Michael Schumacher has never lacked self-belief, but the seven-times world champion's readiness to put his reputation on the line by returning to Formula One as a replacement for the injured Ferrari driver Felipe Massa was last night greeted with amazement and delight throughout the sport.
On a day when BMW became the latest manufacturer to announce it was withdrawing from Formula One, Schumacher's announcement was more than a welcome distraction. Having retired at the end of 2006, the German had remained involved with the sport as an adviser to Ferrari – the team with which he won five of his world titles – but, despite occasional speculation, had never shown any inclination to climb back into the cockpit on a competitive basis.
Last night, however, Ferrari announced the 40-year-old had agreed to drive Massa's car in the European Grand Prix in Valencia on 23 August. The organisers of the race, who had been fearing they would struggle to sell tickets after the sport's governing body, the FIA, banned Renault, the team of local hero Fernando Alonso, from taking part as punishment for an incident in which a wheel came off Alonso's car during last week's Hungarian Grand Prix, must have been turning cartwheels.
"Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro intends to put Michael Schumacher in Felipe Massa's car until the Brazilian driver will be able to race again," Ferrari confirmed. "Schumacher said he is ready and, over the next few days, will undertake a specific training programme at the end of which confirmation will be given of his participation in the championship with effect from the European Grand Prix on 23 August."
Confirmation came from Schumacher himself on his website. "The most important thing first: thank God, all news concerning Felipe is positive, and I wish him all the best again.
"This afternoon I met with [team principal] Stefano Domenicali and [president] Luca di Montezemolo and together we decided that I will prepare myself to take the place of Felipe... as the competitor I am, I also very much look forward to facing this challenge."
While Massa appears to be recovering satisfactorily from the accident which left his life in danger, it is unlikely he will be fit enough to race again this season. Schumacher, always an obsessive trainer, has clearly kept himself in good condition, though as former driver and now BBC pundit Anthony Davidson pointed out, there is a big difference between being physically fit and being fit enough to wrestle a Formula One car for 90 minutes.
It does not help that this season's rules do not allow teams to run their cars between races. In theory, therefore, the first time Schumacher will climb into the current Ferrari is for first practice in Valencia. Even if the FIA were to agree to an exception, it is unlikely the other teams would.
To make things even more difficult, Schumacher is understood to still be recovering from neck and back injuries sustained in a motorbike test in Spain in February. He is fortunate that Formula One is on a longer than usual summer break, giving him more time to prepare, but there is no doubt his decision has surprised even those close to him.
While his spokeswoman Sabine Kehm did not categorically rule out any possibility of him temporarily replacing Massa in the days following the race in Hungary, his manager, Willi Weber, did precisely that. "Whoever sits in the car at the next race in Valencia, it will not be Michael Schumacher," he insisted.
"I am not 100 per cent sure; I am 200 per cent sure. The pressure on him would be huge. He'd be expected to win, but he has not driven this car.
"When Michael was racing he would get as close to perfection as possible. In this case, it would not be perfection, it would be a gamble – and that's not Michael's style."
It is now, it seems. For many, Schumacher's return will be all the more surprising because Ferrari have been struggling this season. Brilliant driver though he unquestionably was, Schumacher made no secret of his determination to maximise his chances of victory by ensuring he was in the best possible car. In the same way, his team-mate was always required to know his place in the scheme of things – which was, unless mechanical circumstances dictated otherwise, to finish behind Schumacher. That, of course, is no longer allowed in Formula One, but there was no immediate reaction from his new team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
While Ferrari have shown signs of improvement recently, they struggled to come to terms with the changes in design specification imposed before this season. Schumacher's chances of winning the European Grand Prix would, therefore, appear to be relatively low though, given his record, no one was last night prepared to rule it out.
There are 70 points available this season, and with Jenson Button leading the drivers' championship with 70 points, it is mathematically possible for Schumacher's return to end in a fairy-tale title, though even a man of Schumacher's confidence would concede the chances are infinitesimally small.
Hot Schu: Career of a champion
Born: 3 Jan 1969, Cologne, Germany
Teams: Jordan (1991), Benetton (1991-95), Ferrari (1996-2006)
First F1 race: 1991 Belgian GP
First F1 victory: 1992 Belgian GP
Last F1 victory: 2006 Chinese GP
Last F1 race: 2006 Brazilian GP
Championships: 1994, 1995 (Benetton), 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 (Ferrari)
Career points: 1,369
Fastest laps: 76Reuse content