When Michael Schumacher makes his return to F1 in three weeks’ time, he’ll find a lot has changed since he parked his 248-F1 after his last race on October 22nd, 2006.
That car had grooved tyres, traction control and much less restricted aerodynamics than today’s cars. Not only that, but race weekends have changed, three of the remaining tracks are new to him, and there’s a host of new opponents as well.
He may have ended his career on grooved tyres but Schumacher won his first two championships on slicks in 1994 and 1995. He made 101 of his 248 starts on slick tyres.
True, the current generation tyres are much different to those he last sampled in 1997. But his working relationship with Bridgestone was never anything less than first-class, and he we surely be up to speed quickly.
What he will find different is that, for the first time since 2000, he will have to use the same tyres as everyone else. And he will have fewer tyres to use over the course of a weekend than he was used to.
Schumacher’s last F1 car (above) was festooned with many of the aerodynamic appendages now banned: bridge wings, flip-ups and all manner of different flow conditioners. Plus, larger and more complicated surfaces for the front and rear wings.
Compare the 248-F1 with the current generation F60 (below) and it’s easy to see how far aerodynamic devices have been cut back this year. That means less grip and, in particular, a more lively rear end to contend with.
No traction control
Disappointingly for racing purists, the most successful driver F1 has ever seen was a staunch defender of traction control. Happily, the introduction of a standard ECU last year has made traction control extinct – Schumacher will have to rely on all the dexterity of his right foot to ensure the F60 doesn’t get away from him.
He won’t have engine braking to help keep the car stable under deceleration either. All in all, we could see a far greater demonstration of his skill than we did in his previous seasons with Ferrari.
He’s got some new buttons to play with as well, including the most controversial of all: KERS. Ferrari along with McLaren are the only team left using it, but the one-two for KERS cars at Hungary suggests it could now be the thing to have.
He will be treated to its already famed utility in helping drivers make up places at the start. And the man wh pushed the boundaries of defensive driving further than anyone will now be even tougher to overtake.
Adjustable front wing
The other major innovation on the 2009 cars is their adjustable front wings, which have drawn conspicuously less attention than KERS has. What – if anything – will Schumacher make of them?
Among the other technical changes to the cars since Schumacher last raced are 18,000rpm limiters and
Qualifying and race rules
Beyond he technical tweaks to the cars, what else has changed?
There have been many small tweaks to the rules of competition since Schumacher last raced in F1. The madness of ‘fuel burn’ qualifying, for example, is gone.
The restrictions on spare cars introduced in 2008 will be new to him, and he will take on Felipe Massa’s limited allocation of engines.
And the safety car rules are much changed compared to what was in place in 2006, with lapped cars now able to un-lap themselves
Valencia is the first of three circuits remaining on the calendar that Schumacher has never driven at before. If he remains in the seat for the rest of the year he will also have to tackle Singapore, where he will race at night for the first time since the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours.
The season finale at Abu Dhabi will also be new to him – and everyone else on the grid, for that matter.
However he will get to race at two of his favourite venues: Spa and Suzuka.
Michael Schumacher has never raced in a Grand Prix with eight of the active drivers in F1 today. They are Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi, Sebastian Vettel, Kazuki Nakajima, Adrian Sutil and Nelson Piquet Jnr (though the latter may not get to race at Valencia).
For us, this gives us a chance to measure him against recent emerging talent like world champion Hamilton (who he did once race against in karts) and ‘new Schumacher’ Vettel.
For him, these are opponents he has little experience of at best, and any of them will delight in putting one over the old master.
Schumacher’s new team mate will be the man who replaced him in 2007 – and who won that year’s championship: Kimi Raikkonen.
The suspicion on Schumacher’s retirement in 2006 was that he didn’t want to take on a driver of Raikkonen’s talent. But after winning the championship two years ago, Raikkonen has since suffered a slump in performance.
The Finn faces the unenviable task not only of being Schumacher’s team mate but also – having much more experience of the F60 – being expected to give him a run for his money.
The Ferrari team Schumacher returns to is much changed from the one he won five championships with. Jean Todt is no longer at the helm, nor will he have the organisational ability and tactical cunning of Ross Brawn to fall back on.
Under Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari has been much more warmly regarded by its rivals than it was under Todt. But how will Schumacher perform without the uncompromising Todt?
And who will be his race engineer? Rob Smedley may not want to return to action without Massa, and Schumacher’s old engineer Chris Dyer is now on Raikkonen’s side of the garage.
Despite this, the F60 is arguably more competitive now than it has been all year – Raikkonen finished a solid second behind Hamilton at the Hungaroring. Even considering all the changes to F1 in the last three years, it’s not inconceivable Schumacher could win on his return.
What do you expect from Michael Schumacher’s return to F1? What changes will give him trouble – and which ones will play to his strengths? Have your say in the comments.
More on Michael Schumacher
- Official: Michael Schumacher to return for Ferrari in the European Grand Prix
- Michael Schumacher’s F1 career in pictures
- Michael Schumacher’s F1 career in stats
- Michael Schumacher career retrospective
- Michael Schumacher’s last Grand Prix: Brazil 2006
- Debate: Which of Schumacher’s titles was the best?
- Michael Schumacher biography