelt it and when it failed was the first to perform a knowing autopsy. He has slightly more than three weeks to achieve race sharpness in Valencia and the next grand prix but, if that sounds like an improbable ambition after three years away from the Formula One track, it is unlikely to trouble him too gravely.

A relentless achiever in everything he does, it was unthinkable that Schumacher, the most driven of men, would relax into the undemanding comforts of middle age. The instincts that made Schumacher so unique are not likely to be in need of massive rehabilitation. In accepting the challenge officially yesterday he made it clear that Formula One is no longer at the heart of his universe, but plainly it still occupies a vital place and when the call came from Italy he was apparently already half-tuned to the possibility.

"In certain circumstances," he said, "there can be only one response to a situation, and this is true of this one."

Schumacher has never been the most engaging of personalities, never courted easy favour and there are some who will always believe his influence in the sport became unhealthy – especially when the authorities scarcely tapped his knuckles for a vain attempt to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the track and steal still another world crown.

Yet always there was the sense of a supreme performer, someone who set new standards of performance and an almost chilling efficiency. Once in the rain in Jarama he dominated a Spanish Grand Prix so completely the efforts of his rivals were rendered embarrassing.

Late in his career he was asked when he was likely to walk away from the world he had come to virtually own.

"Only when I no longer get a thrill out of doing my work, when I feel I can no longer do it better than anyone else," he told a big ballroom in Monaco. "That time hasn't come yet but when it does I will be the first to let you know."

Yesterday Ferrari said Schumacher's abdication was over. In all their recent troubles, and the chaos of their sport, it wasn't the most difficult thing they had been called to do.