A fascinating comeback stalled

Published : Aug 22, 2009 00:00 IST

A neck injury deprived us of one of the year’s great stories, and no one will be more disappointed than Michael Schumacher himself, writes Maurice Hamilton.

Only Michael Schumacher knows if the biggest hurt during a comeback would have been to his neck or his pride. It is likely to be primarily the former — with perhaps a hint of the latter — after a recent return to the cockpit reminded the seven-times world champion of the unique forces generated within a Formula One car.

It mattered little that this was a 2007 Ferrari lacking the performance parameters of the car he was supposed to race in the European Grand Prix in Valencia on August 23. The test drive would have reacquainted Schumacher with physical stresses that cannot be replicated in a gym, no matter how sophisticated the equipment. He would have received what has clearly been a painful reminder that an F1 driver needs to be 100% fit and that not even an athlete in his state of robust health can compensate for an injury in the most critical area of a racing driver’s body.

When young drivers reach F1 and begin thousands of miles of testing, their collar size increases by an inch, such are the demands placed on neck muscles by cornering forces approaching 5g. When Schumacher fell off a motorbike in February — a familiar hazard for even the best bike racers — it was his misfortune that damage went beyond the usual scuffing of racing leathers and scratches on the crash helmet. Schumacher made no secret of his neck injury and its lingering legacy five months on.

Which begs the question: why send Ferrari and Italy into raptures and put the world of sport on standby for one of the best stories of the year if there was a lingering doubt over fitness?

Schumacher’s life will have changed dramatically from the moment he eased off his crash helmet for the last time and walked away from his Ferrari at the end of the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix. An immediate return to a modest and quiet family life in Switzerland will have been no substitute for the buzz that comes from taking a racing car to the very edge of adhesion, and frequently beyond, while being recognised for doing it better than anyone else in the world.

Since the announcement of his return as replacement for the injured Felipe Massa, Schumacher’s phone will have rung a hundred times more than it had during the previous two years. Even though Schumacher never embraced the limelight, he will have surely enjoyed the return to centre stage. The winner of 91 Grands Prix will have been as intrigued as the rest of us over whether or not the skill remained to take on the latest generation of F1 stars and add one more victory.

But this will have not have been a fanciful whim, a massaging of an ego that has usually been kept under reasonable control. Schumacher remains so close to the so-called Ferrari family that the final telephone call to the team headquarters will have caused him more personal pain than anything dealt out on the test track. Ferrari’s desperate disappointment and sudden collapse of interest in the remainder of 2009 can be gauged by the decision to employ their lead test driver, Luca Badoer, a journeyman who has not raced for almost 10 years, rather than Marc Gené, a more race-ready test driver, and a Spaniard to boot.

And now the arguments will rage: could Schumacher have returned to greatness or is this decision driven by a reality check that came from beyond the advice of his physician? This is the end of what would have been a fascinating comeback. But it is probably the right decision, whatever the underlying reason.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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