Schumacher may yet stick his neck out

Seven-time champion does not rule out comeback if after-effects of biking injury can stand up to the stress of racing
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The Independent Online

In the ring of a telephone, Ferrari's prospects in next weekend's Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia went from sublime to ridiculous as Michael Schumacher had to tell the team's president, Luca di Montezemolo, that his much-vaunted Formula One comeback as Felipe Massa's stand-in had hit the skids.

The seven-time world champion, who retired at the end of 2006, injured his neck in a serious accident while testing a Honda superbike at the Cartagena circuit in Spain in February. "I really tried everything to make that temporary comeback possible. However, much to my regret it didn't work out," he said. "Unfortunately we did not manage to get a grip on the pain in the neck which occurred after the private F1 day in Mugello, even if medically or therapeutically we tried everything possible. I am disappointed to the core."

All that has left Ferrari to fall back on test driver Luca Badoer, a journeyman Italian who has not raced in F1 for 10 years, has never scored a World Championship point and is further distinguished as the driver who has gone the longest – 48 races – without scoring. Interestingly, they have only committed to him for one race.

Schumacher's most intriguing comment was "my neck cannot stand the extreme stresses caused by Formula One yet". With Massa unlikely to return until the end of this season at the earliest, there may yet be a chance for him. While refusing to be drawn on whether he might race later this year after further work on his neck, perhaps at Monza where the strains might not be as harsh as in Valencia, Schumacher said: "Speculation in this business is pretty natural. Lots of people have their own opinions and thoughts but the fact of the matter is that I'm very disappointed not to do what I was looking to do. That's all that I'm really thinking about and have to digest somehow."

Jenson Button might be wishing he didn't have to race in Valencia, for the temperature there will be around 28C, way below what his sensitive Brawn needs to make its tyres work well enough to rebuff the threat of Red Bull. In the first seven races this season the championship leader scored 61 points to Sebastian Vettel's 29 and Mark Webber's 27.5; in the last three the respective scores have been nine, 18 and 24. At his current rate Webber will move ahead with three races left.

A major aerodynamic update in Hungary did not work, leaving Button to lament: "There is something not quite right. The other cars at the front are quicker but our car doesn't feel like it did three races ago." The teams' factories have, by agreement, been closed down over the summer break, so his chances of an improvement next weekend seem slim.

Nelson Piquet Jnr probably won't be in town either, even in his civvies, having been dumped by Renault in favour of Frenchman Romain Grosjean. Many who have long observed how Flavio Briatore treats Renault's second drivers – Johnny Herbert once told me how Flav merely curled his lip at him and walked away without a word when he had just won the Italian Grand Prix for him in 1995 – had a sly chuckle when the Brazilian launched a verbal rocket attack on his manager and boss as he went out the door.

"I feel a sense of relief for the end of the worst period of my career," he said. "The path to F1 was always going to be tricky, and my father and I therefore signed a management contract with Flavio Briatore, who we believed was an excellent option with all the necessary contacts and management skills. Unfortunately, that was when the black period of my career started. On numerous occasions, 15 minutes before qualifying and races, my manager and team boss would threaten me, telling me if I didn't get a good result he had another driver ready to put in my place.

"A manager is supposed to encourage you, support you and provide you with opportunities. In my case it was the opposite. Flavio Briatore was my executioner."

Yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the paddock who would disagree that the FIA stewards' decision to suspend Renault from the race next week (because of the loose wheel that stymied Fernando Alonso in Hungary) was plain ridiculous. With Honda long gone and BMW having left partner Peter Sauber high and dry after announcing their intention to withdraw, the last thing the sport needs is yet another manufacturer having second thoughts. For F1's sake, we should hope that crass ruling is thrown in the bin where it belongs when the team's appeal is heard in Paris tomorrow.

Sport's longest streaks

Luca Badoer: Italian has competed in most Formula One races (48) without scoring a point.

John Jensen: Danish midfielder arrived at Highbury in 1992 and infamously went 98 games before finding the net for Arsenal.

Gareth Bale: Spurs defender holds record for most games (24) without a Premier League victory.

Vince Spadea: American tennis pro lost 21 consecutive matches, finally breaking his duck in 2000.

San Marino: international football minnows are riding a five-year winless run, a 31-game streak dating back to 2004.

Rob Jones: former Liverpool stalwart defender never scored during 243 appearances for club.

Mark Pickering