October 22nd, 2006: Michael Schumacher makes his last F1 start.
There are 22 cars on the grid, each with traction control, grooved Bridgestone or Michelin tyres, and a fraction of the fuel needed to complete the race.
F1’s changed a lot since the last time Schumacher raced. How will he cope on his return?
The tyre situation in F1 has changed massively in four years. Schumacher will know that getting to grips with these changes is vital if he’s going to be competitive.
In 2006 at Ferrari, Schumacher enjoyed the fruits of years of Bridgestone developing tyres specifically for their number one customer, while most of the other top teams used Michelins.
Now the tyre war has ended he will be deprived of that development avenue and have to use the same tyres as everybody else.
Grooved tyres are gone, too – Schumacher last raced on slicks in F1 in 1997. After his retirement restrictions on the quantity of tyres available for a Grand Prix weekend were introduced and they’ve been tightened even further for the coming season, with each driver getting just 11 sets of dry-weather tyres.
Engines are another area which are regulated much more tightly now than when Schumacher last raced in F1.
Development in this area was ‘frozen’ in 2008, leaving teams less scope to find more performance from their engines. Revs have been limited to 18,000rpm.
He will also have to get used to managing his engine allocation. Introduced last year, drivers may only use eight different engines during the season. With the calendar up from 17 races to 19 this year, that will most likely mean three engines which each have to do three race distances.
Ban on traction control
In 2006 F1 drivers still enjoyed the benefit of traction control. That was banned in F1 in 2008.
The good news for fans is that we’ll now get to see the most successful driver of all time manipulating the car’s throttle all on his own, without a computer cutting in to help him out.
And that’s exactly the way it should be.
As well as looking after his engine Schumacher will also have to worry about how much life is left in his gearbox.
Aerodynamic development was cut back in a big way last year. The cars now have lower, wider front wings and taller, narrower rear wings designed to make it easier for them to follow each other more closely.
Along their bodies there are far fewer downforce-boosting winglets and flip-ups.
How effective the rules have been in reducing total downforce – especially thanks to the controversial double-diffusers – is up for debate. But it certainly has changed the balance of the cars significantly.
On top of that, Schumacher now has an adjustable front wing to play with. Introduced last year, drivers are expected to rely on these more heavily in 2010 to tune the cars’ performance as their fuel load falls during a race.
No fuel burn, low fuel laps
Qualifying formats change every five minutes in F1, so it will come as no surprise to Schumacher to find another different system in place on his return.
The three-part system we have today was introduced during his last season. But back then drivers in Q3 had to qualify with their race fuel and a horrendously complicated ‘fuel credit’ system was used to decide how much fuel each driver should get.
Thankfully that nonsense was ditched a couple of years ago (along with the madness of the ‘fuel burn’ period in qualifying – remember that?). This year drivers will qualify on as little fuel as they can get away with, as they last did in 2002 and which Schumacher has plenty of experience of.
The rule requiring drivers who reach the top top having to start the race using the same tyres they qualified is new to everyone including Schumacher.
Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are the only two drivers on the grid to have raced in F1 before refuelling was reintroduced in 1994.
Schumacher and Ross Brawn mastered this new strategic dimension 16 years ago and won a lot of races because they sussed its nuances more quicker than rivals such as Williams. I’d be amazed if there’s any trick to the new, refuelling-free races they haven’t already worked out.
Schumacher excelled at using the spare car to accelerate the set-up process on a race weekend.
Not only that, but in mixed-weather races he enjoyed the advantage of having his race car and the spare car set-up for different conditions, so he could wait until the last minute to make a call on how the weather was going to before committing to a set-up.
That option won’t be open to him in 2010. Since 2008, teams have only been able to bring two complete cars to the races, plus sufficient spares to build a replacement. It’s one more way in which the difference between the haves and have-nots has been reduced since Schumacher’s last F1 campaign.
Read more: The new 2010 F1 rules: A quick guide
Here’s how much the new testing restrictions will affect Schumacher in 2010: Four years ago he completed 45 test days throughout the season. This year his team gets just 15, of which he has driven seven-and-a-half.
All his rivals face the same restrictions, of course. Schumacher won’t have any opportunity to drive the W01 outside of race weekends between now and the final race of the season, except for at promotional events and the odd straight-line aerodynamic test.
The revised points system is new for Schumacher and everybody else.
There are three tracks on this year’s calendar which Schumacher will have to learn which his rivals already know. F1 has been to Valencia and Singapore twice in Schumacher’s absence – and as they are street tracks he won’t have any chance to drive them for real before their Grands Prix.
He hasn’t raced at Abu Dhabi either. As it hosts the season finale don’t be surprised to see him heading out there to get some laps in if he’s in the running for the championship come November. Failing that he’ll be logging more hours in the simulator.
Spa-Francorchamps has been tweaked since he last race there: Bus Stop has transmogrified into an ugly, clumsy, two-hairpin chicane. Catalunya has also been changed with the addition of an extra chicane which he’s already driven in testing.
The revised Bahrain and Silverstone layouts will be just as unfamiliar to him as they are to the rest of the grid. As will the all-new venue for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix in October.
View the 2010 F1 calendar
Of the 23 drivers who will accompany Schumacher on the starting grid at Bahrain on Sunday, only ten were also on the grid for his last race in 2006.
Among the drivers he will face for the first time are Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Adrian Sutil and ten others.
View the 2010 F1 drivers and teams list
How will he do
Many of the rules changes we’ve seen over the last three seasons have worked to reduce the advantage a top team can get by spending their way there. The restrictions on tyres and testing in particular are a big part of the reason why we’ve seen the field get closer and closer together over the past few seasons.
I expect Schumacher won’t enjoy the kind of performance advantage at Mercedes that he had at Ferrari in 2002 and 2004.
And thanks to changes like the traction control and refuelling bans, I think we’ll get a better impression than ever before of what he does behind the wheel that sets him apart from the rest.
Which rules changes do you think Schumacher will struggle with? Which do you expect him to master easily? Have your say in the comments.
See all the articles in the F1 Fanatic 2010 Season Preview
2010 F1 season