And so, to the chagrin of many, the greatest comeback since Niki Lauda will not happen after all, after Michael Schumacher reluctantly called the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, on Monday to tell him that his neck simply was not up to the strain of racing in Formula One.
Just as the news of the seven-times champion's impending return ignited the imaginations of fans around the world, so the announcement came as a bitter disappointment. In a statement put out on his website, the 40-year-old German broke the news that he could no longer be considered as Ferrari's replacement for the injured Felipe Massa.
"Yesterday, I had to inform Luca di Montezemolo and team principal Stefano Domenicali that unfortunately I'm not able to step in for Felipe," he said. "I tried everything to make a temporary comeback possible, however, it didn't work out. Unfortunately we did not manage to get a grip on the pain in the neck which occurred after the test day in Mugello, but we tried everything possible."
Schumacher injured his neck in a serious accident while he was testing a Honda superbike at Cartagena in Spain, six months ago. He knocked himself out and sustained some unpleasant injuries that, on medical advice, curtailed his motorcycling career.
It was always clear from the Schumacher team's insistence on full medical examinations at each stage of his test programme that the injuries were of concern, and his statement continued: "The fractures in the area of head and neck, unfortunately have turned out to be still too severe. That is why my neck cannot stand the extreme stresses caused by F1."
In the end he felt there was no option but to pull out of the planned comeback. "I am disappointed to the core," he said. "I am awfully sorry for the guys of Ferrari and for all the fans which crossed fingers for me. I can only repeat that I tried everything within my power."
Schumacher had been planning to conduct further tests at Mugello yesterday and today with a Ferrari F2007 "borrowed" from Ferrari's "Clienti" department, which operates historic customer cars. At pains to distance that from any association with the official Formula One team, and thus not to arouse accusations that Ferrari could be seen to be breaching the gentleman's agreement against in-season testing following the refusal by Williams and the Red Bull teams to let him test a pukka 2009 car, Ferrari let it be known that Schumacher was paying for these tests himself. He had also been testing for the TonyKart team as he worked on his strength, fitness and endurance. The negative medical report, however, rendered further work redundant.
The news puts Ferrari in a quandary since Massa, notwithstanding the speed of his initial recovery from head injuries received in Hungary, is quite likely to sit out the rest of the season in order to ensure that he is fully fit for 2010.
"I am very unhappy that a problem means that Michael cannot return to racing," Montezemolo said. "In the past few days, I could appreciate his great efforts and extraordinary motivation. No doubt his return would have been good for F1 and I am sure it would have seen him fighting for wins again. I wish to thank him for the strong attachment he displayed for the team."
Rather than take a potential risk on running an up-and-coming young driver, Ferrari have plumped for one of their test drivers. "In agreement with Stefano Domenicali, we have therefore decided to give Luca Badoer the chance to race after he has put in so many years of hard work as a test driver," Montezemolo said.
Back-seat driver: Luca Badoer's life and times
Luca Badoer, from Montebelluna, will be the oldest driver on the grid, at 38. A former Formula 3000 champion, he developed into a journeyman grand prix driver who competed in 49 races with a best finish of seventh place, after making his debut for BMS Scuderia Italia in South Africa in 1993. Subsequently he raced for the back-of-grid Minardi, Forti Corse and Fondmetal Minardi teams before taking the role as Ferrari test driver in 1998.
In 1999 he was crushed to be passed over in favour of Mika Salo when Michael Schumacher broke a leg at the British GP, and later wept as a best-ever finish of fourth place slipped away in the European GP at Nürburgring when his Minardi's gearbox broke. He thus remained the driver with the highest number of races to his credit without points.
His biggest asset is that he is familiar with Ferrari's F2009 car after "testing" it regularly on the team's factory-based simulator.