Monday
Jan042010

Can Schumacher be F1's savior?

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.The return of Michael Schumacher to Formula 1 could be just what the disintegrating fortunes of the sport has needed. Racked by years of abject stupidity, rampant greed and unbridled hubris, F1  has become a motorsport circus that revolves around a singular raison d’etre - thanks to Bernard Ecclestone and his minions - of extracting as much money as possible from whichever city, state, national government or individual track promoter dumb enough to hand the cash over - no questions asked - for the privilege of having the F1 space ship land on their race tracks for a few days, with the meter running, of course.

Any semblance of pure, “for love of the game” motorsport fell by the wayside long ago as Bernie and the like-minded team owners conveniently forgot about the integrity of the sport and trampled everything and everyone in their path, especially the enthusiast fans who once actually gave a damn. Sure there have been great stories of late (Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton) and great individual races over the years, but it’s clear that F1’s greed circus has outlived its usefulness among rational entities, which is why Ecclestone has basically abandoned maintaining and courting traditional countries and venues in favor of “new” markets where money is no object and glittering speed palaces - each grander than the previous one - are constructed for the edification of the government egos at work, even if only but a handful of that country’s citizens can afford to make their way to the gate, let alone pay their way in.

And into this fine mess comes 40-year-old Michael Schumacher - he will turn 41 in January - fresh from a three-year layoff, ready to be reunited again with his old mate Ross Brawn in the newly-renamed Mercedes Grand Prix team. The marquee driver of the last decade and arguably the greatest F1 driver of all time - although btw he’s not my greatest of all time - is coming out of retirement to prove that he still has it, and in the process of doing so the powers that be in F1 are hoping he can grab the sport by the scruff of the neck and shake some life back into it.

A tall order indeed.

There’s no question that Michael’s return will elevate the interest level in the sport, at least initially. There’s something undeniably appealing about the prospect of a champion who left the sport at the absolute top of his game coming back to see just where his talent rates with the current crop of young stars. Not that Schumacher completely left the game, of course. Every once in a while we’d hear of Schumacher showing up at a karting event featuring today’s stars and not only being right on pace but more often than not beating the field soundly. Or running in the Race of Champions, or doing production vehicle development for Ferrari, and even riding racing motorcycles. So people in the know expect Schumacher will no doubt be right on pace right from the first day of pre-season testing.

But I wonder if along with the return of the “great” Schumacher we’ll get a dose of the “petulant” Schumacher too? The guy who would do everything in his power to win championships, even if it meant crashing into other drivers in order to take them out of contention. Or the “robot” Schumacher, the guy with the superior car and the superior team who made it look too easy and sucked the very life right out of the sport?

I think the 2010 Schumacher will be different. Out of the sport for just long enough to miss it terribly, Schumacher will be reinvigorated, reenergized, and hungry to prove to the doubters and the haters that he’s not only back in the sport, but he’s back in the sport to win. And he’s more than capable of doing so, too, so I will not be surprised at all if he succeeds. But in the midst of this comeback I believe we’ll see a different, more interesting Schumacher as well. Instead of the cold corporate robot, we’ll see a man who has gained a deeper appreciation for the sport since he’s been out of it, and dare I say we’ll see a man who is back in it because he flat loves it, which will be refreshing to see.

At this point it doesn’t really matter which Schumacher shows up, because the sport of F1 is in such desperate need for any positive spin that involves the actual racing that Michael’s return will no doubt be portrayed as the Second Coming.

And that will be just fine by me.

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