Schumacher and Vettel seeking home help to lift the gloom

The pressure is on for Germany's old king and his heir-apparent but for different reasons, as David Tremayne reports
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The Independent Online

"Danke Schumi!" the German race fan's T-shirt read. "258 Rennen, 91 Siege, 68 Poles, 76 Schnellste Runden". It left no doubt about his allegiance, and thousands upon thousands of similar garments provided an intriguing slant on Formula One, 2010 style.

Michael Schumacher may be struggling, but for many of Germany's bellicose fans who have made their traditional journey to Hockenheim this weekend, the veteran remains the hero – even though his heir-apparent, Sebastian Vettel, has a far clearer chance of securing victory for the Fatherland.

As the T-shirt says, Schumacher's record is remarkable: 258 race starts, 91 victories, 68 pole positions and 76 fastest laps. Vettel has a long way to go, with seven wins, 10 poles and four fastest laps in 53 races. King and pretender, both have come here under huge pressure.

Despite having the fastest car beneath him, Vettel has won only two of the season's 10 races. His team-mate Mark Webber, 10 years his senior and not expected by Red Bull's Austrian hierarchy to offer the wunderkind a consistent challenge, has won three times and is currently seven points ahead of him.

Schumacher, meanwhile, is having trouble with a younger team-mate. The 41 year-old's much vaunted return to F1 has been such an unmitigated disaster that he trails Nico Rosberg by 54 points. However much spin you put on it, the simple fact remains that if it was the test driver Nick Heidfeld who had been handing in such poor results for Mercedes, the clamour to have him replaced would be deafening. Schumacher's plight merely endorses the view that you should never go back.

All the criticism has to have hurt a man with his pride, but he has taken it on the chin and insists that he has not been affected by the negativity. "Yes, there is an expectation which I think you have to be realistic that it is impossible to meet," Schumacher said. "I am away three years and just to come back and start exactly where I finished, with maybe a car that doesn't allow me to right now, is probably unrealistic. I am not a magician. It just needs time.

"I enjoy most of all this process. There were some setbacks and moments where you would, obviously, be a little bit angry. There are ups and downs and that is the excitement of motorsport. I know the final target where I want to go and I am very confident I can achieve this. There is the sportive side and there is the entertainment side of this whole circus. You just have to accept and see it is just part of that situation and not bother too much about it."

It is, of course, inevitable that comparisons have been drawn between Schumacher and Vettel, Germany's old and new hopes. "I am not the new Schumacher, nor do I want to be," Vettel insisted a long time ago, as he scored his first win in style for Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008. "I just want to be me."

Back then he was the funny new kid on the block, with a penchant for British humour such as Monty Python and Little Britain. He was a breath of fresh air in the paddock, a determined racer who yet remained grounded despite the intensity of his passion to win. But since the war with Webber intensified with their collision while battling for the Turkish Grand Prix in May, he has become demonised in some quarters. This is unfortunate, because where Schumacher largely earned his reputation as a man who would win at any cost, after barging Damon Hill out of a world championship in Adelaide back in 1994 and then trying the same tactic on Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez three years later, Vettel's bad reputation stems directly from the overly protective paternal reaction of Red Bull's driver consultant, Dr Helmut Marko.

It did not help when, defending what happened at Silverstone earlier this month and suggesting that Webber somehow pulled an underhand move by beating the pole man Vettel to the first corner, Marko cited a litany of reasons why he felt his protégé has not got the world championship in a headlock.

"If Mark imagines there's a conspiracy between us and Vettel against him, then he is on the wrong track," he told Germany's Auto Motor und Sport. "If I was Vettel then I would have suspected the opposite. Which car has permanently had something damaged? Did Mark have the defective spark plug in Bahrain, the loose wheel in Australia, the broken brake disc in Barcelona, the defective chassis in Monte Carlo, the transmission problems in Montreal and now the broken wing at Silverstone?"

It made Vettel look arrogant, and he isn't. "I think if you said to Red Bull we are still selling cans, not much has happened," the 23-year-old said chirpily, alluding to how the situation was in the camp after the controversy over the new front wing at Silverstone. "A lot of talk and a lot of press but the most important thing you need to understand is that it doesn't matter who wins the race. In the end we are a team and Red Bull Racing won the race on the Sunday.

"Mark did, so it was a great result. For some reason, unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of positive feedback. We know where the focus is. It is surely on this race and nowhere else. Most important is the atmosphere within the team and for us not to get affected by what is being said or written."

Such has been the scale of Red Bull's public-relations disaster that even the owner Dietrich Mateschitz was moved to comment. Given that there are some people within the energy drink's worldwide organisation who perceive him to be as visible as a yeti, this was nothing short of remarkable. He made it clear he would not tolerate any favouritism "because this philosophy is not in keeping with my understanding of racing". Mateschitz added: "You cannot just program a champion. If you ask me who will be champion, I say one of our two drivers. But the pits must not interfere, because then the problems begin in earnest."

Then, alluding to whether internal rivalry could possibly compromise the team's campaign, he said: "I think it is unlikely, but I would not rule it out. And if it should happen, my God we are talking about racing! The image of blood, sweat and tears is not by chance."

Meanwhile, Schumi battles for credibility. Once upon a time the mere sight of him in a driver's mirrors was cause for palpitation and surrender; now he races in a different era where most of the young guys out on the grid could not care less who he is, or was. It's been a hard lesson in humility. But he does not doubt he will get back to the top.

"Naturally you wish to go straight ahead with this – thinking [about] where we'd been last year with the team," he said, referring to Brawn's supremacy in 2009 before it metamorphosed into Mercedes. "You sort of think that there might be a possibility to continue on from there, but then it's easy and clear enough to understand why that is and was not possible. That's about it. You just understand and realise the situation and work from there on.

"To win another title, that's our aim, that's what I'm here for."