One of the off-season’s most tantalising questions is how Michael Schumacher will fare on his F1 return.
Other F1 world champions have made comebacks from retirement before him. Alan Jones did it twice, though with little success on either occasion. And Alain Prost did too though that was a pre-planned return from a sabbatical.
Schumacher’s return has more in common with Niki Lauda’s. And he will certainly want to match Lauda’s feat of winning another championship after more than a season out of the cockpit.
Like Schumacher, Lauda’s meticulous professionalism brought a new era of success to Ferrari. And Schumacher too will make his F1 comeback with a different team.
Lauda was lured back to Formula 1 by Ron Dennis, who had taken over McLaren at the end of 1980. Lauda dictated terms to sponsor Marlboro, commanding the highest salary ever earned by an F1 driver at that point.
Decades before testing restrictions were enforced, Lauda tested McLaren’s ground-breaking carbon fibre chassis MP4/1 at Donington Park late in 1981. He got within a tenth of a second of new team mate John Watson’s best lap time – but went away knowing he needed an intensive programme of training to get fit enough to drive the latest generation of ground effect F1 cars.
Lauda’s winning return
The big story on the weekend of Lauda’s return to F1 was the drivers’ strike he played a role in starting (more on that here). More importantly for him, he was instantly on form, finishing fourth from 13th on the grid.
Two rounds later, at Long Beach, it got even better. Lauda spent much of the qualifying session on provisional pole before being bumped by Andrea de Cesaris. On race day, he bided his time, patiently following de Cesaris until the pressure took its toll on the Alfa Romeo driver. A moment’s hesitation behind a lapped car and Lauda was through into the lead. Just three races into his F1 comeback he was a winner once again.
He added a second victory at Brands Hatch later in the year – meaning he ended the season with one win more than champion Keke Rosberg. Indeed, Lauda would have gone into the final round two points behind Rosberg had he not been disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix for ending the race one-and-a-half kilos underweight.
At the end of 1983 McLaren put a turbo engine in its car for the first time. When the TAG-Porsche was married to the all-new MP4/2 chassis for the 1984 season the team created a car which dominated the championship like few before it or since. Lauda and Alain Prost, who had replaced Watson, won 12 of the 16 races.
After nine rounds the title looked like Prost’s for the taking – he led the championship with 35.5 points to Lauda’s 24. But Lauda blitzed the second half of the championship, with three wins and three second places from the final seven races, to snatch the title for his team mate by half a point.
While Lauda in 1982 joined a team which was clearly on the up but had a lot of ground to cover, Schumacher has the advantage of joining the team which won last year’s world championship.
At this stage in the year it’s impossible to tell how good he and the car are going to be. But it’s hard to believe the man who won seven world championships would come back to F1 on a whim when he’s not fit enough. And the reason the BGP 001 saw so little development in the second half of last year was because work had begun early on its 2010 successor.
Like Lauda, Schumacher chose his team carefully and has come back to win.
Images (C) Mercedes, Ford, Michelin