Will Gray

Gray Matter: Should Schu still return?

Will Gray

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Michael Schumacher's decision to cancel his Valencia comeback was a huge disappointment for those eager to see him take on the next Formula One generation - but with the German still keen on a racing return, should he be thinking about putting his reputation at risk?

First of all, in retrospect he was right to decide not to race in Valencia: with less than a month of planning and training, his task was huge. Not only did he have to get back up to speed after almost three years away but he had to get back up to the supreme level expected of him, a level he displayed right to his retirement at the end of 2006.

It was going to be tough even without the neck injury and whether it was that pain or the realisation that he would not be on the pace that caused him to make the U-turn, it appears from his comments that his return could only temporarily be on the shelf.

There may be options - albeit a slim chance - with Massa likely to still be away for a while and Ferrari pushing to secure a third car allowance in 2010.

Of the six former F1 world champions from the relatively recent era who made a return the track, American Phil Hill and Australian Alan Jones were the only two to fail; the others all achieved success.

Mario Andretti retired in 1981 then returned just a year later to put a Ferrari on pole in Monza. Nigel Mansell left F1 after his 1992 title-winning season then returned for four races in 1994, qualifying on the front row in his first race back then winning his final one (before a disastrous mini comeback with McLaren in 1995). Alain Prost, meanwhile, went even better when he returned from a year's sabbatical to take the 1993 championship by storm - albeit in by far the best car on the grid.

But all of these came after brief breaks. It was Niki Lauda who had the longest time out, returning after two years off when he was lured back to McLaren. He won on his third race back and went on to win the title two years later, in 1984.

So it can be done; but recently Prost warned against it. The former comeback champion admitted it "takes time to abandon F1" but equally said that you know when you have lost it.

Driving an F1 car required an intense level of concentration, he mused, and as the body changes a driver can lose his vision, which can cost crucial tenths if focus is not regained before a comeback. That vision may be what was missing for Schumacher - but surely it would only take time and practice to get that back.

Prost also admitted the media pressures of F1 eventually forced him out of the sport but that is not a problem for Schumacher either, thanks to a well-organised team sorting out his media coordination and an experienced entourage of people to protect him from intrusion.

Meanwhile, within this Schumacher whirlwind another former champ has also been seeking a comeback. Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 title winner who, like Schumacher, left F1 in 2006, is now nosing around some of the new teams for a drive, pitching his time off as a selling point.

Villeneuve, of course, left on a whimper rather than a high, dropped by BMW-Sauber after two unhappy years, but he claims F1 can be suffocating and that time out is a positive thing: it reenergises the batteries and makes you come back stronger.

Perhaps he failed to put the charger on during his brief time out after BAR dropped him in 2003, as his Renault return midway through 2004 failed to prove his theory. That said, Schumacher is said to be invigorated and it could be that his and Villeneuve's batteries are on their way to becoming fully energised.

So it seems that aside from Schumacher's neck injury and a lack of testing time, both of which can be worked on, there should be nothing stopping the German returning to the cockpit if Massa is forced to stay away much longer. Let's just see how Schumi stand-in Luca Badoer fares in Valencia after his 10 years off...

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