The return of Michael Schumacher to Formula 1 and his spiritual home of Mercedes may fill many motor racing fans with dread that he and Ross Brawn will repeat their Ferrari trick of the early part of this decade, and bore their way to Championship dominance (naturally bending the rules along the way, the cynics might note) rendering Grand Prix afternoons as nothing more than a chance to catch forty winks between the pit stops. Non F1 fans will doubtless already share this analysis.
As someone who kept faith with the sport throughout the depressing (for some) years of Schumacher dominance I have to say that I’m actually quite looking forward to his return, and I think 2010 has the potential to be the most exciting season for many years.
What looks set to make next season so potentially interesting is the possibility that there will be at least three (and probably four) constructors capable of producing a Championship winning car. It goes without saying that Mercedes, as last season’s Champions under the Brawn GP badge, have a strong foundation upon which to build and Red Bull’s Adrian Newey-designed car should also continue to compete for honours. McLaren, starting last season with one of the worst cars the team has ever produced, arguably finished the year with the strongest car on the grid and while Ferrari’s season was hugely disappointing by their own extremely high standards, it would be foolish to write a team of such unrivalled resources out of the equation.
So what of the drivers? No one needs reminding of the extraordinary standards set by Schumacher during the glory years and it would seem inconceivable that he would have returned if he didn’t expect to be competitive. Nevertheless we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few races for the sharpness and reactions to return to the old levels. On the other hand his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, will have a golden opportunity to watch the old master at work without suffering from any undue burden of expectation in the shadow of the seven-time Drivers Champion.
Expect the Red Bull pairing, especially the outrageously talented Sebastien Vettel, to be looking for race wins from the start, and there could be a very interesting duel at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and his new team-mate, the double World Champion Fernando Alonso. If the Ferrari is competitive Alonso’s greater talent should see him with the advantage over the more erratic Massa, although the Brazilian is very well established in the team and will certainly expect to make an impact.
Perhaps the most fascinating pairing is that at McLaren. Last season’s Champion, Jenson Button, brings the Number 1 to the team alongside 2008 Champion Lewis Hamilton (in my opinion the most talented of all the current F1 drivers) and looks to have an unenviable task on his hands. Hamilton has been with the team since he was a boy, the car is built around him and (if the team are competitive) will expect to be fighting for the title from the very beginning of the season. Button, on the other hand, will need time to settle and to learn the intricacies of both the car and the team. In truth, I fear for him this season – I fully expect Hamilton to beat him by a substantial margin on a very regular basis. The major winner of his move from Brawn GP will surely be the McLaren team who will have the marketability of two British Champions to trade on; it’s very difficult to see how Button gains from all this.
So who’s going to win the title next year? It’s traditionally a foolish game making such predictions before the new cars are unveiled but, all things being equal, I would expect Hamilton to be the man to beat during the coming season. Having said that, Vettel has the look of the dark horse about him and Schumacher should enjoy a strong second half of the season as the old Brawn/Schumi magic comes back up to speed. Ferrari must surely improve on last year but I suspect they may have just a little too much catching up to do.
It’s difficult to predict with any certainty who will emerge as Champion Team and Driver next year, but that surely has to be a good thing. It’s good to have you back Michael, but I hope you’ll find things a lot less predictable than they were a decade ago.