Return of the ultimate competitor

After four wilderness years, Michael Schumacher is back. But is the seven-times world champion, now 41, writing his own tragedy of ambition in overdrive –or will his need for speed prove sceptics wrong?

It may be true that nowhere is the world less inclined to stand still than in Formula One but then if anyone can put a brake on the assumption that both genius and unprecedented achievement can be timed out in a mere four years surely it is Michael Schumacher.

Still, the worry among even his greatest admirers is that in Bahrain this weekend something more than a reputation for glacial-cool calculation, on and off the track, will be subjected to the buffeting of a desert wind.

What some fear, and others who are less benevolently inclined towards arguably the most ruthless man who ever lowered himself into a racing cockpit may anticipate with rather more relish, is that in the course of the new season it is not only the image of Schumacher the champion that will unravel, but also the sense of a man utterly at peace with his vision of himself.

Indeed, there is a historical parallel in a sport quite different to racing in all but its central requirement of testing the nerve and residual talent of its greatest practitioners. It happened in another desert, the one of Nevada, 30 years ago, when Muhammad Ali persuaded himself that he could reconjure all the best of himself against a younger, strong challenger, Larry Holmes.

Some strong men cried at the fate of Ali under the clubbing blows of Holmes. In Bahrain the tears, we can be sure, will be rather less copious if younger lions like Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button begin the vital business of tearing down Schumacher and his latest alliance with the tough and cerebral Ross Brawn – and the spending power of Mercedes.

Schumacher, inevitably, smiles icily at what he suggests is the remoteness of such a prospect, but he of all people must know that the hungry pride he has rejoined at the age of 41 will extend to him, once the first start is signalled, no more compassion than he ever showed to any rival in the years of his astonishing dominance, first with Benetton in 1994 and '95 and then with Ferrari in five seasons from 2000 to 2004.

Those were extended essays in both self-absorption and, ultimately, a brilliant capacity to draw all possible advantage from the resources of a renascent Ferrari and the often arrogant acumen of his technical director, Brawn. Once Brawn was asked how Ferrari would react to projected limits on track testing, an initiative designed to create a rather more level playing field. The response was crushing. Ferrari would probably build another wind tunnel and hire some more engineers. It was possible to detect the flicker of a cold smile on Schumacher's normally impassive face.

He had the same demeanour after those notorious incidents involving Britain's Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and Canada's Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez three years later – and then, in 2006, when it was decided he had quite cynically parked his car at the pivotal Rascasse corner in Monaco at precisely the time his fiercest rival, Alonso, was on his qualifying lap.

The stewards dismissed Schumacher's injured innocence and moved him from the front to the back of the grid. What no one could ever do, at least not until this weekend and the potential for ensuing dramas that have so riveted the sport, was separate the man from a destiny to win in most any circumstances that had become an intrinsic element of his psyche.

Before the Monaco eruption, he filled a big room in the casino at the top of the hill to answer an insistent question. When would he go – wouldn't the age of 37, accompanied by an unrivalled haul of seven world titles, be an appropriate moment? "I will go," he said, "when I have decided that I can no longer achieve the standards I have set for myself, quite simply when I feel I have done enough to satisfy my ambition."

In the debate that followed there were few questions about the extent of the void he would leave and for many that was still evident even with the dogfight victories and controversies of Alonso and Hamilton, and last season's winning but often fraught campaign by Button.

The reigning world champion's quip this week that the presence of Schumacher made him feel young was an eye-catching quote and Hamilton was also in cheery mood when the publicity caravan began to roll. However, there has to be some speculation about whether that sense of well-being will remain quite so strong when Schumacher returns the silver of Mercedes to its first starting grid since 1955, when, after the help of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, executives in Stuttgart decided that they had nothing more to achieve than a continuing statement of such vast superiority it had been stripped of all drama and intrigue.

Moss, despite his indefatigable nature, may not be the most attentive of witnesses this weekend as he recovers in hospital from his fall down the lift shaft of his Mayfair home last weekend. However, he will no doubt soon enough give his reappraised assessment of a man he assumed he had once consigned to history with an all-time ranking in fourth place. Moss was a heavy critic of some of the Schumacher style, especially what he considered an overweening desire to win at any cost. However, if the man widely rated the best racer never to win a world title values anything, it is raw courage and a passion to race, and here he may feel the German ace, at such a late hour, has reasserted some of the best of his nature.

Moss's rating of Schumacher when he retired ignored the fact that he had gained a record number of world titles. Moss's old team-mate, the peerless Fangio, was ranked first, Ayrton Senna second and Jim Clark third. For Schumacher, even fourth place had to be shared with Tazio Nuvolari, the masterful pilot of Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari between the wars and a motorbike rider of inexhaustible panache.

What Moss was saying, you have to suspect, is that if Schumacher was technically superb, if he had made a science of driving a car faster than anyone on earth, there was something missing, something going to the heart of what it meant to be a racer.

Fangio was an old-fashioned sportsman. He was ferociously competitive but also impeccably courteous to his rivals. That could not always be said of Senna, but there was something mystical about the way he saw his place in a sport that obsessed him so completely. Senna thought his place on the grid was part of God's plan. Jim Clark was the purest of drivers. Nuvolari lived for speed and for the wind in his face.

Schumacher's purpose, he did little to conceal, was to win, not so much for the glory or the money, but for its own sake, its own statement about who he was and what he was.

One theory now is that in reacting to a sense of emptiness that came when he walked away from his machine for the last time, has revealed an ache that might never be removed. Eddie Jordan, who gave Schumacher his first grand prix drive, has expressed his doubts and concerns most eloquently, saying, "He must be out of his mind. He hasn't a hope of adding an eighth world title. If I was his father I would say, 'Why son, why?' He's heading into a situation where he could become a sad, rejected man. As an individual with his sporting legacy, you have to give up your sport, not the sport giving you up, and he's putting himself in that position."

So why, Schu, why? It was the question that was heaped upon Ali before and after his failed last stand and if most suspected that in his case it was money we know that it cannot be so with a man who has already donated many millions to charity. We will know better in the next few weeks and months, when we see how he handles a pack with no mind for history, no eagerness to see in what he is today much anything of what he was four years ago.

One thing at least seems certain. Michael Schumacher is still racing harder against no one more than himself.

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