Schumacher………the return of
A season that has already produced more than its fair share of thrills and spills just got even more exciting after it was confirmed on Wednesday that Michael Schumacher is to make a sensational comeback for Ferrari as temporary cover for the injured Felipe Massa.
Provided the 40-year-old seven-time world champion can prove his fitness – and the German is a man who prides himself on his conditioning – he will line up against reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton for the very first time at the European Grand Prix in Valencia on Aug 23.
The announcement, which will have Ferrari’s hardcore tifosi drooling, came just 24 hours after the German driver’s manager, Willi Weber, said he was "200 per cent sure" his client would not race in Valencia.
That bold prediction was made to look rather foolish at about 6pm on Wednesday.
"Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro intends to entrust Michael Schumacher with Felipe Massa’s car until the Brazilian driver is able to race again," Ferrari announced on its website.
"Michael Schumacher has shown his willingness and in the next few days he will undergo a specific programme of preparation at the end of which it will be possible to confirm his participation in the championship starting with the European Grand Prix."
The question is: why? Schumacher, who most certainly does not need the money, said as recently as three weeks ago that he had no intention of making a comeback in a sport he bestrode like a colossus for 15 seasons.
And as Weber pointed out, the most successful F1 driver of all time, a man with 91 grand prix wins to his name, is not one to settle for second best. "When Michael was racing he would get as close to perfection as possible," Weber said on Tuesday. "In this case, it would not be perfection; it would be a gamble – and that’s not Michael’s style."
Schumacher clearly has other ideas. Although he said his decision was inspired by a sense of duty to a team for whom he still acts as an advisor following Massa’s horrific crash during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last weekend, he admitted that he was also motivated by the challenge of competing against a new generation of drivers in a new machine.
"It is true that the Formula One chapter has long been closed for me but for team loyalty reasons I can’t ignore this unfortunate situation," Schumacher said of his close friend Massa, who is expected to miss the rest of the season despite his rapid recovery from a life-threatening skull fracture.
"The most important thing first: thank God, all news concerning Felipe is positive, and I wish him all the best again.
"This afternoon I met with team principal Stefano Domenicali and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and together we decided that I will prepare myself to take the place of Felipe.
"As the competitor I am, I also very much look forward to facing this challenge."
The subtext was clear; with Ferrari beginning to look as if they are capable of challenging for race wins for the first time this year, Schumacher clearly believes he can add to his incredible tally of victories.
And with McLaren’s Hamilton having notched his first victory of 2009 in Budapest last weekend, the mouth-watering prospect of their first-ever showdown awaits in Valencia, a race which produced a distinct lack of fireworks on its debut last year.
And what effect might Schumi have on Jenson Button’s world title bid? How ironic would it be if he cost his old technical director Ross Brawn, now spearheading Brawn GP’s march to glory, the constructors’ championship?
The whole season has just been given a fresh twist – as if it needed it.
First Schumacher must prove his fitness. Since retiring in 2006 he has occasionally taken part in motorcycle events and in February he suffered neck and back injuries in a bike accident.
His spokeswoman Sabine Kehm warned on Tuesday that those injuries could affect his ability to drive an F1 car which places huge pressures on the neck because of the varying G-forces.
However, when the German sets his sights on something, he has an enviable record of achieving it and with the four-week mid-season break stretching ahead of him, he has plenty of time to shed a few pounds.
Massa’s recovery from a life-threatening skull fracture, meanwhile, continues to go swimmingly. The Brazilian left intensive care and walked around his bed on Wednesday for the first time since his crash. His private doctor, Dino Altmann, also allayed fears over eye damage said he was certain Massa would be able to race again.
Until then, it’s Schumi-time. The Telegraph (UK)