Why Michael Schumacher will never be back to his best

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Why Michael Schumacher will never be back to his best
BBC Sport
By Mark Hughes

Having stood trackside at some stage of every grand prix weekend for the last decade and a bit, witnessed Schumacher at his peak and in his comeback, the visual evidence of the dimming of his skills is obvious.

In his Ferrari years, to see his first lap out of the pits through a corner such as Spa’s Pouhon was to witness awe-inspiring genius that left you barely comprehending how what you had just seen could be possible. He would commit totally to the blind exit, flat-in-top downhill entry corner, a down-change just after turning in and the car would be shuddering on the edge of adhesion, visibly faster than anything else – and Schumacher would make not a single further input because to do so would have sent the car off.

He would sit on this delicate knife-edge until the car was fully loaded up and pointed directly at the apex and then simply power his way out. To be able to sit immediately on this incredibly narrow balancing point was a skill beyond the reach of his rivals. It is now beyond him, too – see Schumacher in 2010 and he looks nothing like this.

Sure, the Mercedes is way less competitive than most of his Ferraris were but do not forget he produced regular displays of genius in the outclassed Ferraris of 1996 or 2005. Watching him around the Singapore streets, he looked much as he has done all year. He can carry a lot of commitment and momentum into the entry of a corner, just like he used to, but between the turn-in point and the apex he is wrestling with the car, rather than feeling and anticipating it the way he used to.

There are more frequent displays of his raw car control than before – precisely because he is not ahead of the car, not anticipating the way he used to but simply reacting to it. To the untrained eye it looks impressive but actually it is a signal of lack of feel – in much the same way that Vitaly Petrov, say, tends to look more spectacular than the much faster Renault team-mate Robert Kubica. Very rarely were two consecutive Schumacher runs through a Singapore corner the same last weekend.

Schumacher says it is to do with how the gripless control Bridgestone tyres do not allow him the front-end grip to be able to drive in his natural way. There is a logic to this. With a grippy front end, he would previously get the car pointed early at the apex using his delicate feel to transfer the weight under braking and cornering, pivoting the car around so it changed direction early, with the minimum of steering lock. The less steering lock, the less speed-sapping front-tyre scrub, the earlier you can get the car pointed at the apex, the earlier you can get on the power. These tyres do not allow you to drive in that way.

But in the past Schumacher has adapted brilliantly to understeering cars. He used to adapt his style corner by corner, lap by lap, to whatever was appropriate. He was quite brilliant, for example, in how he could adopt a very aggressive style on his first lap out of the pits to get the tyres quickly up to temperature, then adopt a totally different style as the rubber came up to its correct working range.

Schumacher is keen to try the 2011 Pirelli control tyres, especially on next year’s car. Should that combination give him the front end he says he needs, would the magic return? It would surely improve his performance but why would it see him return to his previous level?

The driving style was a mere expression of a level of feel and balance – a miraculous combination of inner ear sensitivity to lateral accelerations and the co-ordination of that with his limbs – that was on a different level to anyone else’s. His 2010 performances have revealed that sensitivity is dulled now and that his adaptability is not what it was. If he cannot be what he once was, could he bring himself to continue regardless?

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