A formula without Schumi

More than anything else, Formula One in 2007 will miss the genius of Michael Schumacher, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Those tongues with more than a generous smear of beer on race days, often let loose on his genius and his alleged shenanigans, might feel wound up. What now? For a sport that has experienced death at its naked worst on the track, retirements might seem less dramatic, and an easier vacuum to fill. But Michael Schumacher was no ordinary visitor who chose an ordinary sport to overstay. He was an unflinching champion who raced his final and statistically futile race with all the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed kid furiously peddling away on his tricycle.

It will be in Melbourne at next year's first Grand Prix, when the line-up will resemble a game of musical cars, that we might feel the true impact of Schumacher's absence. The moment right now is far too drowned in the past, in eulogies, tributes and debates for anyone to live in the present.

Besides his absence, the sport, fans and the teams will have to cope with far too many changes next season. World champion Fernando Alonso, who will don the McLaren-Mercedes colours, will hope not to be the only reliable element in his team, after the greys were forced to watch blurs of blue and red zooming past them in the season that just got over.

"There is a lot of work to do at McLaren but that is the same with every team. They all have to work hard for next season," Alonso told `El Paris'. "Mercedes is a great manufacturer and I have no doubt that we will have a competitive McLaren for the next few years. I also believe that they are the team that work best on car development during the season," he added.

Alonso winning two World titles right under Schumacher's nose has already prompted a few king-is-dead-long-live-the-king whispers, but the Spaniard is either being cautious or has deficient ambitions when he says he would be pretty content with winning three titles.

"I don't think so because I will not be that long in Formula One," was his response to the inevitable queries on living up to Schumi's legacy.

But more than Alonso's chances of a hat-trick, the focus of the people will be on Team Ferrari's performance. Will the league be the same without its Scarlet Pimpernel? Kimi Raikkonen cannot be blamed if he steps into his Ferrari wobbly-kneed when the test drives begin. Trust Felipe Massa to dispel all of the Finn's nervousness. "Up until now I have helped my team by filling the holes, but things have changed," Massa told the `Gazzetta dello Sport' newspaper. "Next year I don't think I will be obliged to let Kimi pass me," he added.

Raikkonen will not be the only one with the worry lines, for Ferrari themselves are going through a major re-shuffle after the exit of Schumacher, Technical Director Ross Brawn and engine supremo Paolo Martinelli. (Jean Todt has been appointed CEO of Ferrari.)

"Nobody can fill Schumacher's boots," Nigel Stepney, Ferrari's Technical Manager, told `Times'. "It's not going to be easy for him (Kimi) and it's not going to be easy for us, because after 10 years you get into a certain rhythm and way of working and understanding and interpreting the driver, and then you get another driver, so it's going to take a while."

The uncertainty of the next season makes Formula One seem a lot more open at this point of time. Massa and Jenson Button, no longer strangers to winning GPs, will be a lot more confident next year. Massa's warning to Raikkonen is a clear indication that the Brazilian is itching to become the No. 1 driver of Ferrari. Giancarlo Fisichella, who played second fiddle to Alonso at Renault, will be free of such problems next season.

The bunch of young pretenders such as Heikki Kovalainen (24, Alonso's replacement at Renault), Robert Kubica (21, BMW Sauber), Lewis Hamilton (21, McLaren) and Nico Rosberg (21, Williams) might threaten for podium space when the opportunity arises.

The test drives in the next few months before the 2007 season begins should give us a sneak peek into how much work might have gone into the cars and the tyres.

"I feel that for the next three years at McLaren I will also have the opportunity to have a good car," Alonso said. "Renault will have a good car (in 2007), but hopefully I will find new motivation with McLaren, new challenge, new people and a new way to work. This is really very important for me, and I'm looking forward to this new thing," said Alonso.

Former world champion Damon Hill expressed his reservations on the World champion's chances with McLaren. "The one thing that he has not had yet is a really crap season with a crap car. If you've been used to running at the front, and I've seen this with drivers, they lose heart. This is the slight worry with Alonso's career. Unless he knows something about McLaren, or they are able to do something pretty dramatic, he could find himself doing two, three years without a win," he told BBC.

With McLaren having had a miserable 2006, compared with the previous few years, Alonso would have to do for them what Schumacher did for Ferrari, in order to rebuild the team.

More than anything else, Formula One in 2007 will miss the genius of Schumacher, which saw him win 68 pole positions, 91 races and seven World titles, apart from 154 podium finishes.

Alonso has the talent to succeed Schumacher as one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One, and he has shown far more maturity than most Formula One drivers of his age with his fast and smart driving. However, it is a little too early now to predict the shelf life of Schumacher's seemingly unbeatable records.

After Pete Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles and 14 Grand Slams, people thought his record was unbeatable. Then Roger Federer came along. In a sport like Formula One, winning depends so much on the car and teamwork.

"Formula One changes a lot every year — the rules, the cars — and sometimes you are not able to win and sometimes it's impossible," said Alonso. Can the Spaniard win a third title, this time in the McLaren colours?

SCHUMI FACTFILE

Nationality: German Formula One career: 1991-2006 Teams: Jordan _ 1991, Benetton _ 1992-1995 & Ferrari _ 1996-2006 GPs raced: 250. World Championships: Seven (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004) Victories: 91 Podium finishes: 154 Pole positions: 68 Fastest laps: 76 First GP: 1991, Belgium. First victory: 1992 Belgian GP Last GP: 2006 Brazil (Interlagos)