There are few people in Formula 1 who can command an audience quite like Michael Schumacher. The ‘launch’ of the Mercedes Grand Prix team in Stuttgart on Monday was proof that the seven-time former world champion can still create a stir amongst the international press corps, not least the British press for whom memories of Damon Hill’s mugging at Adelaide in 1994 still resonate strongly. But the return of Schumi to the F1 fold after a failed three-year attempt at retirement is a much needed boost for the sport after a year dogged by controversy.
The departures of Honda, BMW and Toyota from F1 over the last twelve months or so are in stark contrast to German automotive giant Mercedes who have conversely upped their involvement in motor racing’s premier class by buying into reigning champions BrawnGP. Their increased presence in the sport is enough to grab headlines in the so-called post-manufacturer era but poaching Schumacher from Ferrari is a major coup for the company.
Spare a thought, however, for poor Nico Rosberg. A much vaunted switch from Williams to the reigning champions for 2010 was supposed to be his move into the limelight but he now finds himself in arguably the most unwanted seat in F1, that of Schumacher’s team-mate. For all the talk of equal driver status, the fact that Nico’s number 3 plate was quickly nabbed by Schumacher (he has a preference for odd numbers don’t you know?) was indication enough of the 41-year-old’s intentions upon his return. He is not back in F1 simply to make up the numbers; he wants to add another championship to his impressive collection. And he won’t let even a son of a former world champion stand in his way. It’s make or break for Nico in 2010.
When the lights go out for the first race of the 2010 season in Bahrain in March, the sport as a whole will have a very different look. F1 has been gradually reinventing itself over the last few seasons with new rules and revised regulations, but 2010 will see some of the biggest changes yet. The sport welcomes a raft of new teams this year with a possible 26 cars on the grid (imagine that at Monaco!). New teams Campos, Lotus, USF1 and Virgin Racing will make their bow in Bahrain but little is expected of the rookies in their first year. In fact, it remains to be seen if they will all make it. The return of the Lotus name is fantastic and although an entirely different proposition to the icon of the past, the return of such a famous F1 name will undoubtedly raise F1’s profile yet further. The return of engine supplier Cosworth also harks back to the glory days of the past but it is a very different company to the Cosworth of the past and will be supplying 40% of the grid. It is one of the most tantalising and widely anticipated seasons for years.
In-team battles will not be limited to the Mercedes camp. We also have a mouth-watering all-British driver line-up with reigning world champion Jenson Button joining former world champion Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, a duel that should have every family in the country locked into BBC1 or glued to 5Live for all 19 races this season. Many have been quick to criticise Jenson’s move to Woking, but it is a bold and sensible move in my opinion. He won six out of the first seven races of 2009 and was criticised for winning too much. His drop off in performance in the second half of the season was well documented and led to suggestions that he was reversing into a championship that was won as a result of the Brawn Supremacy. His performance in Brazil dispelled those critics and his switch to McLaren proves he is well up for a fight. He will have tough opposition from Lewis, even he knows that, but he is not reversing into anything this season – he is squaring up to his defence of the crown face-on and for that he should be lauded.
But when we reach Bahrain, all eyes will be on the return of one the greatest Formula drivers ever, perhaps even THE greatest – Michael Schumacher. His odds on taking the drivers’ crown in 2010 say it all. At 5-1 (behind Hamilton and new Ferrari recruit Fernando Alonso) and getting shorter – who’d bet against him?